How to build a civic Olympic legacy

We need new museums, galleries, concert halls and academic institutions in East London.

The organisers of the Olympics and Paralympics have rightly been applauded, not just for the way the Games themselves were organised but for having gone much further than most other Olympic cities in ensuring that all the investment that went into them makes a lasting contribution. Much, of course, could go wrong, especially if the economy fails to pick up. But the Olympic Park and the surrounding areas are well integrated into London’s public transport system. Many of the big venues have adaptability built into them.  The future of the Athletes' Village, purchased by deep-pocketed developers, looks secure.  And those in charge of the Park say they are committed to ensuring that the new neighbourhoods will set new standards of modern urban design – though given the absence of any ambitious attempts at large scale urban design in London and the poor quality of what has been done, that won’t be hard.

But successful urban quarters are not just a matter of homes, offices, parks, shopping centres and sporting venues.  They also need civic institutions. And that's where the legacy plans currently look weak.  Daniel Moylan, the man Boris Johnson has now put in charge of the Olympic Park and associated legacy projects, has suggested that The Great Exhibition of 1851 provides a good model of what he wants to achieve.  But the most lasting legacy of the Great Exhibition were the museums, galleries, concert halls and academic institutions of South Kensington, with not a swimming pool or running track among them.  

One of the features of Canary Wharf that gives it the tinny, artificial quality it has, is the absence of these sort of institutions. The development has plenty of private gyms, but no libraries, art galleries, colleges, or theatres, with the exception of the nearby Docklands Museum.  And, of course, East London is badly lacking in all these things - or those that it has are largely of local, not national or international significance.  Even the Design Museum, which did draw people from across London, and well beyond, is moving from its outpost in Tower Bridge to the balmier climes of Kensington. 

One of the top priorities for Moylan and his team, then, must be to create a much richer civic landscape in the Stratford area and beyond.  Birkbeck College, true to its pioneering history, is building a large campus in Stratford, but the area would greatly benefit from similar moves by other some of London’s other top rank academic institutions (UCL are considering but have yet to commit). John Lock of the University of East London has argued that Millennium Mills in the Royal Docks would make a very good public home for government art collections, most of which hardly ever see the light of day.  And East London, which has played host to successive waves of migrants, is surely the ideal venue for a new Museum of Migration, to rival New York’s Ellis Island and similar museums around the world.  Given the international character of the Olympics and the ethnic diversity of GB’s Olympic team, that would be a particularly fitting Olympic legacy project and a good cause for some of London’s many migrant millionaires. 

Ben Rogers is the director of the Centre for London at Demos.

Crowds cheer from windows along the route during the London 2012 Victory Parade for Team GB and Paralympic GB athletes. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ben Rogers is the director of the Centre for London think tank, and the author of 10 Ideas for the New Mayor.

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What are the consequences of Brexit for the refugee crisis?

Politicians neglected the refugee crisis whilst campaigning – but they shouldn't now concede to the darker undertones of the debate.

In the chaotic aftermath of Brexit, the refugee crisis seems like a distant memory. Yet not even a year has passed since the body of a young Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach, shocking the world.

When campaigning for the EU referendum began, politicians neglected the crisis. Not because the situation had ameliorated, but because the issue had become strategically toxic. Nigel Farage's infamous poster aside, the Leave side preferred scare stories about economic migrants rather than refugees; the Remain side because the refugee crisis, more than anything else since its inception, highlighted the fragility of the ideals that underpin the European Union.

Many of the main issues aired in the course of the referendum debate were related to the refugee crisis, regardless of how little it impacted on them in reality; immigration, strain on public services, national identity. The refugee crisis became a proxy issue; implied, but not addressed, for fear of detrimental impact in the polls.

However, in his repugnant posters (it should be stressed, nothing to do with Leave campaign itself), Nigel Farage made explicit what he thought posed the greatest threat to the UK. Rightly, the posters have been condemned by both sides of the referendum debate, but the underlying suspicion of refugees it reflects has concerned many organisations.Their concern has only been exacerbated by the result of the referendum. The spike in hate crime compounds their fears.

