The alarm is unsurprising. To its opponents, images of the MSG Sphere, the bulbous, 21,500 capacity entertainment venue proposed for Stratford that was given planning permission last week, might easily suggest an alien orb invasion from outer space or perhaps a stygian bubble bursting from the underworld.
Ever since the idea was floated four years ago Newham politicians and various campaigners have made known their strong objections to its size, its appearance, and the various ill-effects they claim it will have on the neighbourhood, from road congestion, to antisocial behaviour to noise and light pollution.
A further dimension of the disquiet is that permission was granted not by Newham Council, in whose territory the Sphere site falls, but by the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the mayoral body responsible for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and its surrounding area set up ten years ago to guide the regeneration legacy of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Is Fear of the Sphere justified? As ever with such matters, that largely depends on what you’re looking for. West Ham MP Lyn Brown set out her case against it last summer, arguing that the scheme will fail to “meet local needs” and that the company behind it, which owns Madison Square Garden in New York, “has little connection to Newham’s communities”.
Brown said the Sphere site, close to the Westfield Stratford City shopping centre, had previously been earmarked for “new workspaces and homes” and called this “a fitting vision for the positive legacy of the Games”. She contended that the LLDC has “failed to deliver the positive changes” needed in the area and that there has been insufficient “community consent” for the Sphere. Newham Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz has been another consistent objector.
It isn’t all opposition though. East Londoner Jamie Ratcliff, formerly head of the Greater London Authority’s housing team under both Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan, has applauded the LLDC’s decision, predicted the Sphere will “surely be the coolest building” in the area when built, and enthused about the one already under construction in Las Vegas, which he has seen.
“I’m excited by this creative proposal for vacant land in the middle of the busiest station in the UK,” Ratcliff says. “The Sphere will provide thousands of jobs, host fantastic events and be a new landmark for East London.” Ratcliff has long thought the site would be tricky to develop with a different sort of project. The University of East London, the Theatre Royal Stratford and London City Airport have also backed the Sphere. Apparently, Boris Johnson when Mayor liked the idea of a snowdome on the site, but that would have been less original.
The criticisms aimed at the Sphere are in many ways familiar, arising from anxieties about neighbourhood character change, “overdevelopment” and, of course, personal taste: the exterior of the Sphere will glow with LED advertisements; the words “flashy” and “garish” have been deployed.
But they also have dimensions that are specific to this part of the capital. Some of that results from the annoyance of what have been variously called the Olympic, host or growth boroughs, most particularly Newham, who’ve seen their planning powers partially annexed by the LLDC since 2012 – and, on a smaller scale, by the Olympic Delivery Authority before it – and would like their turf back. As things stand, that will not happen until late 2024.
The MSG Sphere also brings into focus a larger question about what sorts of regeneration the “regeneration games” of 2012 were suppose to catalyse and foster in the Lower Lea Valley and its borders, Stratford perhaps especially.
The LLDC was created under Johnson, enabled by the Localism Act (2011) through a provision his administration lobbied the coalition government for. During his second term as Mayor, after he appointed himself – if only nominally in the eyes of many – LLDC chairman following the Games, there was a shift in the balance between residential and other forms of development planned for the adjacent Olympic Park.
Johnson and other interested parties concluded that the Park needed an extra dimension. The result was the now-emerging East Bank arts and culture hub right beside the London Stadium and the Aquatics Centre, which Johnson initiated under the name Olympicopolis.
That piece of Borisese was a reference to Albertopolis, the nickname given to South Kensington’s world famous cluster of museums and learning institutions championed by Queen Victoria’s consort, which also includes the Royal Albert Hall. Is it such a stretch to compare the Sphere and its potential relationship with East Bank to that of the Natural History Museum and others with the RAH? Is it impossible that many local people will welcome the new arrival as an enhancement to their area, much as they have embraced Westfield as a retail and entertainment centre?
The debate goes to the heart of a still broader one about what sort of place Newham is and may become. The borough has long sat ambivalently astride London’s inner-outer divide, defined as part of outer London by the Local Government Act (1963), which created the boroughs, but as part of inner London by the Office for National Statistics and the Census.
Should the Sphere be welcomed as the latest beneficial outcome of London’s centre of gravity continuing to move east, making Stratford still more urban and of an inner London nature, even as providing London with a kind of east side, cutting edge redress for the loss of the Earls Court Exhibition Centre in the west of London? Or should Newham’s politicians see their priority as protecting Stratford and Newham more generally against at least some outcomes of connectivity and growth?
Opponents of the Sphere hope Sadiq Khan will use his powers to block it, though in 2018 he reportedly said he was in favour. Love in or loathe it, Stratford’s MSG Sphere looks as if it’s on its way.
Dave Hill’s history of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – Olympic Park: When Britain Built Something Big – will be published next month.
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