By Suzannah.Brecknell

12 Feb 2013

As the Olympics fade from memory, the legacy goals could also slip away – leaving London, like Athens, with a pricey herd of white elephants. Suzannah Brecknell tests the cross-Whitehall effort to reap the Games’ rewards.

Six months ago we were a nation riding high: a people revelling in the somewhat unexpected fact that not only were the London 2012 Olympics running smoothly, but Brits were actually winning rather a lot of medals. For many people, however, the Games were always about more than sport. Former London mayor Ken Livingstone, for one, championed the London bid in part because it was tied in to regeneration of the Lower Lea Valley in East London.

This was a key promise in the original bid documents, and remained a priority for the coalition government: in his first major speech as prime minister, David Cameron said: “Let’s make sure the Olympics 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.” Having delivered the Games on time and to budget, can the UK now ensure that the London 2012 Olympics are remembered for more than unexpected sporting success and sunshine?

Full of promise
The first detailed set of legacy goals were outlined by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) in 2007 (see box at the bottom of the page). Under a broad commitment to “transform the heart of East London”, the department said it would “transform place” with a programme to regenerate acres of land and build infrastructure in the region; “transform communities” by building new houses and amenities; and “transform prospects” through skills and employment programmes targeted at long-term unemployed and disadvantaged groups.

The regeneration promises have most obviously focused on the 560 acres of Olympic Park – which will become home to five new neighbourhoods over the next 20 years, according to a ‘Park Vision’ plan published in 2010 by the Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC). Later this year the park will be re-opened and renamed the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, eventually providing – among other amenities – 11,000 new homes, sporting facilities for elite and community groups, and the largest urban park in Europe.

But the park is just the tip of the iceberg. The real prize will be to transform the economic and social prospects of the six host boroughs: Hackney; Newham; Tower Hamlets; Barking and Dagenham; Greenwich; and Waltham Forest. In 2009 these boroughs published a joint Strategic Regeneration Framework (SRF) which sets out their ultimate aim of ‘convergence’: “Within 20 years the communities which host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games will enjoy the same social and economic chances as their neighbours across London”. The SRF have set out a number of indicators to track this, from life expectancy and violent crime levels to street cleanliness, unemployment rates, and the proportion of 19-year-olds achieving NVQs.

Who’s who
Among the reasons for the Olympics’ success, according to an Institute for Government (IfG) report published last month (see also round table, p20), was the clarity over the roles and remits of the various bodies involved, However, the report suggested that this was less evident when it came to delivering on legacy commitments: “The main messages emerging from our research are that there was dispersed responsibility for legacy as a whole [and] no dedicated budget, with Whitehall machinery not being used effectively to get political buy-in and commitment to making legacy work”.

There is now a Whitehall structure in place: in August 2012, the prime minister appointed Seb Coe – the former head of the Games’ organising committee – as a ‘legacy ambassador’ to drive and oversee progress towards the legacy goals across government. He is supported by a small team in the Cabinet Office, comprising secondees from across government and the London Mayor’s Office. This team also serves a new cabinet committee dedicated to overseeing legacy work, chaired by the prime minister. According to Emma Boggis, head of the Cabinet Office’s Olympic legacy team, this sends a clear message that the government is taking legacy promises seriously and provides “a very easy way of holding departments to account” on legacy promises.

Despite the initial lack of clarity, London’s legacy has been much more carefully planned than was the case in most previous Olympics. The OPLC was set up in 2009 to oversee delivery of the regeneration promises, whilst in Athens – admittedly a byword for poor legacy planning – the OJEU advert for legacy partners was placed on the day of the Games’ opening ceremony. In fact, the OPLC’s creation, says then-Olympics minister Tessa Jowell, was in part “a response to the sight of white elephants in Athens” and the realisation that “legacy promises was one of the things against which we would be judged.”

Nonetheless, the legacy governance has not enjoyed quite the same sense of stability and continuity of leadership as did the Games’ delivery. Dr Penny Bernstock, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of East London, notes that “there has already been a huge turnover of agencies...[and] all those involved in the first phase have been replaced.”

