In this special feature NOAH ENAHORO investigates the legacy of the London Olympics. Ten years after the games Newham is home to a world-class sports district, up-market living space, a vast new London parkland and a gleaming cultural and business centre.
But have the Olympics had a positive impact on the lives of local residents?
This report, supported by the Centre for Investigative Journalism at Goldsmiths University, suggests that in the wake of gentrification, broken promises over affordable homes and a lack of democracy in decision-making, more needs to be done to deliver on promises of providing opportunities for local people.
2022 marks the tenth anniversary of the London Olympiad. Over the last decade, Newham, especially Stratford, has changed dramatically. What was once a rundown and neglected area has been transformed into a tourist attraction, with sought-after homes, state of the art sports facilities and in Westfield Shopping Centre, the largest urban shopping and leisure destination in Europe.
In many ways it is a success story, but for most residents of Newham the post-Olympics vision of a legacy providing more jobs, affordable housing and improved democratic participation in development of the area has not materialised.
Ten years on, the builders are still at work in Stratford Olympic Park putting the finishing touches to a bustling educational, commercial, and cultural quarter.
With gleaming high-rise housing complexes and five permanent post-Olympic sports venues – the Aquatic Centre, BMX Track, Copper Box Arena, Velodrome, and the London Stadium, the former Olympic stadium, now home to West Ham United.
Since reopening in 2013, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park has had over 34 million visits, drawing people from across the world to the park’s greenspaces, venues and events. It is by all accounts, a success story.
To win hosting rights for the third time (1908, 1948, and 2012), London had to promise that there would be a significant and permanent “legacy”.
Reports of derelict former Olympic sites and venues in recent host cities like Athens and Beijing motivated the British team responsible for securing the bid to make sure any plans proposed included policies that would continue to enhance the Olympic area once the 60 days of athletic excitement and endeavour had ended.
When London won the bid, its backers said that 2012 would be a special Olympics, using the momentum after the games had been completed to provide a legacy, both physical and emotional. “The Olympics will bring the biggest single transformation of the city since the Victorian age,” said Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London when the city won the bid.
In 2012 the Olympic Delivery Authority in the form of the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) was founded to use the momentum of the games to “develop a dynamic new heart for East London, creating opportunities for local people and driving innovation and growth”.
Without a doubt, the Olympics have changed Newham. Billions of pounds have poured into Newham in the form of Westfield and the Olympic venues.
The “East Bank” in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park will be home to the University College London’s newest campus, the largest development in its 200-year history.
Perhaps the biggest cultural change is a result of West Ham United’s relocation from the Boleyn ground to the Olympic Stadium. The old Boleyn site is now home to the Upton Gardens development, 38 percent of which is given over to affordable housing for key workers.
In the Olympic Park itself, schools and educational centres, built as a result of the new neighbourhoods, were promised to serve the local area.
And from the information available it appears that educational targets have been met. The Bobby Moore Academy, for example, has 612 out of 899 pupils (68 percent), living in Newham. Similarly, 1,683 out of 1,894 (89 percent) of pupils at Harris Academy Chobham come from Newham.
One only has to walk through the Olympic site, with a knowledge of what was before the Games, to see how the area has changed.
The Olympic area is now home to some of the most highly sought after housing in the capital. Thousands of homes have been built, with the various housing complexes and developments attracting buyers and residents from across the capital and the world.
To the naked and uncritical eye, the sight of these homes can all but signal the success of the Olympic legacy. After all, what better way to implement a physical legacy than by building homes for people to live in?
Housing: broken promises and a haven for the well-off
However, scratch below the surface and the statistics reveal that the housing legacy promised has not been delivered.
Sebastian Coe, chair of London’s organising committee, promised that the regeneration of the Stratford and Olympic area, which stretches across six Boroughs, would produce 30,000-40,000 new homes, “much of which will be ‘affordable housing’ available to key workers such as nurses or teachers”.
