With all the controversy over the last 36 hours surrounding tomorrow’s visit to Leeds by the Dalai Lama, two questions have been nagging away at me today:
what effect did the planned visit have on the terms of the deal struck between the Chinese Olympic Committee (COC) and Leeds City Council over the hosting of China’s pre-Olympic training camp?
and will anyone from the council do the right thing and welcome the Nobel Peace Prize winner to Leeds?
First off, how come China got what, on the surface at least, looks like a pretty fantastic bargain?
Awkward backdrop to negotiations
The Dalai’s visit to Leeds was announced in early April this year, many weeks before any final contract had been signed between the COC and the council. And if the Chinese intelligence services are up to much, the Chinese side will have known about it a good while before that.
So the visit by the Tibetan spiritual leader will have formed an unhappy and awkward backdrop to the latter stages of the contract negotiations that had been running since August last year, when China selected Leeds as its pre-Olympic training base.
And the visit may well have played a part in the negotiations going down to the wire. A deal was finally struck so close to a planned visit to Beijing in May by the council’s Olympic “project manager”, Peter Smith, that special authorisation had to be sought to circumvent the council’s normal contract signing procedures.
£56 per day? For all that!
Most reports say it’s worth around £250,000, although an internal council report immediately prior to the signing spoke of £215,000.
Whichever of the figures you go with, the amount covers the cost of training facilities, accommodation, catering and transport for a Chinese delegation of 220 for at least 20 days before the Games start.
I’m no mathematician, but I make that £56 per head per day.
Now out of that £56 per day the council has to pay all of its “partners” – such as the two Leeds universities – for providing the beds, the cooking, the cleaning, the coaches (as in buses), the running tracks, the swimming pools, and (who knows?), maybe security as well.
As well as whatever costs it (the council) incurs too.
I’m no expert in the economics of the hospitality business, but £56 per head per day for all of that feels pretty close to cost price. Pretty close to a proper bargain.
Backing and sponsorship withdrawn?
According to the BBC Radio Leeds, the Council has now “removed any association” it had with the event. Meaning, as far as one can gather, removing council logos from promotional literature and not hosting a table at a dinner.
As council chief executive Tom Riordan said in a brief statement yesterday, the convention is a private event not organised by the council.
But it’s not quite as simple as that.
Announcing a revamp of the convention last year, YIBC founder Mike Firth made a point of saying that the plans for this weekend’s event “have the backing of Leeds City Council chief executive Tom Riordan”.
And in its winter newsletter last year the council’s marketing and inward investment arm, Marketing Leeds, said it would be sponsoring the revamped convention.
At some stage between then and April, the organisers, out of courtesy, will have told the council that they were inviting the Dalai to the event. And at some stage the council’s backing and Marketing Leeds’ sponsorship of the event appear to have been dropped.
Maybe the two things are totally unconnected. Maybe not.
Reputational damage vs possible economic benefit
What remains to be seen is whether the Sino-Leeds deal includes a clause that no-one senior from the local authority goes and shakes the hand of the Nobel Peace Prize winner and welcomes him to Leeds.
In the meantime, the council will be hoping against hope that after the momentary embarrassment it at least gets the return it’s been seeking these past nine months – a “major long-term boost to trade, commerce and tourism” and a chunk of Chinese investment in Leeds for good measure.
Whether that economic benefit ends up outweighing the reputational damage of a snub tomorrow to the Dalai Lama (if it happens) is anyone’s guess.