Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Not jumping onto the Olympic bandwagon

Back in July 2005, I was thrilled to hear that the 2012 Olympic Games would take place in East London. The biggest sporting event coming to the part of the capital where I’ve lived since I was 6 months old... Great! And huge benefits, surely, to ordinary Londoners promised with redevelopment. If only. I can't tell you how disappointed I've been with the way the games have been organised, who is and isn't set to benefit, and the utter lack of scrutiny and critique from politicians on both sides.

Unless you have a small business in the area*, the benefits are extremely unlikely to trickle down. Yet it remains this sacred cow that we’re accused of being grumpy or unpatriotic for criticising. It’s like the Diamond Jubilee or Royal Wedding. You're just told to “cheer up and enjoy it” if you raise concerns. Even Rihanna and Jay-Z are told to refrain from saying anything negative (see photo). I can only conclude that this is because organisers know very well that more Londoners will be at best inconvenienced and at worst kicked out of their own city than the number that will benefit.

The other day I saw in the paper that there'll be cable cars running across the Thames. 'Brilliant!', I thought. 'Finally something to thank the Olympics for'. I then read further down the page and saw 'Mayor Boris Johnson has refused to confirm whether the project will be open to the public during the Olympics'. That sums it all up, frankly. Some amazing new facilities using state-of-the-art technology, but only to be used by VIPs and the kind of person who probably doesn’t even come from East London that the organisers hope to not only attract for the games but stay past 2012 in a part of London in which homes are finally being built but affordable housing is becoming more and more scarce. Was it naïve to hope that the benefits would trickle down as promised? Maybe it was. Just like the government has used the deficit as an excuse for cutting the size of the state, 'redevelopment' has been used to get less well-off families that the tabloids scapegoat and claim to be 'scrounging off the state' out and replaced by people who’d be more at home with the price of most things in Westfield.

Hari Kunzru, author of one of my favourite books, wrote an excellent article recently about coming back to visit the parts of East London in which he grew up (he lived on my old road, in fact), which I strongly recommend if you’ve got a few minutes. Here’s an extract from what he writes about the Westfield Shopping Centre and the transformation of the area which can be architecturally spectacular but full of harmful effects:
“The typical East London streetscape of pound shops and groceries may be unaesthetic, but it represents interwoven circuits of production and consumption that are local and targeted at the people who are already here, instead of those developers would like to see coming, people with more disposable income and fewer social problems”.

He goes on to talk about the government's capping of Local Housing Allowances, meaning that many claimants will no longer be able to afford to live in London. Newham Council has already announced it is looking to move some of the 32000 people in the borough in urgent need of housing to other parts of Britain. Even Boris Johnson has spoken out against what he labelled “social cleansing”.
Kunzru continues:
“Though the Olympics will undoubtedly regenerate the physical fabric of the area, it is obvious that not all of its current residents will be around to reap the benefits. The poorest will be shunted out.”

'Redevelopment' has often been not improving a part of London in need of housing and improved infrastructure but eroding its identity so that it could be anywhere: so that it can catch up with other parts of the country not in terms of the gap between rich and poor but in terms of how many shops there are for the wealthiest. Westfield isn't a public space; the people of Stratford have no right to be there if they're not shopping, and can be kicked out at the whim of the management. It could exist anywhere in Britain, or with a few tweaks, anywhere in the world. French anthropologist Marc Augé calls such environments "nonplaces" - sites which are both utopian, pointing towards a planned, functional feature, and dystopian - thin and transient, with nothing local about them, nothing to inspire the formation of a community. If this was part of a plan to build or manufacture a new community centred on a different social class, as wrong it would be, I could just about understand the logic even I vehemently disagreed with it. But it's not. There are no attempts at community-building even for a bourgeoisie that is starting to dominate much of Hackney.

It typifies the short-sightedness of the organisers and begs the question: what is the point? Aside from the sporting spectacle that will take place, is it worth months of travel chaos and the higher taxes Londoners have been paying for years to fund it without most of us getting any direct benefit? Like my family and 90% of the people we know in Hackney, you probably won't have got tickets to see anything anyway. David Cameron promised to “make sure the Olympic legacy lifts East London from being one of the poorest parts of the country to one that shares fully in the capital's growth and prosperity". I have little doubt that he's right in that some of the richest people around will and already have been tempted into moving over here. I very much doubt, however, how much the Olympics will do to address inequalities here and the fact that Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets routinely top statistical tables for child poverty and other indices of social deprivation. If this starts to change, it'll probably be because the poorest have been moved to other parts of the country, as Newham Council is already ensuring.

