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10th November

Bad news, good news

The bad news this week was that Newham, the borough in which most of the Olympic Park is located, is the most indebted part of the UK. This despite all the regeneration benefits that the 2012 Olympics were supposed to bring. Almost one in four people in Newham - approximately 60,000 people - have debt problems. This is symptomatic of the growing problems of debt across the country, as borrowing increases at five times the rate of the growth in earnings. Debt in the UK is now at the highest levels since before the financial crisis ten years ago.

The traditional explanation of the problem in Newham is the closure of the docks in the 1970s followed by the steady decline in manufacturing industry, leading to high unemployment from which the area has never really recovered. But, I'm not sure this can fully explain today's problem. There have been a huge changes in Newham in the past twenty years, with the loss of the white working class (who worked in the docks and factories) to be replaced by black and ethnic minority groups that now make up 70% of the population. Most people are now in work. The employment rate in the borough has increased from 52% ten years ago to 69% today - still below the London average, but higher than it's ever been.

So, what is driving debt? The obvious cause is the cost of housing and rapidly growing rents. About half of Newham's residents rent privately. The median monthly rent for a one-bedroom flat is £1,200, up from £800 in 2011. This takes a large chunk out of households' monthly income and, assuming they earn enough to pay the rent, it leaves people unable to pay their bills or buy essentials, like food. Food banks fill some of the gap but a large number of people in Newham resort to payday lenders, pawnbrokers and bookmakers, all commonly found on the local high street.

Another culprit for debt might be Newham's brash new kid on the block - Westfield shopping centre - a luxury shopping experience, incongruously located in one of London's poorest areas. Aimed to attract customers from a much wider catchment area, inevitably it also attracts local residents. Some of them must be tempted to part with money that is beyond their means. Aspers Casino, one of the largest in the UK, is also located there. I don't know of any research on this, but people over-reaching their income buying consumer goods could also be a factor in Newham's debt problem.

Newham Council have responded to debt by opening their own debt advice centre - Moneyworks - in Stratford Shopping Centre, opposite Westfield. Here, as well as advice, local people can obtain loans to pay off debts, underwritten by the Council in partnership with the London Community Credit Union. It is an attempt to break people's dependence on payday lenders and loan sharks. Judging by some of the individual stories from Moneyworks clients, it seems to be working. That was the good news this week! 


10th October

The inner city is good for you

A study by the universities of Oxford and Hong Kong, published last week, revealed something that I have suspected for a while - that people living in inner cities are happier and healthier than people living the good life in the suburbs or the countryside. This runs counter to the story geographers have been teaching for decades, that inner cities have the most deprived neighbourhoods with a poorer quality of life. These changes are reflected in the new GCSE and A-Level specs we are teaching, where the old urban models have been replaced by new takes on urban geography, including the opportunities and challenges of urban living.

Of course, nowhere is the city changing faster than here in east London. Older, poorer people are moving out, to be replaced by young professionals. In the past this process of gentrification used to happen in small pockets of the city - areas like Islington and Notting Hill. Now, whole swathes of London are undergoing what has been termed, 'state-led gentrification'. Greasy spoon cafes are being replaced by healthy, vegetarian alternatives to the point where it is now the greasy spoons that are the alternatives. No wonder people are living happier and healthier lives!

But, it is not just the recent changes that make inner cities happier and healthier places to live. There are aspects of urban living that are intrinsically better for you. For a start, living in cities, you are likely to walk more. We walk to work, to the station or to the shops, not least because there is nowhere to park the car and, if you try, you are more than likely to be towed away. Whereas, in the suburbs or the country, most of these places are more than a convenient walk away and driving is the only way to get there. There is also the truism that cities offer more to do, in the way of entertainment, sport and leisure - the sort of things that keep you healthy and happy. Recent figures suggest that we now spend more of our money on such things than we do on consumer goods, and this also keeps us more active.

I would also argue - though I think this was beyond the scope of the study - that urban living offers more cultural and ethnic diversity and this too can lead to healthier, happier lives. We broaden our outlook, learning new ideas and, hopefully, better habits from our neighbours. For example, the demise of the aforementioned greasy spoon cafes, on which I was brought up, has been hastened by the appearance of an array of enticing new cuisine from around the world. The alternative to broadening our outlook is that we turn our backs on the changing city by moving out and become angry or resentful about what we have lost. And that can't be good for anyone's health or happiness.


