To Paul Amuzie, it seemed like a life-changing opportunity. He was 16 and living in temporary accommodation with his mother and three siblings, having moved from home to home since his parents divorced. The east London borough where he lived, Newham, was home to some of the most deprived and overcrowded wards in the country. Now, it was being proposed as the location of the Olympic village in London’s bid to host the 2012 games.
As a politically active student at St Bonaventure’s school, just east of the designated site, Amuzie had become involved in local campaigns to reduce street violence after a spate of local stabbings, earning his place as an ambassador on the council’s young mayor’s team. When the Olympic bid was announced in 2003, he directed all his energies towards boosting local support for the games, on the basis that it would bring jobs, safer streets and the chance, one day, for someone like him to rent or even buy their own home. “This wasn’t just going to be a sports event, with developers making lots of money,” Amuzie told me. “It was about our future.”
When London won the bid in July 2005, its backers billed it as a groundbreaking moment. Previous Olympics had done so much damage to host cities, leaving behind useless venues, unleashing property speculation and social displacement. But London’s bid was different. It vowed to be “a model for social inclusion”. Its legacy would be “the regeneration of the area for the direct benefit of everyone that lives there”. Sebastian Coe, chair of London’s organising committee, promised that the regeneration of the area in and around the Olympic park would produce 30,000-40,000 new homes, “much of which will be ‘affordable housing’ available to key workers such as nurses or teachers”.
Ten years on from the patriotic pageant that brought the nation together to bask in director Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, with its pastoral vision of merrie England and cavorting NHS nurses, just 13,000 homes have been built on and around the Olympic site. Of these, only 11% are genuinely affordable to people on average local incomes. Meanwhile, in the four boroughs the site straddles – Newham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Waltham Forest – there are almost 75,000 households on the waiting list for council housing, many living in desperate poverty. Thousands of former residents have also been rehoused outside the area since the Olympics took place.
It isn’t the legacy that Amuzie fought for. On the windswept corner of Fortunes Walk, in London’s new E20 Olympic neighbourhood, where Celebration Avenue meets Cheering Lane, the twin towers of Victory Plaza shoot towards the sky. Their concrete facades frame a private rooftop garden, safely elevated from the street, while vacant shopfronts below advertise the promise of “luxury living in East Village” – the former athletes’ village, now rebranded with Manhattan-scale aspirations. Nearby, another pair of towers welcomes residents to its gated “village green” – where no dogs, ballgames or unsupervised children are allowed. Both projects were built by a development arm of the Qatari royal family, and neither includes a single affordable home. Rents begin at £1,750 a month for a studio and rise to more than £4,000 for a penthouse.
“It feels like a massive betrayal,” said Amuzie, who now works as a community organiser for Citizens UK, a charity that helps local families living in overcrowded accommodation, and still shares a flat in Newham with his mother and two younger brothers. “It might look like the area has changed for the better, but it hasn’t for most existing residents,” he added. “They’ve brought a new community in, and they’re the ones reaping the benefits. There’s no way me or my friends could rent any of the new housing, or afford to buy a shared-ownership home, despite the fact that we campaigned for the Olympics to come here. Instead, the legacy has just meant gentrification on an industrial scale.”
In the eyes of many who have been involved over the years, the result is a bitter failure. Nick Sharman was director of operations at the London Development Agency, whose remit was to buy up land for the Olympic site and evict local businesses. More recently, in his role as a Labour councillor for Hackney, he spent six years on the planning committee of the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the body charged with delivering the promises made at the time of the bid. He has come to the conclusion that the original aspirations have been all but abandoned. “There is no pretence any more that the legacy is trying to get a positive outcome for East Enders,” he told me. “It is driven by a total market ideology, dressed up in some good aspirational talk, with a few baubles thrown out to keep local people happy, while mostly catering for the rich. It is a massive failure at every level.”
A former board member of the legacy corporation has similar misgivings. “There are some pockets of brilliance,” he said, “but overall the project hasn’t improved people’s life chances in the area. We have made a new community and plonked it down on the Olympic park, creating an enormous divide.”
