London Olympics: How have the last seven years treated Newham?

The borough of Newham has yet to see that many gains from hosting the Olympics.

The Olympics were sold, both in the bid to the IOC and in the promise to Britons and Londoners, as games of regeneration. This may have been over-ambitious from the start; Olympics which turn a profit are rare. For every Atlanta 1996 or LA 1984, games which turned a slim and not-so-slim profit, respectively, with the help of massive commercialisation, there are ones like the 1974 Montreal games, which left the city in debt to the tune of CA$1bn and took 20 years to pay off.

Nonetheless, in 2005, in that day of euphoria between winning the games on the sixth and the London bombs bringing the city crashing down to earth on the seventh, Jack Straw told the House of Commons that:

The games will transform one of the poorest and most deprived areas of London. They will create thousands of new jobs and homes. They will offer new opportunities for business in the immediate area and throughout London.

A new study, performed jointly between Elizabeth Finn Care and the LSE, aims to see whether the 2012 Games will live up to the lofty promises made about them. The research looks at the borough of Newham, within which much of the Olympic park, and the stadium itself, is situated, and although the full results won't be available until August 2013, preliminary results have been made available already.

Straw's focus on jobs and homes isn't reflected quite so well on the ground. Despite the megaproject being constructed on its doorstep, as well as the opening of Westfield Stratford City, the largest inner-city shopping centre in Western Europe, Newham was hit harder than the rest of London by the recession. Unemployment increased by 44 per cent in the borough, from an already-high base of 13.7 per cent; the city as a whole started from 8.8 per cent unemployment, which then increased by just over a fifth.

Employment may be down amongst residents, but employers are up; the borough saw an increase of 6 per cent in the number of enterprises over the period of 2008 to 2011, even while England was seeing a 4 per cent decrease.

When it comes to homes, there has been an ongoing decrease in council housing stock since 2005, from 22,992 down to 17,547 by 2012, and that offset by the increase in housing association stock, which rose by just over 2,200 to 13,065 homes. That situation at least is expected to improve markedly after the Olympics are through, when the Athlete's Village is converted 3,000 more local flats.

While more jobs and more homes are unabiguously good, there are other measures which resist an easy value judgement. Private rents in Newham remain much lower than the London average, and particularly low when compared to other Olympic boroughs. The mean monthly rent for a two bedroom property in the borough is £833, compared to £1196 in neighboring Tower Hamlets; but for the residents of Newham that news is obviously something to celebrate, even though it is assuredly an indicator of the borough's continuing poverty. Similarly, the increase in house prices in the borough has been a tenth of that London-wide; the average house is worth 3.5 per cent more than it was in 2005, but across the capital that figure is 32.5 per cent. Again, a mark of the continued problems the borough is having, but also a sign that, unlike many boroughs in the city, the children of Newham stand a chance of being able to live in the area they grew up in.

The lead researcher, LSE's Professor Anne Power CBE, agrees, saying:

We should be glad there are parts of London where prices are still modest... what we're trying to do [in improving the quality of life in Newham] is not displace people.

It is very easy to identify a borough with an geographical area – that is, after all, what they are – but improving Newham must mean more than just building homes for wealthier people to move into. The real test of the success of the Olympics will be if the people in Newham in 2005  are still there in 2013, and better off for it.

The Olympic stadium and the Orbit thing. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt