Over the last 12 months or so, not least at On London, there has been much discussion of the legacy of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and the promises about it which helped London’s bid to host them succeed. Much has been made of the physical legacy (successful) and the health benefits which were predicted through increased participation in sport (largely unsuccessful). Less air time has been given to the commitment to support the basic social and economic prospects of east Londoners, particularly those living close to what is now called the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
However, with the help of better local research, data from the 2021 Census and a good dose of hindsight, now is an opportune moment to reflect on how we have done so far. And with a stagnant economy and even greater social inequality in London generally, it is also an important time to think what should be done next.
Levelling up east London: the successes of “convergence”
It is worth going back to the original document which underpinned the plans for a social and economic legacy. The Strategic Regeneration Framework (SRF), adopted in 2009, was drawn up by the five 2012 host boroughs – Greenwich, Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest – with the aim of maximising legacy regeneration benefits for their residents.
At the time, these areas contained the greatest concentrations of deprivation in England and Wales. Against almost every indicator, there was a significant divergence in outcomes for the host borough residents compared to the London average. The SRF was much admired when it appeared, setting out a clear mission of achieving “convergence” between the host boroughs and the London average across several indicators of deprivation by 2030.
Data, including from Census, show that the host boroughs have achieved convergence ahead of schedule against several headline economic measures. Educational attainment, economic participation and earnings are all now in line with or above the London average.
In some cases, transformation has been rapid. Even accounting for population growth, economic activity rates in the host boroughs moved from being nine per cent lower than the London average in 2007 to one per cent higher in 2021. Since 2015 the number of jobs in host boroughs has increased by 10 per cent, a rate exceeded only by Barking & Dagenham and the City of London.
So has convergence been achieved? On the basis of the context and rules set in 2009 it probably has, though it would be disingenuous – this is the hindsight bit – to claim the mission set out then has been accomplished.
Convergence has failed to shift the dial on many of the fundamental challenges London faces. The ultimate success of convergence is fundamentally intertwined with structural changes in London’s economy. This is why a notable amount of communities in the host boroughs remain poorer in real-terms than they were in 2008.
Why the legacy rules have changed
Like most global cities, London has significant inequality. Despite the highest average earnings nationally, London also has the joint-highest poverty rate in the country. Many jobs are not providing a secure income, with almost one in five workers earning an income below London Living Wage. Between 2005 and 2018, the proportion of host Borough jobs paying less than the London Living Wage increased by 13% compared to 6% in London.
Whilst statistics such as unemployment are important, when used in isolation they do not reflect lived experience for many people. Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that whilst national benefit reforms since 2011 have encouraged benefit claimants into work, many of the jobs people are moving into are part-time, low paying, and have little chance of career progression.
This is playing out visibly in the host boroughs through rising in-work poverty. Not only has the number of children living in absolute low income households has grown by 11% since 2014, this increase is exclusively being driven by children living in families where at least one parent works.
These changes have been bought into sharper focus by the Cost of Living Crisis. Evidence presented at the Mayor of Newham’s cost of living summit at the end of last year showed that even multi-earner professional households living in east London could fall into poverty in 2023 due to rising essential costs, most notably housing, heat and childcare (in that order).
The next lap of legacy: a deeper focus on prosperity
Whilst the SRF was not perfect, it responded to the wider context and provided the impetus, and long-term strategic approach to addressing deprivation. It was also of its time and in this context, the legacy economic legacy has been a success. The legacy was always a multi decade project and it is right that we now think about a new approach. Thanks to UCL, we can do so with better research and deeper understanding of the place in and around the park.
UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity has been undertaking citizen-led research being conducted in east London in the area around the park. This 10 year’ project provides deep understanding of the lived experience of east London communities. It provides messages about residents’ experience of change, and most importantly, shows us that prosperity in East London is about more than just access to income and work.
This work research provides the basis for an interesting revaluation of what we might consider as success and what can follow the mission of convergence; one strong suggestion is the idea of providing a social foundation, defined by the idea of Livelihood Security.
Derived from UCL’s research in East London, Livelihood Security is defined by several interconnected factors which can define prosperity and a life well lived. These include secure and genuinely affordable housing, inclusion, access to public services and social infrastructure, and secure incomes and good quality work.
The idea of a Secure Livelihood gets us away from the previously accepted convention that we need more development, to create economic capacity, to delivery jobs and ultimately a better life to residents of East London. It focuses more on the hear and now, and a more nuanced and immediate view on the needs of local people. It provides a much different complexion on who needs to benefit, and can enable us to focus more specifically on the neighbourhoods who have the most to gain.
There is unprecedented secondary data and evidence to support this, including the release of the 2021 Census, which contains detailed insight into livelihood security infrastructure down effectively down to street level. This makes for more targeted policy and good financial sense for councils needing to make scarce resources go further.
The role of the park
The next decade of legacy will be difficult; 2022-2032 is likely to be more challenging. The echoes of the games themselves will become quieter and we need to stop thinking about the park itself and more about the host boroughs as a whole and more specifically, the 250,000 plus residents across the four authorities who will find themselves living in poverty.
Aspiring to the security of a social foundation, routed in local evidence, may sound obvious, but this challenges convention in a way that the SRF’s convergence strategy did in 2009. What the park now provides is the foundation for collaboration, innovation and expertise which could make this a reality not just for Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham and Waltham Forest, but for London as a whole