18th September

Making it real

One of the themes in the new A-Levels is 'place-making' and in east London we can see places being made before our very eyes. One example, though perhaps not a very typical one, would be Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park. According to the London Legacy Development Corporation, who own and manage the site, the aim is to 'create a new piece of city'. But, according to many of the students who visit, it feels like a rather sterile environment, quite different to many of the vibrant, older neighbourhoods that surround it.

 Anyone visiting the Olympic Park this week might not describe it as sterile - quite the opposite in fact! Since August, a group of travellers have been occupying one of the sites earmarked for development in the park. They were evicted last week after the LLDC obtained a High Court order. They left behind mountains of rubbish, apparently rubbish that people had paid them to take away and dumped beside their own caravans on the occupied land. The company that have an agreement with the LLDC to develop the site into housing will be left to clear up the mess. Fortunately, the eyesore is not immediately obvious to anyone visiting the park since it is hidden behind one of the large green fences that surround sites for future development.

The incident highlights just how the environment in and around the park is controlled and managed in a way that other parts of east London are not. Travellers co-exist with other residents on pockets of unused land in many places. Indeed, one travellers' site was within the area designated to become the Olympic Park back in 2007. Like their neighbouring residents in Clays Lane they were cleared from the site to make way for the construction. I don't know if this is the same group of travellers but, it could be argued, they just came back to what was theirs. Whoever they were, they were not welcome.

The contrast between the engineered place-making of the LLDC and the dynamic, piecemeal place-making that characterises the rest of east London is exemplied by the way in which Hackney Wick, to the west of the park, has gradually transformed from an old manufacturing neighbourhood into the artists' hub that it is today. Walls are smothered by art/graffiti, old buildings get demolished to be replaced by new ones, travellers (as well as everyone else) comes and goes and, yes, there is plenty of rubbish. But, the place feels lived in - it feels real. Students are fascinated by the area. So, is place-making something that best happens naturally or does it have to be engineered? A question for A-Level students to consider.


11th August

A walk in the park

Five years after London 2012, the Olympic Park in Stratford once again finds itself at the centre of attention, hosting the 2017 World Athletics Championships. Except, it is no longer just 'the Olympic Park', but is now known as the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park. So, apart from the name, what has changed in those five years? Any of you who follow this (admittedly occasional) blog, will know that the park is not static. Apart from the stadium, the Aquatic Centre and Velodrome are also well used by the public, and at reasonable cost. The green spaces in the park are well-maintained and are maturing with time. Only the proposed five new residential communities around the periphery of the park remain unbuilt, leaving rather ugly gaps in an otherwise pleasant landscape.

I have been reading a fairly new book about public parks by Travis Elborough called 'A walk in the park'. In it he charts the history of parks in the UK from their early origins as aristocratic hunting grounds to what they have become today. He points out that, in these times of austerity, public parks are under threat, either from neglect or from creeping privatisation, where the transfer of public land to private ownership results in people having to pay for the privilege of using parks. He mentions the example of Battersea Park where an old adventure playground was turned over to a private company who charge children between £18 and £33 for climbing sessions on the improved facilities.

The QE2 Olympic Park is the largest new park to be created in London for over a century. As a nation we have got out of the habit of creating new parks in cities that, at the end of the 19th century, were much in vogue as a means of improving the health and well-being of a rapidly growing urban population. Fast forward to the early 21st century and we are in danger of losing those hard fought for gains. The QE2 Olympic Park could become a model for the next generation of parks or, as Eldborough fears, it might become a new preserve of the rich in the way that the first aristocratic hunting grounds once were.

Certainly, a £15 charge for the thrill of sliding down the new helter skelter at the Orbit in the park does not auger well for the future. However, the park remains open for the public to freely enjoy the new, improved environment of the Lea Valley and, if they so choose, they can take the opportunity to improve their health and fitness by walking, running or cycling in the park. The fact that many east Londoners don't choose to take the opportunity can hardly be blamed on the London Legacy Development Corporation who manage the park. I remain more optimistic about the future of the QE2 Olympic Park, if not parks in general, than Travis Eldborough seems to be.


21st June

Quality of life.... and death

There can surely be nothing left to say after the tragedy that befell Grenfell Tower last week, leaving 79 people dead. However, it has left me to reflect on what we glibly call 'quality of life' in geography. There can be no more basic aspect of quality of life than the right to stay alive! People living in Grenfell Tower probably accepted they did not share all the trappings of the good life enjoyed by their wealthy neighbours in Kenisington, but they should have at least expected to be safe. Except that not all of them did feel safe. Warnings given on a residents' blog uncannily foretold the disaster.

