As the tenth anniversary of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games nears, early depictions of what is now called the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park have been rendered from the black-and-white palette of betrayal. That is unsurprising – it’s how you get attention in journalism and academia, and there will be plenty more stuff like it to come. Let’s add some shades of grey to a complicated picture that narratives of negativity tend to exclude.
It’s important to keep in mind that the planning and development of the post-Games Park as a new piece of city in the Lower Lea Valley have gone through many changes and still are, varying according to political priorities, prior pledges, delivery practicalities, financial imperatives, market conditions and so on. Early hopes and estimates of, say, how many homes and jobs would be created on the Park and what the broader benefits for east London might be were always likely to be revised, adapted, contested and in danger of being too optimistic.
With housing, always a hot topic in London, five residential areas are in various stages of evolution on land within the Park itself owned by the public body responsible for the Park and its environs, the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC): Chobham Manor, East Wick, Sweetwater, Pudding Mill and part of Stratford Waterfront. The first of these is nearly finished, the last two not yet begun. The Stratford Waterfront homes will stand alongside the emerging East Bank culture and education hub, and help to pay for it. The entire site had previously been earmarked for high density housing and the switch away from that – an important story in its own right – is a good example of how and why the Park project has changed over time.
Between them the five neighbourhoods will eventually comprise around 5,500 dwellings, of which 40 per cent will be “affordable” of one kind or another – that is, available for rent at less than market levels or through “low cost home ownership” schemes designed to help middle-income households on to “the housing ladder” when it would otherwise be beyond them. Below is a breakdown of the Park’s existing and planned tenure types, provided by the LLDC, which also includes some small developments on LLDC land that lie just outside the Park itself (hence the grand total of 5,855 homes).
The term “affordable” is slippery and an enduring source of cynicism about how affordable “affordable” homes actually are and to whom. Affordable Rent dwellings, the creation of the Conservative-led coalition government, can be set as high as 80 per cent of local market rates, although in practice in London most are not because housing associations regard doing so as inconsistent with their objectives.
The quantities and types of “affordable” dwellings within housing developments on the Park are the product of a number of factors. There was pressure to get housing delivery going as soon as possible after the Games were over – to have dawdled might have been termed a “betrayal” – and the first of the neighbourhoods, Chobham Manor, was approved under Boris Johnson, who placed less weight on affordable percentages than either Ken Livingstone before him or Sadiq Khan after.
Another consideration for the LLDC was the need to make money. There has always been a tension between that and its duty to make the Park of maximum benefit to local people. The Chobham Manor site had been bought from the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, and money previously borrowed from the government to buy land for the Park has to be paid back over the long term under a legal agreement – quite a favourable one, of which more another time – between Mayor Johnson and the Treasury (see paragraph 56).
This was the context in which initially only 28 per cent of the Chobham Manor homes were to be “affordable”. It has since risen to 35 per cent, one result of Sadiq Khan pumping more funds into housing on the Park (it’s why the “affordable” proportion will ultimately be quite healthy). London Affordable Rent is a term coined by Khan to reflect his insistence that the rents of Affordable Rent homes he helps pay for through his Affordable Homes Programme, using funds allocated by national government, are adjacent to what new social rent levels would be. Something else to keep in mind is that many Londoners in social and other affordable rented accommodation are recipients of housing benefit or universal credit with a housing cost component (558,000 social rent households according to the evidence base for the Mayor’s housing strategy).
Intermediate “affordable” homes, called London Living Rent and London Shared Ownership when supported with money from the Mayor, are “low cost home ownership” products tailored to households on middle incomes. It is often protested that these aren’t really affordable even to that group. In his “betrayal” article for the Guardian, Oliver Wainwright reports that to qualify for shared ownership homes in “the Olympic area” demands “an annual income of at least £60,000” and contrasts this with an “average income in local boroughs” of “about £27,000“.
Office for National Statistics labour market statistics for 2021 tell a different story about local earnings. Its median figure for residents of Newham is £677.60 a week, equating to £35,235 a year. For the other three original Olympic boroughs, whose boundaries the Park straddles, Hackney, Waltham Forest and Tower Hamlets, the figures were respectively £705.30 a week (£36,675 a year), £727.70 a week (£37, 840 a year), and £797.30 a week (£41,460 a year), the latter likely to be skewed by high earners residing in Canary Wharf. Furthermore, the qualifying figure for these housing tenure types is for household income, not individual incomes. London Living Rent is for households earning a maximum of £60,000. So perhaps median income local couples, earning, say, between £50,000 and £70,000 a year between them, will be able to afford those intermediate Park homes. A number already do.
There is also often a focus on what became of the now former Olympic Village, constructed next to Westfield’s Stratford City shopping mall, for athletes to reside in during the Games. In what for him was an, at points, almost friendly description of the area as it is now, the writer Iain Sinclair, who was a media go-to man for anti-Games scorn and mockery in advance of London 2012, has described for the Financial Times the absence of kitchen facilities within each unit as a “design flaw anticipating eat-out hipsterdom”. But the original Village was built with communal dining provision and the plan always was for the flats and the building and its surrounding infrastructure to be converted for normal residential use after the Games.
It had been envisaged that the Village would be paid for by the private sector, but the global financial crisis of 2008 put paid to that. It was left to the Olympic Delivery Authority to find the money from within its Park construction budget and then to sell the flats with the competing objectives of meeting local housing need and balancing its own books with the taxpayer interest in mind.
About half of the flats went to a housing association for social renting and shared ownership, and the rest were bought by developer Delancey and the property investment arm of Qatar. The ODA’s £1.1 billion costs weren’t fully covered by those transactions, to the tune of about £275 million, but that outcome was defended on the grounds that public investment was always going to be needed to develop the site. Could and should the ODA have done better? You probably had to be there to answer that. But had those deals not been done and the Village building left empty when a promise had been made that it would be turned into homes, it would have been another “betrayal” opportunity.
Pre-anniversary coverage has already drawn on a prominent pre-Games churnalism sub-meme, the destruction of the Clays Lane housing estate. In Wainwright’s article this is fairly characterised as “an experiment in creating close knit communities to help vulnerable single people”. It is more problematic that one of its former residents, a dedicated anti-Games activist who was also closely involved with running the estate, is cited as claiming the community there was “shattered” by its eviction and the estate’s destruction.
Guardian readers did not learn that much of the housing there was student accommodation and that many of the estate’s inhabitants did not consider the experiment a success. A survey conducted in 2005 found that 84 per cent of them didn’t want to live in the communal housing blocks there and would have preferred a self-contained flat, and that more than half of them wished to be rehoused outside a co-operative or collective housing set up. Prior to that, in 200o, a report by the Audit Commission for the Housing Corporation, which funded affordable housing at the time, concluded that the management of the estate was extremely poor and there was very little prospect of improvement.
It is another example of how monochrome polemics about the Park and Games legacy erase complicating details from the Olympic Park project’s history. Accusations of “betrayal” are easy to make. Explaining why things happened and describing how they might have been different is trickier.
Dave Hill is the publisher and editor of On London and the author of Olympic Park: When Britain Built Something Big.