Speaking to those who have sat on the boards of the various Olympic legacy bodies, and the officials tasked with enacting their commands, a number of key themes emerge to explain all the missed opportunities and the broken promises. At least some of the mess can be traced back to the naivety and hubris that characterised the initial planning under London’s first mayor, Ken Livingstone. But most seem to agree that the moment the project seriously lost its way was in 2008, with the election of Livingstone’s successor, Boris Johnson.
The origins of London’s Olympic bid had little to do with sport. Following his election as the first mayor of London in 2000, Ken Livingstone became fixated on the games as a means of funnelling cash into the regeneration of east London. “He was absolutely ruthless about getting the Olympics,” said Sharman. “He prioritised it above everything else. But what gave heft to the bid was that he genuinely believed it would help the area.” Livingstone was always frank about his motivations: “I bid for the Olympics because it’s the only way to get the billions of pounds out of the government to develop the East End,” he said in 2008.
In 2004, Livingstone had designated the Lower Lea valley as an “opportunity area”. The ragged wedge, which slices through east London towards the Thames, had long been a dirty back yard, where sewage pumping, gasworks, high-voltage cabling, car-crushing and food-processing businesses convened around a tangle of waterways, marshland and rail lines. For the bid, the area’s toxic status was emphasised. This was a place that had been poisoned by industry, a lawless dump at the nexus of the capital’s most deprived boroughs. It was “ripe for redevelopment”, as the Olympic bid put it.
In 2006, advising the secretary of state on the £1bn compulsory purchase of land from local businesses, the planning inspector David Rose described it as a place of “environmental, economic and social degradation”. It needed to be scrubbed up before developers would be interested, and the Olympics, with its ample budget for soil-washing, pipe-laying, cable-burying and road building, would be just the job. The promise of affordable housing was cited as a key justification for acquiring the land, with a 50% target enshrined “to serve the needs of the local population and to provide them with a continuing opportunity of living in the area”.
But research by an architectural academic paints a different picture from that of a forlorn wasteland. Prof Juliet Davis, head of the Welsh School of Architecture at Cardiff University, documented the site before the games, as part of her PhD on the Olympics. When she mapped the area in 2006, Davis found more than 280 businesses employing about 5,000 people, in trades ranging from belt-making to salmon smoking, wig supply to bagel baking. She found a community living happily in low-cost cooperative housing – and a Ghanaian pentecostal church with one of the largest congregations in Europe.
“This wasn’t rustbelt dereliction,” she told me. “They were all relocated in the years after the bid was won, some far outside London, and many closed down as a result. A lot of the businesses were struggling already but, rather than protect them, the Olympic regeneration exacerbated the process of decline. The so-called ‘affordable’ workspace being provided in and around the park now isn’t in reach of the kinds of companies that were there before.” A demographic survey in 2018 found that 80% of the employees at the Olympic park’s “employment hub” were white – compared to 31% in the local area.
While the Olympics is often credited as the saviour of this noxious swamp, bringing homes, jobs and shiny shopping centres to the East End, what tends to be overlooked is that much of this development was going to happen anyway.
In 2003, the largest planning application since the second world war had been submitted by Chelsfield, Stanhope and London & Continental Railways for the eastern side of what became the Olympic site. Stratford City was to be the new Canary Wharf, a dazzling metropolitan centre of 5,000 homes and 30,000 jobs, the cluster of high-rise towers connected to Europe by a new “international” station. (Eurostar has never stopped at Stratford International to this day.)
In July 2005, when London won the Olympic bid, the plans underwent a critical shift. To save time and money, 2,800 flats in the Stratford City plan were accelerated, to serve as the athletes’ village for the games. As in previous host cities, the flats were to be funded and built by a private developer, and Australian firm Lendlease was chosen for the project in 2007. But, with the dawn of the 2008 financial crisis, the company struggled to raise cash, so the government stepped in to bail out the £1bn scheme. “By funding the entire project, the village will become publicly owned, and the public purse will receive substantial returns from sales,” promised the Olympic minister Tessa Jowell at the time.
In reality, the athletes’ village was sold in 2011 for around half what it cost to build, to a joint venture of Qatari Diar and Delancey, representing a £275m loss to the taxpayer. The original bailout meant that taxpayers funded the construction of the affordable homes, a new school and health facilities, while the private sector kept the more profitable parts of the scheme – the shopping mall, the offices and the luxury flats. Westfield has become one of Europe’s busiest shopping centres, while Lendlease’s International Quarter enjoys rents from 1m sq ft of grade-A office space, and Qatari Diar Delancey continues to build exclusive gated towers under the brand Get Living London.
