This summer marked another major milestone in the development of the Olympic Park, as Sadiq Khan joined the Mayors of Hackney and Newham to break ground at the new East Bank development. Billed as London’s most significant cultural investment since the Great Exhibition of 1851, it demonstrates the extraordinary and ongoing eastwards shift in the centre of London’s cultural gravity – a trend I explored in my 2018 pamphlet London Moving East.
East Bank is, by any standards, an extraordinary project, with new campuses for both the London College of Fashion and University College London, Victoria & Albert museum research and exhibition space, a new theatre and a new recording space for the BBC to replace its legendary studios at Maida Vale. These sorts of keystone tenants – unimaginable in my part of the city just a few short years ago – will not only bring new jobs and opportunities to the most deprived part of London, but also be a further concrete legacy of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Watching helicopter shots during coverage of the recent Yankees v Red Sox baseball match at the park’s London Stadium, I was genuinely struck not only by how vast the park as a whole and its environs are, but also by how much of it is still a building site or awaiting development. A wander around the vicinity of Pudding Mill Lane DLR station is a great vantage point from which to appreciate how far we’ve come and yet how much there still is in the pipeline.
Projects of this sort don’t just provide a concrete legacy. There’s a living legacy too. At least 30 per cent of people due to work on the construction of the East Bank will be local, and the scheme will generate 125 new apprenticeships. Add this to this the fact that we’re bringing prestigious, open places of learning and culture to what remains one of the capital’s poorest areas and the result is that we will surely -and indeed must- see real, lasting benefits for our whole community.
It’s instructive also to compare London’s Olympic and Paralympic venues to those in other cities. We’re all too familiar with images of dilapidated complexes in Athens, for instance. Though this may be the worst example, every other recent host (with the notable exception of Sydney) has seen some venues fall into decay or become embarrassing white elephants. We can be proud of the fact that every permanent venue remains in active use, well-known issues with the London Stadium notwithstanding. And it is reassuring that action from City Hall has seen the stadium placed on a firmer financial footing.
One aspect of the park which has rightly caused concern is the disappointing levels of affordable housing delivered to date. Londoners rightly expected to see more housing available to those living locally and people on lower and middle incomes. I strongly welcome the work of Mayor Khan to put this right, with at least 50 per cent of all new homes receiving planning permission on London Legacy Development Corporation land set to be affordable. We can’t change what’s gone before, but we can certainly work to improve matters in the future.
In a city that has, on occasion, been blighted by bad development, the Olympic Park stands as a testament to good ambitions. Though clearly not without its flaws and a few hiccups on the way, the fact that a lasting and well-used environmental, economic, recreational, educational, sporting and housing legacy continues to grow and thrive in the heart of East London is surely something to be celebrated.
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