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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.