But, as of 2022, only 11,000 homes have been built, of which 1200 are in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Of those 1200 homes, only 37 percent (444 homes) and not the promised 50 percent are classified as being affordable.
This means a shortfall of 156 homes in affordable housing that should have been available to people who are priced out of the housing market and many of them caught in Newham’s housing crisis. Some might describe it as a betrayal of what was promised.
But promises by politicians and sports chiefs have not been turned into formal commitments. “You won’t find any formal documents that said 50 percent, the documents don’t exist”, says Dr Penny Bernstock of University College London.
Her research specifically focuses on housing and employment in Queen Elizabeth Park, and she believes this lack of documentation makes it harder for the LLDC to be held accountable. Many people believe that promises were not kept, but proving that the promises were made in the first place may be a difficult task.
The idea that the Olympic legacy has not been fully fulfilled is not just an academic question. Nate Higgins, a Green Party councillor representing Stratford Olympic Park, says: “I think we are at a severe risk of the Olympic park area becoming completely unaffordable for anyone who isn’t extremely wealthy.”
Not only is there a shortfall in the promised numbers of affordable homes, but those that do exist have become “ridiculously” expensive for Newham residents. Housing prices across the Olympic boroughs (Barking and Dagenham, Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest, Newham, Hackney, and Greenwich) have risen dramatically, with average house prices in Newham alone rising from 51 percent of the London figure in 2012 to 79 percent today.
“Before the Olympics, 2011 or so, we went to a display of the Olympic village in Westfield, and they mentioned that some of the housing would be given over to social housing,” said a local teacher who has lived and worked in Newham for almost 20 years.
“When it came to us looking for a place to live, we couldn’t find out how to go about trying to find a place in the Olympic village. All we were aware of was that the non-social housing was ridiculously expensive and there was just no way we were able to get one.”
Today Newham has over 31,000 households on its housing waiting list, the most in the capital, with more than half of those having been on those lists for more than four years.
“As far as I’m concerned, the overwhelming majority of the homes built should have been reserved for social housing for residents of this Borough,” said the teacher. “The whole disruption of the Olympics affected Newham residents, and the promises that were made, made us think that immense benefits were coming,” he added.
“Here was a chance to clear the housing waiting list and radically alter the lives of thousands of families in one swoop. Instead, it looks like thousands of well-off people have come from out-of-borough and bought a majority of the properties in the Olympic park, so property companies have made an absolute killing. Meanwhile, Newham’s waiting list has grown. What it feels like is that the people of Newham have been betrayed.”
When asked to explain missed housing targets, the LLDC blamed changes in the leadership of London. A spokesman said: “The revised Legacy Communities Scheme was approved under Boris Johnson’s mayoralty when affordable housing targets were set up to 35 percent.
“Under the current Mayor, Sadiq Khan, those affordable targets have risen to 50 percent. We have always delivered to the prevailing Mayoral policies. More affordable homes require more funding from the government for those homes.
“Like any other developer we have to work within our funding envelope and there is a tension between delivering more affordable homes and returning land receipts to the public purse.”
The LLDC says once all the schemes are completed there will be more than 5,500 homes in the Park, 40 percent of which will be affordable. In the first three neighbourhoods (Chobham Manor, East Wick and Sweetwater) there will be 35 percent affordable homes in line with Boris Johnson’s policy and the remaining sites will deliver 50 percent affordable homes in line with the policy of Sadiq Khan the current mayor.
Housing delivery and pricing is not the only area in which the LLDC has been criticised. A lack of democracy and local voice in controversial planning decisions such as the MSG Sphere plan for Stratford has raised concerns.
In March 2019, the LLDC received a plan for a large-scale live music and entertainment venue next to Stratford Station. The plan from New York’s Madison Square Garden Company is for a “pleasure dome” with a capacity for up to 21,500 people to provide an auditorium, a music venue, nightclub, members lounge, restaurants, bars, and new bridges. The sphere will be as wide as the London Eye and as tall as Big Ben.
