The sales pitch that is always used when bidding for the Olympics is that the legacy of the games will regenerate a part of the host country. This sounds wonderful in theory but in practice is the best policy for urban renewal to pay for expensive custom built sporting venues that are only used a handful of times? If not, we ask: who are the real Olympic winners?
After these ceremonies are over, the hype has died down and the media has moved on, the Olympics and other mega sporting venues often look more like an economic hinterland than a thriving new community. Barely ever do the host countries make these events work economically. So why is there still so much clamour to build white elephant venues at a time when there is increasing disquiet from local residents who want vital services and decent housing?
Here to discuss the after effects of hosting the games are Dr Penny Bernstock, author and former director of the Center for East London studies and Dr Juliet Davis, a reader in architecture and urbanism at Cardiff University.
London 2012. The UK wins the bid and everyone is jubilant, everyone is happy. That sentiment really has changed since we’ve seen what has gone on with the Olympic development.
“I was very positive when we won the Olympics, because it was a rhetoric around inclusive regeneration,” Dr Bernstock tells Renegade Inc. “It was this idea of the world in one city and people were all going to come to London and we were going to learn lessons from ways in which East London had already been regenerated in the docklands, which has resulted in polarisation, social exclusion.
“It really gave people hope. It gave hope to young people about sports. It gave hope that we would have more affordable housing.
“East London has always been and continues to be an area marred by the most extreme housing poverty.”
But in practice, Dr Bernstock says what we see is quite disconcerting.
“It is really important to remember that £9 billion of public investment has gone into a very small piece of East London,” she says. “What we have is an unpolarised regeneration project, something that actually looks very nice: parks, riverside housing, access to the aquatic centre and sporting facilities. But a very small number of people from those local communities actually benefit.”
In fact what we are seeing in East London is almost a second phase of displacement.
“It is definitely quite clear that we have two worlds in Stratford,” says Dr Bernstock. “Stratford old, Stratford New, and there are some people, a very small number of people, that are lucky enough to have been given social rented housing, or they’re renting social rented housing at Eastridge. But it’s a small number of people. Even what is called ‘affordable housing’ at Eastridge is not affordable. That’s another really big issue.”
The average household income in Newham is £29,000. The rental of a two bed, intermediate affordable units are £1600 a month.
“That’s not affordable to a family on £29,000 when it’s asking for a £48,000 minimum income,” says Dr Bernstock. “Something doesn’t add up there.”
Is there any wonder that the sentiment has now changed. This isn’t what we signed up for.
“People are beginning to get very angry,” says Dr Bernstock. “When people signed up, we had this idea of the ‘Walnut Whip’ – referring to a marketing line courtesy of London Mayor, Ken Livingstone – everybody pays the equivalent of a Walnut Whip every week, and in the end we have something that benefits the whole of London.
“What’s really sad about the Olympics: it was it was backed up by four labour local authorities, a progressive Labour Mayor. It had a consortium of people around it that you would have thought would have ensured that people living in those areas would benefit, instead of feeling as if they were marginalised and on the edge, and in fact having their life chances almost worsened,” says Dr Bernstock.
“Newham has the highest number of people being placed out of borough. The highest number of people in temporary accommodation. So you’ve got this lovely housing being built and it is very high quality. There has been a lot of thought about design. The quality is very nice but it’s exclusive.”
This week’s video comes from Games Monitor writer, Julian Chain, who lives in Stepney, London. He used to live at a place called Clays Lane which is in the Olympic Park meaning he had to move during the duration of the games.
“I was very tired, exhausted and so I was having a lot of trouble finding somewhere to live,” he tells Renegade Inc. “So it was a very important move for me to find somewhere where I could settle and take time to try and recover my health.”
But the upgrades to the area priced most locals out of the area, making way for wealthier tenants who could afford the now much more expensive housing.
The availability of affordable housing has dropped from around the mandated 50% to 28% of properties.
“Of course, within that only 30% of that 28% is actually genuinely affordable housing,” says Chain. “So when people moved out, their economic situation got a lot worse.”
Some people were removed, others who were not rehoused ended up flat-broke in private accommodation.
“The day England won the London Olympics was one of the worst days of my life,” Chain says.
“I was severely depressed. Other people were cheering and I was looking at the community and almost weeping. I did not want to move. I was determined to go on fighting this thing until the last moment.
“So it went through the whole compulsive purchase order inquiry. We went to judicial review. We were arguing about everything all the way through from the point at which the Olympic bid was won, all the way up. In fact we’re still arguing about it because I write for Games Monitor and I go on looking at what’s happening within the Olympic Park and what I can only call is a lot of lying which continues all the way through.”
Chain moved into a house supposedly meant to be of a high standard and finds that it wasn’t.
“None of the sockets work here or downstairs,” he says. “So you’ve got a cable running downstairs and actually they can’t fix the sockets because there’s damp and so they have to do a damp survey before they can do this and we’re being charged the wrong rents because they promised they wouldn’t charge a certain kind of rent and then they went ahead and did it anyway. They lied about that as well and they claimed it was a different kind of rent. It just goes on and on.”