The details of the 2003 planning permission have come back to haunt the Olympic legacy plan two decades later. While London had a policy for 50% affordable housing at the time, the development was given permission for just 30%, on grounds of financial viability. Because the publicly funded athletes’ village delivered most of the affordable homes required for the entire Stratford City site, the more recent developments in East Village – such as the towers of Victory Plaza and its steroidal neighbours – are allowed to be built as wholly private rental, without any affordable homes at all.
Under the leadership of Robin Wales, who served as mayor of Newham from 2002 until 2018, the borough was keen to attract a wealthier demographic and stem the flight of its financially successful residents to Essex. “Newham London – a place where people choose to live, work and stay” became the council’s desperate slogan, emblazoned on signs in the run-up to the Olympics. The displacement and relocation of low-income households, as far afield as Stoke-on-Trent, wasn’t so loudly trumpeted.
Dr Penny Bernstock, honorary senior research fellow at University College London, who has tracked Olympic housing delivery, points out that the official figures – which boast that more than 3,000 affordable homes have been built in the area since the games – ignore the homes that were demolished to make way for the Olympics in the first place. Clays Lane was the largest residential co-operative of its kind in the UK. Built in 1977, near where the Olympic velodrome now stands, it was an experiment in creating close-knit communities to help vulnerable single people in east London. Its demolition in 2007 eradicated 450 low-cost tenancies and left the community “shattered”, in the words of one former resident. Bernstock notes that their relocation took an additional 327 social rented units out of the available stock, meaning that the net gain in housing built on the park since 2012 (in East Village and the first neighbourhood to be built on the park after the games, Chobham Manor) is just 110 genuinely affordable homes. A tiny number, given the need.
One local family I spoke to had been bidding for a council home in Newham for 15 years. Their household of seven lives in a one-bedroom flat close to the Olympic park, where the children all sleep together on the floor. “They say we are not priority, because we are in work,” the mother told me. “The Olympics have only made things worse, driving up rents and pushing people out, as we slip further and further down the waiting list.”
The promised housing targets might have fallen short, but what kind of place is the promised new Olympic urban quarter shaping up to be? In spite of being carefully coordinated by dozens of designers, scrutinised by teams of planners, cajoled by expert-laden quality review panels, and lavishly funded from public and private coffers, the emerging legacy-scape feels like the result of a series of unexpected accidents. Which, in many ways, it is.
“No one believed we would win the Olympic bid,” I was told by an architect who led the masterplan for the site, and has worked on successive legacy plans since. “Madrid, Paris and New York all had better offers. So, of course, London wasn’t going to win. We were asked to come up with a version of the plan without the games, which we all thought was more likely to happen. Then suddenly we got it, and boxes of technical requirements arrived from the International Organising Committee. We thought: ‘Oh shit. You’ve got to be able to get to every single back-of-house place in the Olympic park within 20 minutes in an anticlockwise direction on a service road. Is that even possible?’”
One result was big, wide roads, and lots of them, which slice their way across the park to this day, making it still feel like an events campus rather than a normal part of London. “I still wince at some of the infrastructure,” a former Olympic design director told me. “The roads were designed to get athletes and officials around the site as quickly as possible, but I wish we’d focused much more on pedestrians.”
The Olympic park can also feel cut off from the surrounding neighbourhoods, and that’s no accident either. The site was chosen for its natural severance, being hemmed in by waterways, rail lines and dual carriageways, making it a perfect high-security island, able to be locked down at a moment’s notice. There was much talk of “stitching” it back into its surroundings after the games, but many of the right connections were missed. “Inclusivity and access was done as a box-ticking exercise,” the masterplan architect told me, “rather than thinking which the important routes are. Half of those new connections will never mean anything to people living in nearby estates. They’re still excluded.”
