Polly Cziok: Comms lessons from the Olympic Park

I'm using my column this month to tell a story. It's a story of determination, of keeping a dream alive, and ultimately, of success.

Polly Cziok: A determined local authority with a clear vision can make a real difference
Polly Cziok: A determined local authority with a clear vision can make a real difference

And whilst it might seem like a shameless plug for the fabulous borough in which I am privileged to work, do bear with me because there is a point to this which illustrates the potentially dangerous, futile and depressing consequences of the Government’s attempts to stifle local government communications.

This story begins back in 2005 when London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.  

As the plans for the Olympic Park were being developed, nearly a third of which would be in the London Borough of Hackney, Hackney Council had its eye on the ultimate prize; a real and lasting economic legacy for the borough.

We pushed to make sure that the broadcast and press centres for the Games would be based in Hackney Wick and with that secured, Hackney Council campaigned and tirelessly lobbied to secure the future of those buildings as a digital and creative employment hub which would transform the economic future of the area.

This was not a battle that was easily won. Over the years, there were multiple challenges to overcome; the credit crunch which nearly resulted in the buildings being made temporary, a change of national Government and in the London mayoralty, which meant a whole new set of stakeholders to convince, external parties with their sights set on other uses for the land, and a media which seemed to delight in describing the site as ‘beleaguered’ or a ‘white elephant’.

So last week, when the Mayor of London hosted a press conference to announce iCITY’s long term tenancy of the media centres, it was good to hear him pay tribute to the role played by Hackney Council in securing the legacy and the 4,500 jobs that will be created on the site.   Boris told the legacy naysayers that it was time to raise the white flag: with all eight major venues let, London has set a new standard for future host cities in terms of legacy achievements , and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park will be fully open to the public in Spring next year.

Boris told the legacy naysayers that it was time to raise the white flag: with all eight major venues let, London has set a new standard for future host cities in terms of legacy achievements.

So, it looks like Hackney will have the digital creative media hub for which we have long campaigned. 

With 40 per cent of the space already let to tenants, including BTSport’s new broadcast operation and a London campus for Loughborough University, the iCITY project looks set to be a huge success for Hackney and East London as a whole.

This story shows what a difference can be made by a determined local authority with a clear vision.  

It also shows the important role councils can play in influencing government and other stakeholders to achieve benefits for the areas they serve.

It’s ironic that in the same week this success was announced, a Bill was included in the Queen’s Speech that could effectively outlaw councils from undertaking lobbying activity.  

The Publicity Code, which is being included in the Audit Bill, alongside a new power for the Secretary of State to enforce it, bans councils from hiring public affairs or lobbying support from agencies. 

We’ve not had to hire lobbyists in Hackney but a smaller council without the in-house expertise may have a very legitimate need for such support when they need to influence government on behalf of their residents. 

The Code bans councils from exhibiting at party conferences, an activity which should not be misused for political reasons, but in the right circumstances can be a powerful influencing tool.

Most worryingly, the Code bans councils from ‘providing commentary on areas of contentious public policy’, a clause which could be used to gag local authorities who want to publicly oppose government policy which disadvantages their communities.  

Most of the publicity around the Code has been focused on the restrictions on publication frequency, and indeed the Government themselves have couched the whole debate in those terms. 

But the wider implications of the Code cannot be overlooked, and this is why these new laws are being opposed by councils from across the political spectrum, by the LGA, and by all representative bodies within our industry and within local government. 

It is a great shame that the Government does not see the good that can be achieved by local councils when they are given the freedom to communicate and campaign on behalf of the people they represent. 


 
Polly Cziok is head of comms and consultation for the London Borough of Hackney

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