Alan White's Olympics diary: Once the Olympic razzmatazz has gone, what do we want to be left with?

Our Games have been great, but if we want to reap the rewards, we have to be honest about the failings.

(Note: as this is a rather long blog, I’ve divided it in half, so if you’re midway through and wondering about putting the kettle on, your chance will come).

On Tuesday night, Newsnight ran a report which asked questions about the sporting legacy of the Games, and about the fact local businesses from the boroughs surrounding the Olympic Park had yet to see any benefits. Twitter did not like.

One journalist, with whom I agree on many things, wrote: “Proof that the Olympics are a great success? Newsnight starts whining that catering contracts have gone to the wrong people.” Another: “You know all that joy and triumph [...] Newsnight think[s] it’s elitist and bigoted.”

Now I’ve loved the Olympics: it’s been an almighty, joyous event that’s made me feel like I’m 15 again. But then as a 15-year-old I once smoked so much weed I thought Kula Shaker were good, and in retrospect that wasn’t the moment of revelation I thought it was either.

You see, it’d be easy to dismiss the whole shebang as a confidence trick perpetrated by a corrupt mandarinate backed by greedy multinationals, neither of whom could give a toss about the actual sport, which sees them storming into cities and leaving them half-devastated before skipping back to a tax-free nirvana to digest their canapés. It’d be very easy to do this because it’s true, but I still think we can take a more positive message from all this.

So why don’t we start with the Return on Investment? Anyone remember the economic boost we were promised? There were positives – the infrastructure, the jobs created due to the building of the Olympic Park - but whether or not that’s the most efficient way for the government to create growth is somewhat open to debate. There was always more than enough research to suggest that for all the bells and whistles, the Olympics won’t make you any money.

But it’s hard to know what’s going on to an untrained eye, which given we last hosted them in 1948, is pretty much everyone’s. When the Games started, journalists wrote scores of stories about lost trade in the capital based on rigorous research that included quoting vague figures from Experian and talking to some shop managers, who surprisingly all whinged about how crap things were, apparently due to overcautious warnings from TFL. 

On top of that, millions of people weren’t going into their offices, which not only cost the West End; it damaged the entire economy, assuming they spent their days watching TV and eating Jaffa Cakes like I do when working from home.

Then some more data was released, which actually showed a slight footfall rise in the centre of town. The initial story died down. We were left with one credible revelation: journalists are to retail economics as chimpanzees are to quantum physics, except they generally wash less.

There was one effect they could have focused on, but didn’t: the impact on local traders. Look at this blog on how tourists were inadvertently driven away from the independent traders of Hackney with such incompetence that you can hardly blame the locals for suspecting the sponsors had been pulling strings. Maybe the tourists would prefer a Big Mac and a Wenlock figure to an organic coffee or a pair of hemp trousers, but let’s give them the choice, at least.

Others must gain, right? Well, perhaps in the really immediate vicinity – but look at how badly the traders of Forest Gate have been doing. It’s hardly surprising people don’t want to go window-browsing in a road that’s got far too many fried chicken outlets and betting shops, but now that there’s a gleaming new Westfield in Stratford, it’s even less likely.

Ok, those traders don’t have business models that are going to give Philip Green sleepless nights, but given the government had parked a tank on their lawn it’s unfair to tell them to carry on watering the hydrangeas as usual. There were little things that could have been done to help – evening markets and entertainment, bringing in higher end stores so you cater for different sections of the economy, even just offering mentoring support to businesses. They got nothing.

Still, at least the Games have been a golden opportunity for local businesses to deliver services and supply produce. Oh: bugger. Tuesday’s Newsnight also featured a disgruntled small catering business owner who’d bid for an Olympic catering contract and been turned down. She said it felt like the initial encouragement for the likes of her to apply had been a token gesture. The statistics bear her out – fewer than 20 per cent of the Games’ employees came from surrounding boroughs.

I’m not saying stuff like this had to be the number one priority, or even that there’s a clear solution – but following the riots a year ago even hardline right-wingers were conceding that actually, yes, there are some amazingly stark gradations between poverty and wealth in our inner cities and ok, maybe that doesn’t exactly help with social integration and – ooh look, the Queen’s just jumped out of a helicopter.

Ah, but what about the long-term benefits? Well, David Cameron predicts (using his ever-reliable economic crystal ball) a £13bn return over four years, which sounds just fabulous until you remember the bill for this has just topped £12bn. So we make 1bn? Great. Civil servants can piss that up the wall using just their credit cards.