Back to the four progressive labour councils. Ken Livingstone at the time was the Mayor, talking about this Walnut Hhip idea. Is he just economically illiterate? Did he not understand the mechanism about land values rising, land prices and all the rest of it?
“I think perhaps if you ask them, they might say that the policy climate ,the wider policy climate has changed and it’s made it quite difficult,” says Dr Bernstock. “For example, affordable housing after 2010 we introduced something called an ‘affordable rent model’ where rents were linked to market rents, market prices. That had a huge impact on the level of affordable housing.
“But I still don’t think, even if we go back, I don’t think the plans were sufficiently robust in terms of how they were going to deliver an inclusive legacy. I don’t think really from the very beginning there was enough focus on the voice of local people incorporating them. What happened is because it became a global project, this circulating elite of people were brought in that go from city-to-city on their skills, delivering large mega events. You’ve seen so many of these people they haven’t even stayed a year, so they’re paid very large salaries on the basis of their skills, but in fact, in terms of what they actually deliver it is quite scandalous.”
Dr Juliet Davis just finished writing a 10 year study of the planning process, examining how
the long term regeneration process was imagined and the problems it encountered along the way.
“It’s a kind of short termism within the long term,” she says.
“It creates a lot of problems not just for the governance of the project and for long term decision making but also for the planning process as well.”
The other point is that when England won the bid, there was this headlong rush towards getting this thing built, because the last thing a country wants politically, is the embarrassment of not having things ready. (Brazil, Athens, China).
“There was from the very early stages of the Olympic bid an idea that preparedness was what previous Olympics hadn’t had enough of, and that to be prepared plans had to be in place long before the games actually came,” says Dr Davis. “The first major master plan was first begun in 2008 so that gave four years to get it to planning permission and actually by then the London Development Agency had left. The OPLC, the next organisation was in place but they did actually manage to secure planning permission for the legacy of the whole site by July 2012.”
Dr Bernstock says that actually, the preparedness issue had a major impact on the legacy of the Olympic project.
“We were over concerned with delivering the games on time that we pushed people off of the Olympic Park very quickly,” she says.
“If we’d had time to think about it we might have thought, ‘how many of these businesses can we save?’, ‘how much housing can be saved?’ But instead the anxiety about timely delivery and what we might look on a world stage meant that we kind of almost got a broom out and swept everything off.”
The other thing linked to delivery were the promises that were made.
“We promised so many different things,” she says. “We were going to have a sustainability legacy. We were going to have an employment legacy. We were going to have a housing legacy. All of these different legacies, one of which was: ‘no white elephants’, another thing that tended to be a trap, rather than something beneficial.”
Millions of pounds were spent to give West Ham, a premier football club, a subsidised football stadium that delivered jobs that are mainly part time, contractual, temporary gigs, bringing very little benefits to local populations.
“Some people would go further and say it was a Sebastian Coe vanity project, for him to be able to say,‘we’re going in, we’re going to bid for this thing, and we’re going to have no white elephants. So it’s almost a game that gets played when we have these large projects of people making commitments that all of the research suggested wouldn’t add up.
“None of that advice was actually listened to. The stadium has had long-term use, so you could say that’s better than Athens or better than other cities, but at what cost?”
In fact the stadium didn’t need to be kept. The initial plans were that that would be a sacrificial venue, like many of the other temporary venues set up special for the Olympic Games.
Dr Davis says these white elephant projects are an absolute hallmark of these events.
“A huge amount is invested in making sure that image is represented to the whole world: of what the city is about,” she says, “of how successful it has been in galvanising a process in order to create stunning buildings that can host the Games. That is the focus of attention. Too little thought is given to what happens afterwards.
“In terms of the preparedness argument, that was part of the rhetoric of the early post-Olympic bid days, that lateness is something that would be avoided London. In fact, there would be three different types of venues: Those for which there was a confidence that a legacy reuse could be secured, and there would be buildings that would be temporary – the stadium was going to be one of those – and then there would be venues that would be adaptable such as the aquatic centre which needed to have huge stands, those big wings that you probably remember but didn’t need those as a public swimming pool.”
But if you speak to somebody on an average income and you say, ‘by the way they had wings on that building, wonderful wasn’t it?’ They say: ‘listen, I want an affordable house. I want a decent job. And I want a thriving community.’ People want function. Not affectation.
“We say it was a national project, so we spent at least 80 times the cost of a normal swimming pool to build the aquatic centre,” says Dr Bernstock.
“We are still subsidising that. The state is still subsidising the aquatic centre because it’s not getting enough profit.”
Dr Davis says it was a big deal to get a new swimming pool in Newham.
“I mean it’s a great facility,” she says. “Again, thinking about it in terms of the facility is one thing. Thinking about it in terms of what needing an iconic building for that facility has involved, is a whole other thing.”
Tune into the rest of the episode to hear more on white elephants and the Olympic legacy from Dr Penny Bernstock and Dr Juliet Davis.
Host Ross Ashcroft talks with the anthropologist David Graeber about Batsh*t Construction, a trend that has gripped the world.
Unless we start calling the housing crisis by its real name: extreme land monopoly - we’ll end up with ever more loony solutions for what should be a basic human right.