His fears are borne out by the stories of those who live around the edges. Ethan Suppaya grew up on the Carpenters Estate, which lies immediately to the south of the Olympic park, across a railway line. It is the wrong side of the tracks in every respect, a rundown place taunted by years of promised regeneration that never arrived. (Newham council finally approved plans in May, having first proposed redevelopment in 2001.) Suppaya was eight years old when the Olympics took place, and his lasting memory is one of eviction. The council moved his family out of their flat in Dennison Point, where his grandparents had lived for 40 years, because the tower was scheduled for demolition, in plans that were later shelved. Adding insult to injury, the vacated flats were used by TV crews during the games, for their prize vantage point above the park.
“The whole place just feels like a walled city,” said Suppaya, who is now 17. “There’s the new, clean, shiny Olympic world on one side, and the old, rough, litter-strewn Stratford on the other. The nearest bus stop to the park is a 15-minute walk away through the Westfield shopping centre. I’ve only ever been there on school trips. It doesn’t feel like it’s meant for us.”
If there is a moment when the nature of the Olympic legacy plan began to take a fundamental turn, it was after 2008, when Boris Johnson was elected mayor of London. In the four years running up to the games, Johnson oversaw a radical change to the character and ethos of the vision. He was determined to make his mark: from the moment of the Olympic handover in Beijing – when he made headlines with his clownish flag-waving and talk of “wiff-waff” coming home – it was his Olympics, not Ken’s, and he wanted people to remember that.
Several insiders told me that the high-density housing model drawn up under Livingstone, and partially realised in the form of the athletes’ village, was suddenly deemed “too European”. Foreshadowing Brexit culture wars, the fact that the eight-to-10-storey courtyard blocks and tree-lined avenues were more redolent of Barcelona than London was now seen to be a bad thing. Johnson and his advisers called for a return to Victorian and Georgian types: terraces, mews and mansion blocks, with Bloomsbury and Maida Vale as the model. “It will mean more £1m houses on the park,” a design adviser told a meeting at the time. The shift towards this nostalgic, low-rise model also had the effect of slashing housing numbers in half, from a possible 12,000 down to the current 6,000 earmarked for the neighbourhoods in the park.
At around the same time, the definition of “affordable” housing was revised by the Conservative-led coalition government to mean up to 80% of market rate, and a greater emphasis was put on shared-ownership homes in the legacy plan. As Nick Sharman has pointed out, this kind of “affordable” housing in the Olympic area generally demands an annual income of at least £60,000, and often up to £90,000. Meanwhile, the average income in the local boroughs is about £27,000. “The only truly affordable housing is social rented housing,” he said. “In the first five years of the legacy, that made up just 6.4% of completed homes.” The legacy corporation says the figure has now increased to 11%, and will be up to 13% once all the homes are built.
Housing plans were further knocked off course, according to insiders, by Johnsons’s desire for a novelty attraction “to arouse the curiosity and wonder of visitors” to the games. The idea was for something to rival the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower. The result was the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a monument to its steel-magnate sponsor, Lakshmi Mittal, then the UK’s richest man, designed by Anish Kapoor in the form of a tangled rollercoaster – only without a ride.
“We had a really nice plan for streets of housing on that site,” the masterplan architect recalled. “But Boris had other ideas. Out of nowhere there was a competition for a viewing tower.” Antony Gormley submitted an entry. So, too, did the architectural firm Caruso St John, in the form of a vertical seaside pier. “It had to be built incredibly quickly, and it had to be fun,” Peter St John told me. “Boris wanted slides, so we put some slides in, and we had a special room at the top where you could enter a lottery to meet the mayor. The main aim at the presentation seemed to be to entertain Boris and keep him laughing. I wasn’t sorry that we didn’t win.” (“Weirdly, the jury chose the design that everyone hated,” the masterplan architect told me.)
The ArcelorMittal Orbit was intended to be a money-making attraction, with tickets for £17 a pop, but it ended up costing £10,000 a week to maintain. A slide was finally added in 2016 in the hope of boosting ticket sales, but it hasn’t had the desired effect. The attraction has slid into at least £13m of debt, as a result of interest on the £9.2m loan from Mittal.
Johnson’s reelection as mayor in 2012, bolstered by Olympic excitement, gave him a thirst for further control over the shape of the legacy. He disbanded the previous legacy company and formed the London Legacy Development Corporation, modelled on the London Docklands Development Corporation, which spawned Canary Wharf in the 1980s. He then installed himself as chair, and expanded its planning powers over a wider area. In what has since become a Johnsonian trademark, it was an unparalleled power grab. He set up a board “stuffed quite outrageously with people who supported his own interests,” as one insider put it.
