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.