People complain about the EU being undemocratic, but what you don't hear about in the right-wing press (or indeed anywhere) is the democratic deficit brought about by the Olympics and the massive amount of power in the hands of big business and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Power not only over us and to influence our behaviour – I’m not just talking about the fact that you had to get a Visa debit card to apply for tickets, which you probably anyway won't have got thanks to the appalling system used – but power over democratically elected politicians; the scary bit. With MPs finally starting to move on from the period of subservience to bankers and the media with the Leveson inquiry and an equivalent one on the conduct of Barclays et al hopefully on the way, the elephant in the room is the complete unwillingness or inability of our elected politicians to stand up to the IOC and rich sponsors.

I remember even Ken Livingstone, usually a maverick unafraid to challenge anyone from big business, admit at a Labour event in my constituency that even as Mayor of London he would be virtually powerless over the ludicrous so-called “Games Lanes” closed off to the general public. These fast lanes are not just for athletes who need to get to events on time, which I could just about stomach (though it does remind me of Eric Pickles on Question Time justifying a second home by saying “I need to be there on time – the House of Commons runs like clockwork”. “So does the rest of the world”, Caroline Lucas rightly pointed out), but for VIPs, guests of the IOC and sponsors, who have priority over the Londoners who’ve paid higher taxes for years to host them.

Did I mention that traffic lights are being fixed so that they’ll turn green when chauffeur-driven VIP or sponsor vehicles approach? I’m not making this up. Astonishing is not only the lack of power wielded by UK politicians in their own country but the utter lack of public scrutiny from MPs of a games that public and government money is funding. The amount of exposure sponsors and multinational corporations have already got from the games - you couldn't miss them during the torch relay - and the almost infinite amount of power in their hands, you’d think that they’re funding most of it or at least a decent proportion. But no: 2% of the money comes from private businesses and 98% from government and taxpayers. Doctors recently raised concerns that Olympic VIPs could receive fast-track emergency care during the games. We’ve already essentially been told not to use public transport during August, with the “greenest games ever” telling us to use bikes and walk while simultaneously reducing cycle lanes and crossings to make room for the “Games Lanes” and allow traffic lights to turn green whenever VIP cars approach.

I hate to shout ‘conspiracy’ from the missile-occupied rooftops of East London but it really is puzzling why there is not only this silence from politicians across the spectrum but from the media, with even the likes of The Guardian keeping unusually quiet. Could it be because the world’s media also get to use the “Games Lanes”, something that you don’t hear about in these papers? Just a thought.

"Welcome to Newham, a place where people choose to live, work and stay," a large sign upon entry to the borough reads. Unless something is done, many of its residents may not have any of those choices by the time the olympic cars pack up and leave the borough more polarised and shorter of affordable housing than before London was given the games. I've now learnt the lesson that you should always be careful what you wish for.

Update (04/07): It seems I was too kind about the few benefits I perceived the Olympics as bringing East London. I originally suggested that small businesses in the area would automatically benefit. Thanks to Twitterers who pointed out that Victoria Park Books and many in the area have actually had their business negatively impacted by Olympic parking restrictions which have come into effect months early and put people off parking in the area and using shops in Lauriston Village

Update (12/07): Like London buses (not that you'll be able to catch one during the games!) not one but three good articles about the Olympics finally appeared in The Guardian in the days after my blogpost, the pick of which is Seumas Milne's, echoing many of the points raised in here and making the point that it doesn't have to be like this. It is possible to have a people's games, like the opening ceremony claims to reflect, but not while power rests exclusively with the IOC and sponsors like McDonalds and Coca-Cola who have no interest in promoting healthy eating in a nation where obesity is on the rise or giving up the hundreds of thousands of tickets made available to them but not the general public who are paying for the games. As you'll see in the photo, McDonalds (who will have four restaurants in the Olympic village) have even banned any other food outlets from selling chips unless they're sold with fish, which will set you back even more than a pint (£7.20).

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