Trampled by the gold rush

Observations on the London Olympics bid

I was a schoolboy athlete. Not very good, but I progressed from second-to-last in cross-country to winning on sports day and later bathing my town's green and yellow running strip in mediocrity. It's people like me who should bubble with enthusiasm at the prospect of the Olympic Games coming to London.

So why don't I? Hoping that Paris, New York, Moscow or Madrid gets the 2012 Games instead feels like an odd combination of tearing up the office syndicate's winning Lottery ticket and killing Bambi. Who, with his skinny legs and big innocent eyes, looks remarkably like Sebastian Coe, the new chief of the London bid.

Compared to the rest of Britain, London is already spoilt for services. And the first problem about the Games has always been where to put them. The lack of land for things such as essential housing has already forced building out along the increasingly flood-prone Thames gateway. (In planning documents, developers euphemistically refer to the risk of "ponding" up to various floors in proposed buildings.) So the project with no land cast around for the land with no projects. It found the Lower Lea Valley in the East End. To conventional developers it looked perfect - a derelict former industrial brownfield site in a poor part of London. Olympic ambition could combine with urban regeneration for a double win.

But the Lower Lea Valley, as people have been finding out, is anything but the cartoon image of a brownfield site. "Walking along the old River Lea is like walking into another world," says the conservationist Annie Chipchase. Kingfishers abound, sand martins come in summer and reed-beds line the ecologically unique watercourses. The southern end of the Lea has been known as the green lungs for that part of east London for more than 35 years.

One proposed solution, according to the London Wildlife Trust, is simply to relocate the ecosystem. The bid team's engineers have proposed putting in wooden palettes which, in time, would be colonised by the local plants and animals. Then, together with this hitch-hiking wildlife, the palettes would be moved to a "compensation" site. This techno-fix has several problems. Areas that are rich in invertebrates can take a long time to get established and any new microclimate has to be compatible. But the real problem is more prosaic. As Chipchase says, the "compensation" sites are not available.

The Lea Valley has a complex hydrological cycle. But when the Games are over, much more ground will be covered in concrete, the ecological equivalent of having piles. The river will be left with little more than a grass verge.

The local business ecosystem faces similar problems. It is estimated that 350 businesses will need to be relocated. Scrap-metal merchants and bus depots are the sorts of business that people don't really want to live next to. So where will they go? For economic regeneration to be effective, it has to be grown out of the local community. Parachuting in an architect's leisure-services wet dream can easily create a windswept urban nightmare.

"We're not saying there should be no regeneration, just asking how it should be done," says Jenny Schofield of the wild-life trust. "I'm not sure the Olympics can do it." As for the local people, what say will they have in this grand project?

Precedents suggest that promises made at the bidding stage do not always survive into the final plan. Following Sydney, London promotes itself as the "green Games". But in Sydney, an environmental plan for the Olympic village, which helped win the Games, was then ditched. In London, the whole thing could in any case be fast-tracked through the normal consultation procedures under special rules for the Thames Gateway Urban Development Corporation.

A small cautionary tale sits on the doorstep of the proposed site for the London Olympics. Bow Creek Ecology Park, complete with reed-beds and public footpaths, was meant to be a major part of the environmental legacy of the London Docklands Development Corporation from the 1980s. Years later, public access is still virtually impossible. You can get in only if you happen to have a hard hat and can find a site manager to take you round.

Andrew Simms is policy director of the New Economics Foundation

Next Article