Crucially, Johnson ensured that the locally elected representatives were in a minority on the planning committee, which meant that big decisions could be steamrollered through. Johnson wanted to see results, and fast, before his mayoral term ran out. “He asked us to massively accelerate the delivery of the Olympic legacy housing plans,” one former corporation employee told me. “It essentially doubled the speed. We had to do everything in half the time, in the most expedient way possible.”
The speed had knock-on effects. “It greatly affected the housing affordability,” said a former board member. “The original development calculations were based on an appreciation of land values over time, but the earlier we developed the sites, the less money we would get for them. Sitting in meetings with Boris, you constantly found that these big decisions were made without a lot of thought process. You would suggest that certain decisions might come with additional costs, and he would just say: ‘What do you mean, costs?’”
Driven by pressure from the Treasury to repay some of the Olympic debt, the economic model for the legacy has always been based on selling off plots of land in the park to the highest bidders on long-term leases. Rather than leading the development itself, as some local authorities are now beginning to do, the legacy corporation has simply appointed the usual big housebuilders, like Taylor Wimpey and Balfour Beatty, who take profits as developers and contractors.
Nick Sharman argues that, given all the land had already been acquired by the public, the legacy corporation could have developed the area itself, and reinvested profits back into the future of the place, as happened in the postwar New Towns and places like Milton Keynes. Instead, the great money-making selloff isn’t quite working out as planned. Livingstone’s original ambition was for at least £1.8bn to be raised from selling the development plots, even with 50% affordable housing factored into the equation. But, with just two years to go before the legacy corporation is wound up, it has recouped a total of just £239m from land sales. It cites a number of factors for the low figure, from the impact of Brexit, to the impact of house price and tender price inflation, and changes to affordable housing targets (although these have dropped from Livingstone’s 50%, not increased).
But the main reason, it turns out, is due to another major change to the legacy plan by Johnson.
In 2014, when the Olympic park reopened to visitors after the games, following £300m of re-landscaping Boris Johnson decided the legacy plans were lacking a real draw. The Orbit clearly wasn’t enough to lure the crowds, so he declared that the park needed a “world-class centre for arts and education”. Taking inspiration from South Kensington’s “Albertopolis”, the district of museums and universities bequeathed by the 1851 Great Exhibition, Johnson christened his vision “Olympicopolis”.
There had been interest from the owner of Madame Tussauds and Legoland, but the final lineup is a more highbrow affair. Set to be completed by 2025, the mountain of conjoined cultural buildings features a branch of the V&A and Sadler’s Wells dance theatre, along with London College of Fashion, BBC studios and a new outpost of University College London to the south. The latter stands like a bulky radiator next to the Orbit and achieves the remarkable feat of making Kapoor’s structure look marginally less bad by comparison.
The project was rejigged and rebranded as East Bank in 2018, by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan, in an attempt to equate the Olympic cultural hub with the South Bank and the Thames-side legacy of the 1951 Festival of Britain. The comparison doesn’t do it many favours. “It’s like the South Bank with all the space squeezed out of it,” said one architect involved in the project. “It is basically one gigantic megastructure, dressed by different designers. It’s the ultimate child of modern procurement methods.” Piers Gough, an architect who sits on the legacy planning committee, agrees: “It’s not nearly as great as it ought to be,” he told me. “The buildings are good, workmanlike solutions, but not exhilarating, not really exciting, which I had hoped they would be.”
Rather than hold international competitions for each building – as you might expect for such illustrious cultural venues – the legacy corporation procured the project in a similar way that it had for the housing plots, holding a competition to find one team that could do it all. The winning consortium has some decent architects involved (O’Donnell & Tuomey and Allies & Morrison, with young Spanish firm Arquitecturia responsible for an elegant steel footbridge) but the result so far appears designed by committee, the stocky buildings converging into a single mass. There is hope that the V&A might still shine. Designed by O’Donnell & Tuomey, it looks somewhat like a concrete crab, raised on tiptoes, as if ready to scuttle away from its lumbering neighbours.
