Whose Olympics are they, anyway?

Organisers aren't engaged with the needs of ordinary Londoners.

The Olympics are causing quite a stir, but not in the way you might think. The number of people expressing discontent with the rules and regulations surrounding the event is increasing - from the court case around missiles placed on residents' roofs, to a protest against the closure of a much-used towpath, to a group of activists gearing up for a march on how "big business stole the Olympics".

All this raises questions about the engagement of the Olympic organisers with the needs of ordinary Londoners. In fact, you'd be forgiven for wondering whether these really are the "people's games" after all.

As historian, archaeologist and activist Neil Faulkner recently pointed out, the taxpayer is thought to have forked out £12bn for the event. But it's hard to pin down a reliable figure, and an investigation by Sky News has suggested that the once all costs are taken into consideration the real figure could actually be closer to £24bn. Corporate sponsors have contributed £700m. So why has there been so little apparent consideration for what ordinary people want?

The activist group Counter Olympics Network (CON) accuses the games of being a "showcase of class privilege, corporate power and security wonkery", and this week confirmed a march on 28 July to highlight the issue. "The organisers are only interested in defending their corporate sponsors and their rights because that's what it is - a branding exercise," explains CON's Julian Cheyne.

A good example of the imbalance of interests is the revelation that 95 per cent of the 30 miles of road in central London exclusively reserved for use during the event by the "Games family" of athletes, officials and sponsors will be off-limits to cyclists, a move that's been described by the Environmental Transport Association as "baffling as it dangerous".

To compound the issue, a busy towpath running from Homerton to Bow was closed last Tuesday, sparking a campaign from angry cyclists and residents to get it reopened. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) responded to questions from locals and The Guardian by saying it wanted to deliver a "safe and secure Games." The problem, though, is that the cyclists aren't feeling either of these things.

"Our complaint is that it's going to push people onto busy roads. Personally, my alternative commute involves me going along the A11, a dual carriageway, and over the Bow roundabout where two cyclists were killed last year," says Ruth-Anna Macqueen, co-organiser of Open Our Towpath. She adds that there was no consultation and little real publicity, and that many are confused about the move because there are still plenty of open roads leading up to the site.
"There's a total lack of understanding that some of us use it as others use roads. I don't think they've considered the effect it will have on people - although we don't know because we haven't had any conversation back from LOCOG apart from that statement."

Lack of consultation has also been a problem for the residents whose homes were chosen as the site for surface-to-air missiles. Taking their protest to the High Court, they argued that the move was a  "disproportionate interference" with their human rights. While their bid for either the missile or themselves to be relocated was rejected earlier this week, the fact remains that the sight of such a strong military presence on London homes will be an incongruous one for many.

Faulkner believes that there's been absolutely no engagement with ordinary people throughout the preparations, and that this is because those in charge only represent a small percentage of the population. "It's riddled with class privilege, draped with corporate logos, they're turning the east end into a militarised zone and it's all being run by an unelected quango," he says. "Last time I checked on its website, LOCOG consisted of 19 people - 17 of whom are white men and the only woman on the board is Princess Anne. Half of those white men are business men and the other half have major business interests, so essentially it's an appointed body of white male millionaires completely unaccountable to anyone except the Government."

Meanwhile, Baroness Dee Doocey has called for LOCOG to show greater transparency. She criticises the fact that it held back 14,000 tickets for government officials and its refusal to reveal the proportion of tickets for top events such as the 100m sold to the public when questioned by the London Assembly's economy, sport and culture committee, of which she is the former chair.

She says: "On the one hand LOCOG is doing a brilliant job and I have no doubt at all that they'll produce a brilliant games - and I'm not just saying that - but on the other hand they're hiding behind this private company every time it suits them. You can't take taxpayers' money and hide behind this idea that you're a private company. This is meant to be the people's games."

When asked, LOCOG declined to comment on this story.
 

The Olympic countdown clock in Trafalgar Square at 100 days to go. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.