Paul Dillane, head of UKLGIG, a charity that supports LGBTI asylum seekers to the UK, expressed unease at the reaction of his clients: “The asylum seekers I work with do not understand the decision that has been made – they feel vulnerable, they feel unwelcome. Yes the law hasn’t changed, and if they’re at risk of persecution, they will be protected. But they don’t feel like that now.”

Despite the troubling situation, the result of the referendum changes little when it comes to refugee law. “Refugee policy is shaped in London, not in Brussels”, said Stephen Hale, Chief Executive of Refugees Action. “The decision about how well we support refugees in terms of integration is a matter for the UK, not Brussels. The number of Syrian refugees we choose to resettle is a matter for the UK, not Brussels.”

Although the law may not have changed, from a diplomatic or political perspective, the same cannot be said. This does have the power to negatively impact legislation. Post-Brexit reaction in France surrounding the Touquet Treaty typifies this.

The Touquet Treaty, reached between the UK and France in 2003, permits each country to carry out passport checks on the other countries’ soil. It is what, according to French politicians in Calais, has accelerated the growth of the "Jungle", which currently accommodates close to 5,000 refugees.

Because the agreement was signed outside the auspices of the European Union, Brexit does not affect its legal legitimacy. However, for France, EU membership was crucial to the nature of the agreement. Speaking earlier this year, Harlem Desir, French Secretary of State for European Affairs, said the Touquet Treaty is “a bilaterial agreement. So, there will be no blackmail, nor threat, but it’s true that we cooperate more easily in both being members of the EU.”

Natacha Bouchart, mayor of Calais and a long-time critic of the treaty, has been vocal in her demands for legislative change since the result. Speaking to French broadcaster BGM TV, she said: “The British must take on the consequences of their choice. We are in a strong position to push, to press this request for a review and we are asking the President to bring his weight to the issue.” Some have adopted the slogan of the Leave campaign, telling them to now “take back control of your borders.”

Modification of the Touquet Treaty was branded part of ‘Project Fear’ by the Leave campaign. Because of this, change – if indeed it does happen – needs to be handled carefully by both the British and French governments.

The reaction of Natacha Bouchart is already a worrying sign for refugees. Firstly, it perpetuates the toxic narrative that casts refugees as an inconvenience. And secondly, any souring of relations between the UK and France over Brexit and the Touquet Treaty only increases the likelihood of refugees being used as political bargaining chips in the broader EU crisis over Schengen.

A divided government and disintegrating opposition do little to aid the situation. Furthermore, come October, how likely is a Brexit Tory cabinet – governing off the back of a manifesto predicated on reducing immigration – to extend the support networks offered to refugees? Even before the referendum, Theresa May, a supporter of the Remain campaign, said that Britain should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, replacing it with the more questionable Bill of Rights.

Uncertainty of any kind is the most immediate danger to refugees. “Everyone is talking about it,” said Clare Mosesly, founder of Care4Calais. “But opinions on the impact are divided, which is creating yet more uncertainty.” Refugees, unsure whether Brexit will lead to increased fortification of the border, are prone to take ever more dangerous risks to reach the UK. Even economic uncertainty, seemingly distinct from issues such as the refugee crisis or immigration, has a negative impact. “The thing that worries me about a fragile economy”, said Paul Dillane, “is that when a country’s economy suffers, minorities suffer as well. Tolerance and inclusivity are undermined.”

The government must stress that the welcoming principles and legislation Britain had prior to Brexit remain in place. Andrej Mahecic, from the UNHCR, said “we will continue to rely on the UK’s strong support for humanitarian responses to refugee crises. Our work with the government on the UK’s asylum system and refugee resettlement schemes continues.”

The will from NGOs is there. The political will is less assured. In the aftermath of Brexit, the government must not concede to the darker side of the referendum debate.