Time to put the kettle on.

Economically this was never going to be a silver bullet. But that wasn’t the point – it was always about more than that. What about the sporting legacy? Australia, Greece and Spain have all hosted the Games and we all laughed on Sunday when they had one gold between them. Fools: no legacy plan, clearly. Well, maybe it’s not so simple. I like bullet pointed lessons (ex-teacher, see), so:

1. There is a gap between the performance of elite athletes and the sporting health of the nation.

It is perfectly possible for us to dominate international sport while being a country full of lardbuckets who occasionally need winching out of our houses. Note: I’m not proposing this as a legacy aim.

Last year we beat India 4-0 in cricket Tests. This is a country of a billion people who are totally mad about the game, and play impromptu games in alleyways etc, while our grassroots structure is felt to consist of half a dozen public schools and some grumpy men in Yorkshire telling their sons not to hit the ball too hard. These perceptions are totally exaggerated, but contrast with football - which we know loads of kids play and at which we basically suck, even when taking into account the ludicrous levels of expectation.

2. So you have to ask: on what is it you’re focusing?

UK Sport has done a very good job with our athletes and their progress will undoubtedly inspire, but there’s a controversial (read: very simplistic) argument that says taking all their funding away and putting it into kids’ sports at this moment of great enthusiasm would be best. Yes, we’d probably only win a bronze in trap shooting come 2016, but by 2020 things would be rosy and we wouldn’t even be reliant on all those outmoded-forms-of-transport events.

I don’t really buy this, but consider this line in an email from a mate of mine who works behind the scenes:

“There is a not insignificant part of me that thinks ‘well this is all a bit silly really’. There’s a fine line between inspiring people/achieving excellence/national pride and wondering why we’re using aerospace technology and wind tunnels to make people ride a bicycle round a track a bit faster.”

This from a guy who makes cold hard money when we do well. That’s the real question – are we hoping to create successful or enthusiastic athletes? Because there’s no straight line between the two.

3. Having done that you’ve got your priorities straight – or have you?

Let’s assume we care about the kids, not the medals. After Lord Moynihan’s comments on the dominance of privately educated athletes, it seems a simple set up. Private schools have money, so they have facilities and coaches. Ergo, what we need is more cash. Now what do we need to spend it on?

Loads of playing fields? I’d suggest not. More money is needed for facilities, clearly, but do we need to offer more sports options in schools? Perhaps, but contrary to much coverage the average secondary school already offers 25 sports, including things like judo, badminton and cycling.

And we thereby spark another debate: maybe the private schools aren’t doing better due to their facilities at all - maybe it’s the culture. Again, it’s far more complex than that – it depends on the school and the sport. While I know of some fair-play horror stories that would get Charlotte Leslie MP very excited, I’d also point you to the response given by Jessica Ennis when asked if school sports needed to be more competitive. They need to be more fun, she replied.

Ok then, maybe as David Cameron says, the problem’s with the teachers. To be brutally frank when I was teaching I have to confess I didn’t want to spend my Saturday mornings working on a scissors drill with the U12s – but there were many men and women, far better people than I, who did, and crucially, they weren’t just teachers, but parents and local club coaches.

That’s why the government has to look again at the axing of the School Sports Partnership. Gove’s suspicion of it is a classic bit of ideology before experience. It’s this recent measure, above all, that will devastate the sporting lives of children. The clubs need the members (the income of local sports clubs and charities fell 15 per cent in real terms since 2004) and the members need the clubs. It’s that simple.

Private school domination is partly about access, but that access doesn’t just extend to a river to row on, a horse, or a shiny sailboat – it’s about the fact that money buys you time. It buys you time in terms of coaches and teachers for your school who can look all those activities after-hours and on weekends. And there’s a more subtle form of time too: less well-off children don’t always have parents with the time to ferry them around, not like this anyway. While I feel time is the biggest missing component, if we don’t like the fact that private schools have all the land and all the clobber, then force them to share it (there are already incentives out there which mean many do: let’s firm them up).

Having said all this, it now seems laughable to conclude in this manner: the Games have been great, in all sorts of unquantifiable ways. They’ve changed how we’ve seen ourselves as a nation. They could have untold benefits for all sorts of different people. But we need to be honest about what they truly are. Only then will we reap the rewards.

Odds and Ends is having another day off.


The Games have been great, in all sorts of unquantifiable ways. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.