The interesting story of the construction work at New White Hart Lane

By Tony Attwood

It is something of the newspapers’ own making: we get so many stories from the media that are just plain wrong, it is hard to know what to believe.

But when we read in a specialist magazine about things going wrong in a club, I tend to take a bit more notice, simply because such a magazine is not part of the everyday shock horror stories about football that the blogs a daily papers love, nor the lovey dovey everything is ok stories about the bits of football that the papers won’t ever investigate seriously, such as PGMO, the FA and the like.

So looking at the story in Construction News (which is not exactly a regular communicator on things football), relating to the building of New White Hart Lane one tends to take what they say a little more seriously.

Not that I have a way of judging the validity of their comments – I’ve got no inside information on the construction trade in relation to what is happening with NWHL – I’ve just been picking up north London gossip, which is now serious enough to be published in a reputable industry magazine.  (I am however, I should add, a director of a very small house building company, but they very wisely don’t encourage me to be on site for fear I’ll knock something over.)

Anyway, the story in Construction News is that delays to the work at NWHL have been caused in part by mismanagement of the necessarily enormous workforce on the site, such that workers on the site have been engaging in unsafe practices while on the site.

The allegation is that Tottenham set up a system to save money by using the consultancy and construction firm Mace Group to manage the project, while Tottenham themselves arranged individual deals with subcontractors (rather than get Mace to do the whole thing).

Now even I know, and as confirmed by CN, this leads to a problem of a lack of co-ordination of work because there is no overall management of the project. It is the sort of “we can do it cheaper ourselves” approach to work, in which people not used to an industry think they can manage better than those who have worked in the industry for years.  (And of course I am not saying this is what Tottenham has done, but rather what I have observed can happen in building projects).

As a result, it is argued, there was not only no co-ordination of projects, but also no serious management of the workforce on site.  I know from my own observation from within what is a tiny building company working on one house at a time, on-site construction workers do need very specific handling.  And because this was not applied, it is alleged that drinking and drug on the site taking on site has been commonplace.

However Mace does not accept that this is inevitable with this model of operations and that the rebuilding of Battersea Power Station was undertaken using this model.  But then if that is true, and the delays are as substantial as CN suggests, the fault lies not with the model, but with Tottenham Hotspur’s execution of the model.

On the other hand the approach appears to limit Mace’s liabilities on the project.  If it does go wrong, it is not Mace’s fault because Tottenham are managing the sub-contractors not Mace.

Certainly Construction News reports being told that some of the deals Tottenham got with individual contractors were very fierce, meaning the profit margin was so low that it led to some subcontractors “acting purely in their own interests, rather than also considering overall project progress.”

However it is speculated by the magazine that Tottenham Hotspur will not suffer any financial loss because of the delays, which of course is good management by Tottenham, but which has clearly left them in a situation which they would sooner not have – that of having to move games to at least two different stadia.

In another report it is said that the workforce at NWHL has now been cut and the work has slowed down even further as a result of the delays that have happened so far.  “Late October” – the previous announced date of the delayed opening of the ground, now itself looks like being delayed – at least according to people who have spoken to Construction News.

Elsewhere there is the tale of a supervisor crying “Stop” when he sees a team from the air-conditioning subcontractor arriving to carry on working on their project.  Unfortunately it appears that the electricians not knowing that the air con was not complete, had worked all weekend on double-time to install their systems, all on the basis that the air con was complete.

Which is of course why one hires project managers.   Worse, it is said, by choosing to have a direct commercial relationship with individual companies rather than appointing an overall contractor, the club limited Mace’s liabilities on the scheme.  And thus Mace’s influence is limited and so there is less they can do.

Multiple sources claim this arrangement led to subcontractors focusing only on completing their own tasks, without considering the wider implications for other trades or progress of the overall project. The lack of co-ordination or logistical planning has, it is claimed, led to confusion on site and costly mistakes that delayed work significantly, the insiders claim.

The general view in large complicated projects is that one needs well-established communication channels, and a senior person who can control the junior people totally, and this is where the Tottenham model (it is said) saves money but goes wrong.   In the end, as so often, it is about communication.

The stories are thus of tools not being available, meaning work is not done, with that information not being passed down the channel of communication, and so others continue working as if the job had been done, then having to undo their work… and so on.

Imtech’s chief executive Paul Kavanagh responded by saying, “It is undoubtedly the case, given this scale and complexity, that some operational inefficiencies may have occurred in the course of the project. Imtech is not responsible for the delivery of all of the electrical scope, and we really do not recognise the comments that [CN] suggests are attributed to our work or processes. Our team have worked incredibly hard to deliver a world-class stadium.”

However apparently improvements have now been made and the alleged cost-cutting has been overturned, and the number of people on site has been reduced.  However despite these improvements, sources on the scheme claim the stadium will not be ready until the first week of January.

A Tottenham Hotspur spokesman said: “We have always said that we would issue updates for test events and official opening as soon as we have confidence in our project managers’ and contractors’ ability to deliver against the revised scheduled of works.  This remains the case and speculating on unsupported dates such as this is irresponsible.”

7 Replies to “The interesting story of the construction work at New White Hart Lane”

  1. Q: how many management consultants does it take to change a light bulb

    A: ask “great businessman (according to funny papers and selfless blaggers)” Daniel Levy!

  2. I think I can understand why the aforementioned comedian gets so much praise and the Arsenal get so much jip.

    If I may be so bold: there are literally hundreds of millions of reasons to consider why.

    Not. A. Mystery.

  3. Yet more reasons why no sponsor wants to touch this project with a barge pole. Unless of course some Columbian drug cartel wants to chip in a few quid to get their name up in lights. Or maybe Coke might consider it?

  4. Below is from a friend of mine in the industry after I had forwarded the article to him:

    “The procurement route issue is not really an issue, we call it construction management and it’s what they do in the US all the time. I have written so many procurement reports extolling the benefits and burdens but I have always used a fixed price lump sum with contractors design because it pushes liability down the chain but gives less opportunity for the client to make changes. Construction management pulls liability up towards the client but gives them more freedom to own the design and make change. It allows earlier construction starts and design development as you go, which client pays for……but at cost. Looks like the mechanical and electrical hasn’t been coordinated well…..but I’ve never worked on one yet were I have been blown away by that, it is after all 20 different trades with lots of inter-dependencies. I don’t think Mace have done a stadium before, they were programme manager for the Olympic Park but Sir Robert McAlpine built the stadium. This will rumble and rumble and only if there is a court case, will the truth come out…..but it’s probably a bit of a clusterf***!”

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