The site will be dominated at its northern end by several large blocks of flats, the money-earner to help pay for the rest, which contain 35% shared-ownership flats – but not a single genuinely affordable home. Meanwhile, costs for the East Bank project have risen from £385m to £628m, with the legacy corporation itself bearing the risk, having signed 200-year leasehold agreements with each of the future occupiers.
Boris Johnson did not respond to requests for comment for this article. Challenged in January 2015 to answer claims that the Olympic legacy was a waste of money, Boris Johnson said Olympicopolis would bring “world-class institutions to the area along with more than 3,000 jobs and £3bn of economic benefit”. But there are fears that the East Bank project could end up being as much of a financial black hole as the Olympic stadium. Built at a cost of £486m, it was later converted into a permanent football stadium for £274m, bringing the total to £760m. It remains a massive loss-maker, costing the public around £10m to operate each year. Unusually, the pandemic was a blessing, as the stadium’s closure led to savings. As a damning report by the London Assembly’s budget and performance committee noted last year: “It is ironic that by having fewer large-scale events, thanks to Covid-19, the park is haemorrhaging less money than if it were business as usual.” In the latest accounts, the stadium was listed with a value of zero.
For those lucky enough to move into one of the new Olympic legacy homes, it was a dream come true, at first. In 2019, after nine years on Newham’s council housing waiting list, schoolteacher Maryam Osman and her family finally received an offer for a two-bedroom flat in Chobham Manor, the first neighbourhood to be built on the park after the games.
“It’s a great place to have a family,” Osman told me. “There’s a real sense of community, and having the park on our doorstep has been such a bonus, especially during the pandemic. Every time I go to the park I find something new – it’s full of hidden gems. When I take pictures of the wildlife and send them to my friends, no one believes it’s in London.”
Living on the doorstep of such an idyll comes at a price. Homes start at £465,000 for a one-bed flat, rising to around £1m for a terrace house, while Osman says the affordable rent of £260 a week is double what she paid before. She and her neighbours also complain of being tied into costly energy contracts with district-wide provider East London Energy, which has a 40-year monopoly over the entire park. Their bills recently doubled, on top of a standing charge of £30 a month. “It’s been dreadful,” said Cath Arnold, chair of the residents’ association, who otherwise thinks Chobham is a great place to live. “And we’ve got no way of opting out.” (A spokesperson for East London Energy blamed the spike in wholesale energy prices, adding that, while consumers using the grid are expected to see an additional rise in October, they have a fixed price until April 2023.)
The build quality doesn’t always match what you’d expect from a flagship scheme: residents complain that their flats have been riddled with defects. One told me they had to chase the housing association, L&Q, for two years to fix a broken extractor fan that had caused mould in the bathroom. Another freeholder discovered that the necessary insulation had not been fitted around heating pipes in the ceiling, which led to stratospheric bills, and the fridge had been installed without the required ventilation behind it, which was a fire risk. “L&Q said it’s nothing to do with them, it’s the fault of the builder, Taylor Wimpey,” the freeholder said. “No one wants to take responsibility, so you’re left ping-ponging between the companies.” (Taylor Wimpey and L&Q said they have “acknowledged and taken remedial action for the issues raised and are working closely to resolve any outstanding concerns as soon as possible.”)
Unlike their neighbours in East Village (owned by Qatari Diar Delancey), residents of the new legacy neighbourhoods (built on public land) are forced to pay a “fixed estate charge” for the upkeep of the Olympic park, currently £1,357 a year for a 3-bed freehold flat. They also pay a £2,500 service charge to L&Q. “We pay three times for some things, and we don’t get much in return,” said Arnold. “The communal gardens are getting overgrown and the whole place is looking a bit rundown.” (L&Q acknowledged that there has been “a historical issue with the quality of our ground maintenance service” but that it is “actively putting measures in place to improve this.”)
“The park charge is killing us,” said Osman. “I don’t know why we’re paying for it, when anyone can use it.” The legacy corporation insists that the charge is “fair and reasonable”, adding: “These type of charges have existed for many years and have been increasingly used on large regeneration projects like ours.” It is a reminder that, despite using the Queen’s name, this is not a royal park, but a place that is managed like a private estate.
As a planned estate under the majority ownership of a single development corporation with supreme planning powers, you might expect the area in and around the Olympic park to have an overarching sense of coherence. There is no other part of London where so much design expertise has been focused, aided by so much public money, as here. Yet, despite all the planning, the resulting place feels oddly unplanned.