The Edexcel Geography GCSE B spec require students to investigate 'How and why quality of life varies within urban areas'. Normally, we consider such factors as environmental quality, access to services, crime risk and housing quality. Never have we thought to consider whether the buildings are actually safe to live in. Indeed, had we investigated Grenfell Tower before the disaster, we might have concluded that the environmental and housing quality were good, given the facelift the building had recently undergone with new cladding.

Some suggest the cladding was for cosmetic reasons, to please the rich neighbours in Kensington who could see the building from their windows. I hope they are wrong, but fear they might be right. Others, including some of the tabloid press, say the cladding was to insulate the building. No doubt a case of environmentalism gone mad or excessive European red tape! Whatever the reason, the decision to clad the building in the cheapest, flammable material is utterly inexcusable. It must have been someone's decision, but almost certainly not the people living there.

Which brings us back to the second part of Edexcel's question - why does quality of life vary?' It has everything to do with wealth and power. People living in Grenfell Tower included recently arrived migrants, families on low income, refugees. They probably had little say in where they were housed, let alone how the building was clad. It's the same for other council estates all over London. On the Carpenters Estate in Newham, within a stone's throw of the Olympic Park, three tower blocks, earmarked for demolition for the past 15 years, are still used as emergency accommodation for those with no better options. When we investigate quality of life there, we rarely ask why people are still forced to live in blocks deemed unfit for human habitation. Perhaps, we should.


5th June

Terror talks louder

They say actions speak louder than words. In the wake of recent terrorist attacks in London and Manchester we've heard plenty of fine words to the effect of "not to give in to terror" or "getting on with our normal lives". But, the reality is different. Already, there's evidence that people are changing their behaviour in the light of the terrorist threat. Particularly when it comes to their children's lives. Which is totally understandable. After all, it's hardly possible to offer the level of protection to every gathering of young people that we saw at the Ariana Grande Manchester benefit concert at Old Trafford last night.

We have experienced the reality in east London this week with the cancellation of two school fieldwork visits. I fully expect there to be more. And, who can blame schools, or parents, for wanting to avoid the worst happening? However, from previous experience, once the media coverage of the latest terrorist outrage dies down, people quickly forget. One school postponed their visit after the Paris atrocity in 2015, only to resurrect the trip a few months later. Surely, to be consistent, school outings should be banned altogether because no time is a safe time to be out in a city? Or, is that to give in to terrorism?

Perhaps we need to be smarter, organising urban fieldwork. Far be it from me to second guess the twisted mind of a terrorist, but it seems to me that crowded places are an obvious target. That may need to be recognised in our risk assessments in future. As far as east London goes, Westfield Shopping Centre might not be the smartest place to hang out. On the other hand, Westfield doesn't allow school groups to carry out questionnaires there anyway, so it's been of limited fieldwork value. Perhaps, Westfield needs to review its own security policy and realise that inquisitive students may be the least of the potential threats to shoppers!

The usual advice given in risk assessments, in the event of danger to stay close to the group, may not work either. One bit of advice I've been given, if a terrorist incident happens, is for the group to 'split and run in all directions'. Only after ten minutes should they think about making contact with the group leader, and specifically not to call home (for fear of creating panic). That chimes with the latest police advice of, 'run, hide and tell'. It's a sad indictment of our times that we are having to think about these things at all. But, not to do so would be negligent or naive. It's either that, or we all decide to stay at home.


9th May

Something in the air

A lecture at the Royal Geographical Society last night underlined the importance of the headlines we have been seeing recently about air pollution in London. The speaker, Frank Kelly, Professor of Environmental Health at King's College is an advisor to the government on air quality. He took a historical view of air quality in London, talking about the success achieved by the 1956 Clean Air Act. Over 60 years it has reduced the amount of smoke in the atmosphere to almost insignificant levels and eradicated the smogs that once caused thousands of deaths in London.

He likened the current pollution crisis, caused by particulates and nitrogen dioxide from diesel emissions, to the smogs of the 20th century. In the same way that determined action, backed by legislation, eradicated smogs so he believed we could reduce current pollution levels that are estimated to be the cause of 9,000 premature deaths in London every year. A shame then that, due to the impending general election, the government has put on hold their plans to introduce legislation on air quality and had to be taken to the high court last week to be held responsible.

