Monday, 17 October 2016

Olympic aftermath: Stratford four years on

The Olympic stadium
On 6 July 2005, the International Olympic Committee announced that Great Britain would be hosting the 2012 Olympics. Although London had hosted the games twice before, the last time was over half a century ago so suffice facilities were non-existent. Therefore, it wasn’t long until development on a 490-acre Olympic park began. Stratford, in East London, was designated to be the place for the development.

The Olympic and Paralympic Games were a success. The organisation leading up to and during the games were highly acclaimed thanks to multiple ‘London Prepares’ events to test the organisers’ abilities, the opening and closing ceremonies were fantastic entertainment for the whole country, and the games themselves ran smoothly - with only a minor hiccup involving empty seats at events. But what about the legacy?

As well as the immediate benefits (such as tourism, facilities for aspiring athletes, etc.), the games in the Borough of Newham have had long term effects on the local area. Residents and businesses in Stratford now benefit from London Overground’s vastly improved East London Line. Additionally, the new Westfield Stratford City shopping centre led to jobs being created and means locals don’t need to travel all the way to Oxford Street for luxury brands. This is where the advantages mostly end though.

The negatives of hosting the games largely outweigh the positives. For one, before the games, businesses in the industrial area that the Olympic park was built on faced eviction and were forced to relocate which caused many businesses to suffer due to the high cost of office space in London. The Evening Standard’s Simon Jenkins wrote “The Stratford site ... lost 300 businesses and 14,000 jobs in its cluster of factories, warehouses and canal-side businesses."

The entrance to the Stratford Centre
Secondly, the flocks of tourists lasted as long as the games did. The small amounts of tourism that do still exist are concentrated exclusively in the Olympic park and Westfield Stratford City shopping centre; nowhere near Stratford High Street and the Stratford Centre. Locals hoped that the £8.77bn, which was the final cost of London 2012, would improve the area in which the author Charles Booth once described the people as “lowest class; vicious, semi-criminal”. However, walking from Westfield to the Stratford Centre feels like walking from one world to another. The A118 divides the old and the new areas thus highlights the stark differences. Westfield and the Olympic Park are spacious, luxurious, and well-maintained areas whereas the Stratford Centre and high street are aged, rundown, and cramped. The Guardian’s Tom Wilkinson writes "the old shopping centre clearly didn’t fit with the image Newham council wanted to project to the world. As the Games approached, the council tried to hide the building behind a particularly egregious piece of public art”.

Westfield Stratford City shopping centre opened in 2011
When I visited, residents in Stratford High Street revealed that they were dishearten with the Olympic legacy. Instead of opportunity and prosperity, the lack of new houses has forced many out of the area and small companies struggle to make business. One market stall owner said that Westfield had forced him to reduce his prices in fear that he would lose customers.

Moreover, there was a promise of new housing following the Olympic games; 31% of which is supposed to be affordable housing. Lots of the construction work is still underway however experts say this 31% figure is extremely optimistic because of large amounts of attention the area is getting from private foreign investors.

Building the Olympic stadium allegedly cost the taxpayer around £537m and a further £272m to convert into a Premier League football stadium. West Ham, the football team who won the bid to play in the stadium, currently only pay rent of £2.5m per annum (with a £15m up-front fee) meaning they would need to be in the stadium for the next 318 years for the public money to be replenished. Some justify this ‘steal’ of a deal by looking at Greece’s Olympic stadium from 2004 which has been abandoned and is sat gathering dust.

As for the future of Stratford, experts predict large growth in the area with the creation of new office space and new housing. However, I suspect that growth is likely to go unnoticed by the current residents who are still suffering from the Olympic and Westfield developments. The mostly unused Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (as it is now called) appears to be the consequence of incompetent legacy planning by the organisers of London 2012 and now it is the local working class people and small business owners who are paying the price.