To the south, along Stratford high street, a motley row of apartment towers pokes on to the horizon, like a physical bar chart of inflated land values. Most were given planning permission on the eve of the Olympics, as developers flocked to the fringes of the site in a frantic gold-rush, each bidding to be the “gateway to the games”. The parade of cheap cladding panels provides a fitting prelude to the cacophony of Stratford City, where more towers of luxury flats and offices are beginning to form a glacial wall along the eastern edge of the park.
In contrast to this brash backdrop, the more recent legacy neighbourhoods have opted for bricky restraint, dutifully following the New London Vernacular. Some blocks in the latest area of East Wick feature strained industrial allusions, including gigantic steel frames bolted on to their facades, like relics from an imaginary manufacturing past. Perhaps it’s a nod to the once-gritty areas of Hackney Wick and Fish Island across the river – themselves subject to a wholesale makeover of faux-industrial loft apartments, with mostly vacant ground-floor units.
With just a couple of years to go before planning powers are handed back to the local authorities, the London Legacy Development Corporation continues to approve planning applications at full speed. To some, it sounds like a death rattle: “The whole energy at the moment is to give permission to as much as possible before the boroughs get their hands back on the site,” said one former member of the planning committee. “It stinks.”
As a symbol of the corporation’s largely unaccountable nature, and the sense of an end-of-days feeding frenzy, it is hard to find a better example than the MSG Sphere. When images were released of this colossal entertainment venue next to Stratford station, designed as a gigantic glowing ball, as tall as Big Ben, set to shine right outside people’s windows, it seemed like a joke. It was opposed by every single elected councillor, but approved by the majority of unelected members on the legacy planning committee in March this year. “It was a profoundly undemocratic business,” said Nick Sharman, who described it as “one of the most disgraceful regeneration approvals that I’ve ever been part of.” In the words of local MP, Lyn Brown: “This monstrous glowing orb makes a mockery of east London’s Olympic legacy.” (A legacy corporation spokesperson said the application for the sphere was subject to “robust review” by officers.)
Shortly after Sadiq Khan became mayor in 2016, he increased affordable housing targets across the capital, mandating a level of 35%, and up to 50% on publicly owned land. It has already had an effect on the final Olympic neighbourhoods of Pudding Mill and Rick Roberts Way to the south, which are planned to be denser and contain more affordable, family-oriented housing. But the new targets have also come with unintended consequences: the legacy corporation has bought several homes in Chobham Manor back from Taylor Wimpey at full market price, in a belated attempt to make up the numbers.
Piers Gough, who has served on the legacy planning committee since 2013, feels conflicted about what the quango has presided over. “Most of the housing is nicely done,” he said, “but what has most vexed us on the planning committee is who it’s being done for. I fear we are creating a monoculture of young professionals.” (The legacy corporation insists that 64% of all homes will be “family housing”, although its definition of family-size includes two-bedroom flats.)
“You can’t argue the Olympics hasn’t brought some economic benefits to east London,” said Paul Regan, who was involved with the Olympic bid in 2004 as chair of London Citizens. “But the big failure is that we still have the worst housing conditions in the city.” In the early days of the Olympic project, one of the key things that Regan, Amuzie and others fought for was the inclusion of a community land trust on part of the Olympic site, where the price of homes would be permanently tied to median local income – keeping them affordable for ever. The St Clement’s community land trust, completed in 2017, was built as a test site, but Regan says the commitment has been all but abandoned by the development corporation. “It seemed they felt if they pushed it into the long grass far enough, nobody would notice,” he said. Asked about levels of affordable housing, the legacy corporation said numbers were “influenced” by historic planning permissions. The corporation says it has identified a plot for new land trust homes, and a competition to develop it will be launched later this year. It did not specify how many homes will be built.
Ten years on, the legacy has resulted in a nice park dotted with impressive sports venues and high-end homes, with some cultural attractions on the way. But the poorest and most vulnerable, in what remain London’s most deprived boroughs, have lost out. In terms of social engineering, says one academic, it has been a complete success, “a lovely place for those who can afford it, with people living in desperate poverty right outside it”.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism