Commonwealth Games 2022 – Nice images, tough questions

Proposed new stadiums always look nice, but Steve Beauchampé still needs convincing.

The computer generated images released last week of what a rebuilt and expanded Alexander Stadium could look like should Birmingham be chosen to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games were described by a section of the local media as “stunning”. And so they ought to have been. Thousands of shiny, happy people excitedly cheering and waving as athletes race to the finish line in a tightly contested Women’s 100m final, an aerial shot imagining contemporary stadium architecture, its light and airy roof featuring the flags of the 71 Commonwealth countries.

Good as far as it goes, but nothing that any city bidding to stage such a multi-national sporting event, any sports club seeking to build or rebuild a stadium, would not expect the generously remunerated consultants overseeing their plans to produce. Check out the proposals of Liverpool, Birmingham’s only English rival for 2022, look at drawings of the new Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea football grounds, and you will see images just as ‘stunning’ (and digitised people just as happy).

This latest announcement from the Birmingham 2022 bid team did tell us that there would be enhanced athlete training facilities alongside the stadium in the form of a 400m warm-up track, and that stadium capacity during the Games would be at least 40,000 (reduced to a permanent 25,000 maximum following the event). The figure is thus at the low end of expectations, given that Deputy Council Leader and bid leader Ian Ward stated last month that Games capacity would be between 40-50,000, the higher figure being one that we always found unconvincing.

Later this month representatives from both the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Commonwealth Games England will visit the city to inspect and scrutinise the bid, ahead of a recommendation as to whether Birmingham, Liverpool, or neither, becomes England’s candidate for the 2022 Games. Their questions and their scrutiny should rightly be tough but as regards the Alexander Stadium there are several specific questions and issues to which the Birmingham bid team will need to have convincing answers, none of which are addressed by the CGI images.

How much will it cost both to build the stadium, and later to reduce it from its Games capacity to the permanent 25,000-seater venue envisaged afterwards? Also, given the likely lack of high attendance events at the stadium following the Games, what are the anticipated annual running costs? And how will each of these things be financed?

Does the city need a 25,000-seater athletics stadium, given that the venues’ current sub-13,000 configuration is rarely filled to capacity? The modest crowds attending last weekend’s British Team Trials for the forthcoming World Athletics Championships perhaps call into question the spectating aspect of Birmingham’s claim to be the ‘UK city of running’. Which isn’t to say that replacement of the Alexander Stadium’s original and outdated mid-1970s and early-1980s Knowles and Nelson stands and attendant athletic and administrative facilities should not be welcomed. The answer may still be yes, but we need to know precisely why, especially given the fate of Sheffield’s similarly-sized Don Valley stadium, opened in 1990 yet demolished a mere 23 years later.

Exiting from Alexander Stadium and its environs (particularly by motor vehicle) even with a crowd of 10,000 can be slow and problematical. The prospect of 40,000 spectators filling the roads and thoroughfares of this suburban location is a daunting prospect, especially when this will sometimes need to happen twice per day (for the daytime and evening events programme) and given the plans to locate the 2022 BMX cycling events at the recently constructed facilities almost adjacent to the stadium in Perry Park.

The impact of hosting the Rugby Sevens at Villa Park must also be taken into account. We do not suggest that it can’t be done satisfactorily, but if the DCMS/CGE inspectors are to be convinced, Birmingham will need to offer considerable transport improvements (rebuilt or enhanced facilities at both Perry Barr and Witton railway stations for instance, priority transport lanes for public transport, competitors and officials). Especially so given that by comparison most of Liverpool’s key proposed venues are either located within the city centre, or are easily walkable from it.

We ask these questions and raise these issues because no-one within the region’s professional media seem to have, and because at some point those charged with determining which city is eventually awarded the 2022 Commonwealth Games surely will.