The London Development Agency, which had played a role in supporting regeneration, was abolished in 2010. In 2012, the OPLC was replaced by the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), set up as a ‘mayoral development agency’ under new powers created by the 2011 Localism Act. The new company is directly accountable to the mayor of London, rather than to central government, and has a range of powers – including some planning powers – enabling it to act as a combined developer, landowner and planning authority for the new communities set to be created in the Olympic Park.

Progress so far
Despite this change, LLDC deputy chairman Neale Coleman – previously an adviser to both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson – defends the pre-Games work on legacy. Indeed, the signs are that London will not be lumbered with the kind of abandoned and crumbling facilities which dot the Greek capital. The LLDC had let post-Games contracts for six of the eight Olympic venues before the Games began; and even before the LLDC was created the Olympic Delivery Authority had sold the Athletes Village to a Qatari developer, which intends to reopen it as housing in 2014. Last month, LLDC announced that concert organisers Live Nation will use the Olympic stadium for major music festivals and gigs. This, says Jowell, is “an imaginative decision which speaks to public confidence” in the park.

Behind all these venues lies a bigger success story: the transformation of derelict and polluted land to create the park, and a huge investment in infrastructure – particularly transport links, both in the area and across London. Coleman says that the importance of this investment “cannot be overstated”, a view echoed by Australian architect Elizabeth Farelly. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in August last year, she argued that these transport links will help our Olympic venues to become successful communities: legacy depends not on architecture, she said, but on “connectivity decisions; location, urban fabric, transport”.

These infrastructure investments were not without detractors – especially among those who were forced from their homes to make way for the Olympic Park and surrounding regeneration work. And not all of the land in which the park now sits had been derelict: community gardens and relatively unspoilt parts of the Hackney marshes were also swept up in the development. Bernstock cautions that as regeneration projects continue there is a “real risk that local people feel marginalised,” and a need for “mechanisms that more fully involve a range of local interests in decision-making – not just consulting them, but actually including them at the decision-making table.”

Economic benefit
As well as the physical changes, the government believes that the Olympics have had an economic impact on East London. “We can already see the benefits in terms of people getting employment in that part of the city, and maybe being able to ride out the recession a little bit better as a consequence of that,” says Deirdre McGonagle, currently on secondment from the Mayor of London’s office to lead the East London workstream in the Cabinet Office legacy team.

An interim evaluation of progress on legacy promises, published in November 2012 and funded by the culture department, reported that by last May 5,241 host borough residents had been employed in the demolition and build of the Olympic Park; 612 residents by Locog directly; and a further 12,458 by providers of Games services such as hospitality, catering, ticketing and logistics.

Coleman also points to economic benefits from another investment that wouldn’t have been made – “or at least not to timetable” – without the Games: the creation of Stratford City shopping centre. Developers Westfield “have been quite clear they would never have done it without the Games,” he says, and the centre has “done a huge amount to transform Stratford.” It’s created “10,000 new jobs – 2,000 for the long-term unemployed – and some new employers in that area [which are] doing some fantastic work in the community, in skills and showing the way for the future.”

Making communities a success
Asked by CSW what he sees as the biggest challenge to the ongoing regeneration work, Coleman replies that it’s a problem which “faces every substantial regeneration project”: ensuring that the benefits generated have a broad impact, reaching local residents and deprived groups as well as those more easily able to access new housing and facilities. Speaking to CSW after the IfG event, he suggests that the solutions lie in maintaining the right levels and types of affordable housing in new communities; bringing jobs as well as housing into the developments; and running effective skills and employment projects in the area.

The latter, he suggests, has already been done well in job brokerage schemes in the park and with Westfield and its retailer tenants. He hopes that lessons from these programmes – such as providing very detailed information on job roles to local FE colleges, which can then tailor training courses accordingly – can be transferred to planned work with new employers coming into the park.

