Spanning an area of 500 acres and endowed with over 900 surveillance cameras, the Olympic security fence is an aggressive demarcation of a 'post-political non-place'. Born from a conscious manipulation of UK planning legislation, what does this ‘exceptional example’ tell us about historical and future threats to public space in Britain?
This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?' .
As the Olympic orgy of Lycra-wearing, fist-pumping and synchronised television watching gets underway, the vexed question of what the true legacy of the 2012 games might be lingers nervously in the background. Concerns over legacy - along with vague claims of sustainability - were crucial in clinching the bid for London over its nearest rival Paris. Visions of this legacy vary widely, from the politicians’ hoped-for bonanza of property development, to the deserted Olympic landscapes familiar from Athens and Beijing. Amidst this speculation one thing can be certain: London will be left with a fence, an eleven mile long glistening steel security cordon, topped with 5,000 volt electrical razor wire.
Enclosing some 500 acres of previously accessible land, the Olympic security barrier is by some measure the most significant physical structure to have been constructed for the Games, and yet it remains eerily absent from official literature and discussion. The fence is far from invisible, and creates the unmistakable atmosphere of a prison camp as it snakes along the Lea Valley. A stroll along the perimeter to take in the 900 CCTV cameras, crash-proof steelwork and concrete foundations also suggests that this is no temporary structure. The question must therefore be asked: When will Londoners be allowed back in? Or are we witnessing an unprecedented annexation of urban territory, executed under the guise of a sporting festival?
The security rationale for the fence is not hard to fathom in the context of the wider military roll-out of surveillance drones, biometric testing, and expanded CCTV networks. Like these other technologies its deployment is being tested at the Games but is likely to remain at least partially in use long afterwards. At an estimated cost of £80m it might even be thought relatively cheap in the context of an overall security budget of more than £500m. The earliest planned relaxation of this steel cordon will be in July 2013, when the new ‘Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park’ is due to open. Despite its name, the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) has refused to grant Royal Park status to the area, a move which would have defined it as public land. The intimidating permanence of the fence suggests that access to the park will be carefully regulated, in an echo of earlier London traditions of gated parks constructed for private estates.
The private estates and squares of the nineteenth century have openly been touted as the model for the further 8,000 homes that are planned: promotional images from the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) show a restrained architecture of nostalgic neo-Georgian modernism. These homes will be added to the 2,800 already constructed in the athletes’ village, which were paid for out of public funds after the developer pulled out in 2008 and are now part-owned by the Qatari royal family. The athletes’ village will be re-branded after the Games and sold-off as part of the new and entirely private postcode of E20, a post-political non-place where you can pay your council tax to Hackney or Newham, but have no public rights to the street outside your door.
Having provided the enormous initial outlay of funds to construct the park and Olympic facilities, the state is now entirely reliant on the private sector to realise these new developments; yet property developers are sure to be more parsimonious with their investments than the government has been with the public purse. Policy has remained wedded to the idea that massive housing shortages can be satisfied by property markets, though experience in London has invariably proved the opposite, as developers tend to sit on sites and drip feed supply in order to keep prices buoyant. In a climate of falling wages and ever-tightening mortgage finance, land owners such as Barratt Homes and Lend Lease are likely to hold off construction until external factors intervene, such as an up-lift in the East London property market, or the completion of the Cross-rail project which is still several years away. The Stratford International office development that is planned to wrap around the Westfield shopping mall appears even more vulnerable, with the better situated King's Cross regeneration project soon to deliver large swathes of empty commercial floor-plate onto the market.
The result will be empty construction sites and voids in the city - temporarily secured and fenced at public expense. Such predictions of inactivity might seem pessimistic when situated in a part of London that is experiencing severe housing shortages. To unravel this paradox a basic question must be addressed: housing for whom exactly? Local boroughs of Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham contain some of the poorest wards in the city, with many residents forced to rely on the sharp end of the private rental market due to the lack of social housing provision. Stories abound of multiple families crowded into decaying houses, with modern day slumlords renting out garden sheds and even commercial fridges. There is no need to study the promotional images of the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), with their luminous greensward, tropical skies and happy photo-shoppers, to realise that low-income residents of the Olympic boroughs are not the target market for these developments. The actual definition of the much-touted affordable rented housing is also open to question, as affordability has been defined as 80% of market rates that are already far beyond the reach of most locals.
If we really are witnessing a modern day form of enclosure, how could this have been achieved without massive public outcry? The initial sleight of hand was the blue plywood fence which mysteriously appeared in 2007 and became at once a symbol for the democratic opacity of the Olympic process and a blank canvas for expressions of artistic dissent – off-message subversions that were swiftly erased by ODA vans bearing buckets of blue paint. While the initial evictions and displacements did create some protest, the justification for the subsequent fence was easier to make. The site was to become a churning landscape of construction, with much of the soil requiring preliminary decontamination. Construction sites of course need to be hoarded off for public safety, but at the Olympic park this initial kernel of common sense became the rationale for continued enclosure, as the blue plywood skin was moulted to reveal the more permanent steel barrier behind.
Key to the implementation of this strategy is the use of risk assessments and health and safety procedures as concealment tactics, administered on your behalf by an unaccountable technocracy. By assigning private responsibility for health and safety to individual building contractors, the ODA could establish the precedent of the fence as a physical structure without risk of dissent through the planning process. Nor would such dissent have proved fruitful, as the planning proposal for the Olympics site bypassed the surrounding local authorities, with the ODA acting as both applicant and decision-making body in a bizarrely staged dress-rehearsal of normal democratic procedure. The official planning submission, made in 2006, contains a total of 1,071 viewable public documents - a huge quantity of technical information to dump onto an unsuspecting public, especially with only a two-week window provided for objection. In a search of approximately 100 drawings I could only find one document depicting the fence. This is a map produced by the ODA in which it is marked in a cheerful light orange line and labelled ‘illustrative crowd control barrier’, much as if it were temporary railings for a Pink Floyd reunion, arriving by truck in the morning. That an 11 mile-long militarised barrier with such a profound impact on the urban landscape could be deemed ‘illustrative’ is remarkable.
Anyone who has had the builders in knows how they tend to out-stay their welcome, colonising the house with camps of tea, biscuits and old newspapers. It would be an unexpected and far more sinister turn if they then refused to let you back in on grounds of your own health and safety and electrified the garden wall for good measure. This analogy might not be so far-fetched given that no schedule for removal of the fence has been provided. In this sense the Olympic regeneration project represents a significant expansion of processes of privatised, controlled urban development pioneered in London at Broadgate in the 1980s and Canary Wharf in the 1990s. It therefore sets a dangerous precedent that territory can be carved up and secured into exclusionary zones without the scrutiny of democratic process.
Whether the Olympic fence turns out to be a crude implement in a new landscape of Orwellian control, or dissolves and fragments over time remains to be seen. In either scenario one prediction can be made: public consent will not be required.