Professor Kelly made invidiuous comparisons between the inaction of former mayor, Boris Johnson, and the new incumbant, Sadiq Khan, who has made air quality in London one of his main priorities. As someone who himself suffers from asthma, he seems to realise the huge importance of air quality, particularly for vulnerable groups such a children, the elderly and those who make frequent use of the roads.

Concern about air quality may also go some way to explaining the controversy that has arisen close to the Olympic Park about the decision to locate a cement factory there, despite objections from residents (see blog on 5th January). With building in east London continuing apace, not least the five new residential neighbourhoods in the park itself, there is huge demand for cement. Rather than transport it around London in lorries, powered by polluting diesel engines, there must be an argument for producing the cement closer to where it will be used.

It would make an interesting decision-making task for students - whether to locate a cement factory in the heart of east London, against residents' wishes, or to transport the cement longer distances by road, adding to pollution levels in London's already toxic air.


16th March

Hackney Hipsters

There is a new group of people moving into east London who, unlike previous incomers such as Bangladeshis or Eastern Europeans, are not immigrants to the UK. However, nor are they indigenous to east London, or I assume not. I'm talking about the hipsters who are colonising areas of east London like Hackney and Shoreditch. Interestingly, they are not found all over east London but only in pockets of what might be called the more 'edgy' areas. You don't find so many hipsters in Stratford or Canning Town, for example.

So, who or what are hipsters? Are they just the most recent incarnation of a phenomenon that has been seen in London over the past fifty years or so - namely, gentrification? Or, is there something distinctive about hipsters? They can be identified by their physical appearance - beards in the case of blokes, but also vintage clothing, ill-fitting tousers, checked shirts and dodgy or no socks. They might also be seen riding single-gear bikes or hanging out in trendy new cafes with internet connections. It's got to the point where some geographers have coined a new term - hipsterfication!

Thinking about Hackney, it is an area of former manufacturing, where workshops and factories developed along canals, railways and roads during the 19th century. In recent years the area has suffered from the same decline that has afflicted other former industrial areas, with employment in manufacturing falling from 32% of jobs in 1971 to just 5% in 2011. However, over the past ten years a new sector of London's economy has been growing - the so-called 'creative sector' that includes designers, artists and digital technology specialists.

Old warehouses and factories offer cheap rents and vacant spaces that suit the needs of these new, creative workers. They are also attracted by the diversity, edginess and shabbiness of areas that might deter more conventional middle-class types from venturing in. Often they are younger people from the suburbs of London and other parts of the UK, who want some of the excitment and vibe of the inner city. They have become part of the change and, indeed, as house prices in Hackney go through the roof, local people and businesses are being priced out of the area.

I often wonder how young people can afford the, by now, astronomical rents and house prices in east London. No doubt, some jobs in the creative sector are well-paid. But, being more cynical, I imagine that many hipsters are having their new lifestyle funded by wealthy parents sitting on valuable suburban real estate, paying their offspring's rent or investing in another property in the city. If so, 'hipsterfication' is no more or less than a new form of gentrification.


5th January 2017

Concrete plans for Olympic Park

For years, I've been telling students on field trips to the Olympic Park that the days of heavy industry in east London have long gone. It turns out that I was wrong. There are plans for four giant cement and concrete factories to be built within the Park. 11,000 people in east London have signed a petition against the proposal, which goes back to the planning committee of the London Legacy Development Corporation later this month.

Under the proposal, there would be more than 900 movements of heavy goods vehicles a day to and from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, not to mention the threat of air pollution from the factories themselves, built near to schools, homes and sports venues. At a time when there are growing concerns about air quality in London, the proposal seems to run contrary to any common sense, let alone the promises of the Olympic legacy to improve the environment in the Lower Lea Valley.

The site chosen for the factories was the area for the warm-up track during the 2012 Games, but this was only ever a temporary facility. The land is owned by Network Rail and leased to the German logistics company, DB Schenker, as an operational rail freight facility. Until 2012, this is where most of the construction material for the Olympic Park arrived. The land is classified as industrial and, according to the LLDC, the post-Olympic transformation plan required the site to be returned its original use after the Games.

However, east London is changing and, whilst the land once lay at the heart of a larger industrial area (the old Bryant and May factory is close by), much of the land use in the surrounding area is now residential. As part of the post-Olympic plan, a new residential neighbourhood is due to be built on the northern edge of the factory complex (and work on the primary school for the neighbourhood has already begun).