Supporters of the sphere include the University of East London and former cabinet minister Matt Hancock, but in Newham it has been met with backlash and massive opposition.
Every single elected councillor opposed the idea. Newham Council objected and said the MSG Sphere would have a negative impact on residents and businesses.
Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz warned of light pollution, transport pressures and excessive noise; she argued residents shared these concerns and the Council supported them. She said: “The LLDC is the planning authority for this application, and we expect them to take the shared views of our residents and the Council into consideration when they make their decision.”
Member of Parliament for West Ham, Lyn Brown, also spoke out against the sphere stating that the venue was a “monstrosity”, and adding that “Newham doesn’t want this venue, yet it’s the LLDC, not Newham Council, that gets to recommend to Sadiq Khan whether it is built. This monstrous glowing orb makes a mockery of East London’s Olympic legacy.”
These forceful voices of local opposition were ignored when in March 2022 the LLDC planning committee, made up of largely unelected members, approved the application by six votes to four – with all of the local representatives from neighbouring London boroughs voting against.
The final say is with the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and there are still decisions to be made on the issue of bright-light advertising proposed for the exterior of the sphere.
“It was a profoundly undemocratic business,” said Nick Sharman, former director of operations at the London Development Agency and former member of the LLDC planning committee. It was, in his eyes, “one of the most disgraceful regeneration approvals that I’ve ever been part of”.
This lack of appreciation of local feeling may have something to do also with the lack of representation of local people in the workforce of the LLDC itself.
A Freedom of Information request sent by Newham Voices to the LLDC reveals that out of 185 staff employed by the corporation, only 11 of them live in Newham. Of those 11, seven earn salaries over £50,000 – more than twice the average salary in Newham.
Given the fact that a majority of the land overseen by the LLDC is located in Newham but with little representation of people in Newham in the workforce and the lack of effective voice for Newham representatives in planning matters, many believe that the handling of the MSG Sphere illustrates how decisions are being made by individuals who are not economically representative of people in Newham and have little attachment to the area.
Lindesay Mace, a resident in Stratford and member of the Stop the MSG Sphere Campaign, said: “It feels to me that the sphere is part of what’s happening in the Olympic park area, which is gentrification. What’s happening here is that you essentially have two parts of Stratford, that’s what it feels like.
“Living just east of Maryland and being able to see the Olympic park area, it feels like a gated community that’s been parachuted down and plonked into a community that already existed.
“The MSG sphere doesn’t feel like it’s for us. It was and is a travesty. If people don’t live in an area, they have little to no investment in that area and are going to be less focused on that particular area. It doesn’t surprise at all that there’s so few who live in Newham, and even fewer who earn a wage that is similar to the population here.”
However, the LLDC told Newham Voices: “LLDC employees, irrespective of their background, work to the organisation’s mission to change the lives of people in east London and drive growth and investment.
“Any regeneration project will have opposition but there is no evidence to suggest that the majority of local people are unhappy with east London’s Olympic legacy. A recent survey of 550 residents from the four boroughs showed nine out of ten were proud of the legacy and feel the area is changing for the better.”
Compared to the legacies of other recent Olympic cities, London is successful, but among long-standing residents of the Borough, there are feelings of anger, disappointment and betrayal.
One resident, a fitness professional, said: “It’s disappointing. The housing legacy has failed the people of Newham. It was a good chance to tackle an issue that plagues thousands of vulnerable people. It’s heart-breaking that people’s basic needs, in a first-world country, are not being met.”
But there are some undoubted winners: Pauline Clarke, owner of the Carpenters Arms pub on the Carpenters Estate in Stratford, for instance, says West Ham’s relocation to the Olympic stadium has been good for business. “Having West Ham has had a huge impact. We are financially a lot better overall. The pub has got busier even on away games.”