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Olympic village or private new town?

London’s Olympic construction projects are shrouded in the most obtuse vagueries of UK planning legislation. But the implications of this go far beyond urban development – revealing the increasing subservience of representative democracy to the whims of private capital.  

This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.

The aspiration for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is to create a new part of London. In an inspired piece of marketing a new postcode of E20 has been created for the area spanning the Olympic Park and Stratford City, which is the same postcode as that given to the fictional district of Walford in the soap opera Eastenders.

Within the park up to 11,000 new homes in five adjoining districts are planned which is effectively the size on a new town. The difference with the rest of London is that it will be a private new town, or more accurately a number of privately run places. Just as the Olympic Park is not a public park but privately run, these new communities will not be accountable to local government but will be privately governed by separate communities.

These are fundamental changes of great importance to local people. But yet again, despite the rhetoric of local consultation, local people have not been consulted in any meaningful way and when they ask questions no information is forthcoming.

A London Citizens director who has been involved in the consultation process is highly critical of the Olympic Park Legacy Committee’s ‘roadshow’ approach to consultations carried out by private contractors. He believes that ‘The reason they do these consultation sessions is so that they can present their current thinking. But it’s very much done and dusted. There’s no real check on progress, no option to recall. There are no answers to questions people put such as “what do you mean by affordable housing?” and “who will I be paying my council tax to?”’ he says.

In contrast, London Citizens have carried out their own consultations, involving feedback from thousands of local residents, which found that the question of governance was very much at the top of local concerns. ‘The park is intersected by three boroughs but all services are going to be run by the Park and administered by the Park, yet the Park is not accountable to the people that live there. It is bizarre that in that area people will be paying council tax without real community representation. These are the concerns that came out of the consultation but questions like that have not been broached successfully’, he says.

This was also my experience when I tried to put these questions to the Legacy Company, which is the body that currently oversees the park, although it will be replaced by a Mayoral Development Corporation after the Games. Unfortunately I was unable to find out more about the implications of the private ownership of the area because the Legacy Company was unwilling to discuss it with me. After weeks of unanswered emails I was asked to submit a list of questions. A press officer responded that ‘our Executive Directors are very busy and in terms of the level of detail you want to go into it is too early to tell.’

Baroness Ford, chair of the Legacy Company, has often talked of the company’s role as evolving a ‘great London estate’ in the manner of landowners such as Grosvenor. In interviews, Ford has said she aspires to create a great estate in the tradition of London’s Belgravia or South Kensington, two of the capital’s most affluent areas. The ‘Homes’ section of the Legacy Company website – with the strapline ‘Inspired by the best of London’s heritage – is accompanied by a picture of an elegant Georgian terrace.

Quite apart from the suitability of creating Belgravia in the heart of Newham, this is misleading on a number of levels. When advocates of privately owned estates point to the Georgian squares and terraces built by the Dukes and Earls who controlled London in the early nineteenth century, they omit to mention that this was a pre-democratic model. Today the Georgian streets and squares are part of the fabric of the city, but what is no longer visible is that these places were once barricaded and closed to the public […]

While the Legacy Company claimed not to know the details of the future governance of such a large part of London, the situation at the Athlete’s Village – which, confusingly, is not part of the Legacy Company’s remit - may shed some light on what will happen in the future. As the ODA’s Paul Hartman told me, the village ‘will be privately owned to maintain with the community, the environment they wish to live and work in’. So it is clear that this will be a private estate, but the multiplicity of quangos, agencies, special purpose vehicles and private developers involved, makes it very difficult to determine who will be accountable for its future governance.

Samantha Heath, from London Sustainability Exchange, has been involved with the Athlete’s Village from the start. She explains what happened: ‘When this was designed there were no proper governance procedures. The governance of the streets and how the rubbish would be disposed of – these were issues right from the start. We had no councilors to go to, it was very spurious who the governance authorities were going to be. Lend Lease is just in there as a builder. The issue is, we need to get governance right from the start. Who owns the streets? We need to know that from the beginning’.

The above extract was taken from GROUND CONTROL: Fear and happiness in the twenty-first-century city by Anna Minton, published by Penguin. Copyright © Anna Minton 2009. The book is available to purchase here.  

About the author

Anna Minton is a writer and journalist and the author of Ground Control. A new edition, with a chapter on the true legacy of the Olympics, is published by Penguin.


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