Olympic legacy shows in 'transformed' outpost

By Emily Dugan

Infrastructure put to good use but employment yet to pick up, MP says.

The Olympic Stadium will house various tournaments in the years ahead. Pictures / AP
The Olympic Stadium will house various tournaments in the years ahead. Pictures / AP

A group of east London teenagers were among those streaming towards a gleaming new Stratford Underground station after the fireworks had faded at the Opening Ceremony on July 27, 2012.

They had been given last-minute tickets to the ceremony and were excited, but too savvy to swallow all of the hype about regeneration in their backyard.

Tarome Hemmings, a 19-year-old student from Hackney, summed up their reservations. "It feels like you're part of history to be here. But we need to make sure that the legacy is more than just talk."

Almost a year later and that gleaming station is still one of the most tangible signs that the Games provided something more than talk for east London. The infrastructure improvements to what had previously been a forgotten far-eastern outpost of the capital have been phenomenal.

The Olympics brought more than 9 billion ($17 billion) of investment to east London, much of it in transport.

Stratford is now second only to King's Cross as the most connected part of London.

As well as two Underground lines, a high-speed "javelin" train to King's Cross and the Docklands Light Railway, it may soon be a stop-off for the Eurostar to Paris.

"A lot of major developments and improvements have been moving eastwards in the capital for decades now," Dennis Hone, chief executive of the London Legacy Development Corporation, said.

"I'm in my 50s and I remember the East End when if you lived on the Isle of Dogs you had to get two buses to get to Stratford to shop. Now it's transformed."

The second of the five legacy pledges made in Britain's pitch for the Games was that it would "transform the heart of east London". At the Olympic Park site - now the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park - there is tangible evidence of change.

The athletes' village, once draped with flags and buzzing with people hoping to catch sight of Usain Bolt or Mo Farah, has been relaunched as a housing estate.

Promisingly, almost half of these 2818 new homes will be affordable. This is just the start of a much-needed boost to housing in the region. Olympic parkland - as well as some of the surrounding area - will eventually become five new neighbourhoods housing 8000 people, with about 40 per cent in affordable homes.

But Anne Power at the London School of Economics has warned against assuming this housing will be within the reach of most people.

She wrote last northern summer: "The 'affordable rents' for the 2800 new homes that will be converted from the athlete's village will be unaffordable to Newham's poorest households. As one-third of all children in the borough live in workless households, their families will almost certainly be excluded."

This is particularly problematic following reforms to the way the Government subsidises housing. It now classes "affordable" housing as being at 80 per cent of the market rent - an increase of 10 per cent from the rate under Labour.

A chronic shortage of school places in Hackney and Newham will be alleviated in September, when a much-needed new school opens in the grounds of the park.

When a deal for the last of the eight permanent sporting buildings in the park was secured two months ago, a lot of the most serious concerns about Olympic-sized white elephants were allayed.

The final building to be signed off was the 300 million media centre, which will now house Infinity - a data company.

Beyond the building and transport developments, however, questions remain about whether a more substantial transformation has taken place in the area.

Rushanara Ali, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, in the Olympic borough of Tower Hamlets, said: "The impact of the infrastructure investment has been really fantastic ... But - and there's a big but - in my borough unemployment actually went up during the Olympics.

"During the construction of the Olympics, very few jobs were created for local people. There are still high levels of unemployment in the borough and it was a missed opportunity to train people up for work."

It will probably be a decade or more before we can say with any certainty whether the Games improved east London's work prospects. But the money spent on transport and housing is already providing the beginnings of a legacy that is "more than just talk".

- Independent

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