The LLDC will also use its land to meet local needs for better services, says Coleman; for example, he hopes to build new schools to address a shortage of school places in the area. In the East Village – the former Athletes Village – there are plans to include a school and health centre among the homes and shops.

Building these services, however, is not the end of the story. Lord Mawson, an experienced social entrepreneur who also sits on the board of LLDC, says that making sure new services work together and flourish is key to success: in East Village “you have a school, a health centre, a whole range of houses with a very good developer coming on board,” he says. “But the real challenge, as we’ve discovered in [nearby neighbourhood transformation scheme] St Paul’s Way, is to connect the health centre and the school and the housing to create a dynamic, animated place.”

The UEL’s Bernstock is cautiously positive about the East Village plans. It could be a “jewel in the crown in housing legacy terms,” she says. “One of the few examples of a mixed neighbourhood, with inclusive design and [high] quality of agencies involved.” Though she notes that the “mix of housing was the unanticipated result of market failure and not design” – the government had to step in after the first set of plans fell through during the credit crunch – she adds that developers Qatari Diar will “have to stick around and make it work,” since most of the homes will be rented and Qatari will retain ownership. This is the first such scheme – a private sector residential fund managed as an investment – in the UK, and Coleman says it’s something many developers in London have been keen to try for many years. There has also been a “huge amount of investment in relation to community development,” says Bernstock, though even this has risks: notably that different community development agencies involved may not join up their work effectively.

A question of affordability
Bernstock raises another risk in the plans for the new communities. “All the money has been spent on the Games,” she says, “with little left for legacy – and much of this committed to infrastructure projects.” The 2008 credit crunch meant that the Olympic development was more reliant on public funding than originally planned. While a large contingency fund ensured that the Games didn’t go over budget, the overspend put increased pressure on the LLDC and its partners to recoup investment through the sale and leasing of new developments. Bernstock suggests financial pressure is one reason why there is a “weakened commitment to affordable housing” within the new neighbourhoods. Affordable housing is “increasingly difficult to finance”, she adds – a result of massive cuts to government funding – “but it’s important not to compromise on original legacy goals in order to pay back debt.”

The current target is that a third of new homes across the park will be affordable – a lower figure than the initial bid’s promise of one half. In Chobham Manor – the second new community to open – there will be just 25 per cent affordable homes. Coleman says that LLDC is committed to providing 20-35 per cent affordable housing across the new developments, and “even the lower end of that is more than most schemes are achieving elsewhere, so we can make quite a big contribution to meeting housing need in the area.”

“Obviously, this has an implication for the receipt that we will get,” he adds. “There’s a balance to be struck between getting the best financial return for the public sector, and meeting some broad objectives around affordable housing and other community benefits.”

The future
The Cabinet Office’s Boggis suggests that one of the biggest challenges for the ongoing legacy work will be the economic backdrop. “We’d all like to be in a position where money was available to do anything that anyone wanted to do, but we have to be realistic about the environment we’re in,” she says. “Departments will inevitably have difficult decisions to make, and it’s our task to make sure that they’re thinking about the impact on the legacy”. Keeping legacy promises in everyone’s minds will be increasingly difficult as national attention shifts away from the Olympic Park, says Boggis: “It is a long-term plan. Clearly the momentum on the back of the Games is strongest soon after them, because people still talk about ‘last summer’,” says Boggis. “When it’s no longer ‘last summer’, then it will be harder.” So the next 12 months will be crucial in deciding whether we fully realise the potential of the Olympic Games as a catalyst for change.

Coleman, too, mentions the importance of milestones such as successfully re-opening the park; hosting the summer concerts; and delivering the first new housing estates – all events that will refocus attention on Stratford as an exciting, successful area. Mawson is keen to point out that “we’re 25 years into a 50-year regeneration story in East London: a story which began with 1980s Docklands developments, and of which the Olympics are just one part.” But the Olympic effect is undeniable: successful delivery has generated goodwill, and the opportunity to engage local interests as well as resource-pressed agencies and departments. Those working on legacy must balance their long-term vision with a short-term urgency to make the most of the momentum generated last summer.

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