It is hard to imagine, even at this late stage, that LLDC won't have a change of heart and squash the plans. But, 2016 was a year of strange decisions. Brexit and Trump spring to mind. Will 2017 continue in the same way, with four concrete factories in the midst of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, as a legacy of what were to be 'the greenest Games ever'?


16th December

A block on the landscape

Not much in London is sacrosanct these days, but views of St Paul's Cathedral are supposed to be. The London Plan, published in 2012, identifies 27 cherished views, including 13 'protected vistas' that cannot be obstructed. Some of the best-known views in London are among them, including panoramas of St Paul's from Greenwich Park, Alexandra Palace, Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill. Infact, these days, the cathedral is 'photobombed' by the Shard, looming behind it like a giant bollard.

Now, another view has been blighted. The most distant view in London of St Paul's is the 'keyhole' view from King Henry's Mound in Richmond Park. I saw it for myself only last year. If I were to go there now I would notice, overshadowing the cathedral is, one of London's brash new skyscapers, the Manhattan Loft Gardens building in Stratford. It stands 42 storeys high and is currently offering one-bedroom apartments next to Stratford International Station (except no international trains stop there) for a price of £615,000 and upwards.

I'd estimate the distance from Richmond to St Paul's at about 15km, with Stratford a further 8km to the east. That gives you some idea of the scale of Manhattan Loft Gardens, visible on the other side of London. Of course, the fact that it also looms over the end of our Victorian street from the opposite direction, does not make me biased in any way!

Historic England, the government's heritage organisation, says the Manhattan Loft Gardens tower 'demonstrates how the lack of a strategic plan for London means the profound impact of some developments is only being discovered too late'. In the rush to turn London into a 21st century city we are in danger of obliterating its historic character. But, I don't suppose the developers of Manhattan Loft Gardens will mind - any publicity is good publicity when you are selling properties at such unaffordable prices.



10th November

Changing places

All the new A-Level geography specifications include modules about changing places, variously titled Changing Places, Shaping Places or Changing Spaces/Making Places, to name but three. Each spec places its own particular interpretation on the guidelines laid down in the government's criteria for A-Level. Among the recurring themes are the ways in which people perceive and experience place, how places are represented and can be re-branded, the impact of globalisation on places and the processes of economic change that lead to social inequalities. Urban geography is moving on, and has left behind old-school ideas such as urban land use models and inner city deprivation. Not before time, some might say.

Nowhere is better placed to exemplify the idea of changing place than east London. Indeed, when doing fieldwork here, we are confronted by change each time we venture outdoors. Old buildings are demolished, new hoardings appear around construction sites, skyscapers get taller by the week, creating new landscapes and microclimates. If, as geographers, we get confused, imagine how local residents feel about it! There is even a new postcode - E20 - 150 years after the first postcodes were introduced in London.

One of our new fieldwork programmes sets out to explore the differences between E20 and E15, the original postcode for Stratford. Local teenagers even refer to the two areas as 'old Stratford' and 'new Stratford'. When exploring the area students meet people in both postcodes to ask them about their perception and experience of change in Stratford. They carry out a population survey and compare it with 2011 Census data to see how population is changing, even within the past five years. They also do a survey to classify and count the types of shops and services, identify global connections and find out the prices people pay for similar services in the two areas. 

The final outcome from the day is to identify suitable locations for a new episode of EastEnders that might more accurately represent east London today. Of course, Walford, the fictional place in which EastEnders is set, shares the postcode E20. It is a case of fact imitating fiction. The name, Walford, may even be a hybrid of WALthamstow and StratFORD. But, how representative EastEnders is of the real East End, students are left to judge for themselves. 


13th September

Crowd trouble

Saturday's Premiership game between West Ham and Watford at the London Stadium - previously the Olympic Stadium - was marred by crowd trouble. Groups of opposing fans started fighting each other and there was even fighting between West Ham fans, some of whom refused to sit down when asked. Sitting at Premier League games is now obligatory, with no standing allowed, although this rule was frequently ignored at Upton Park, West Ham's former ground. It seems that the regime at the new London Stadium is going to be much tighter.

I didn't go to Saturday's game. Indeed, as a matter of principle, I don't go to any Premiership matches these days, with their inflated ticket prices (even though West Ham's prices are allegedly the cheapest in the league). However, out of curiosity, I did go to a Europa Cup match at the new stadium a few weeks ago (ticket price £10!). The first surprise was that it was almost sold out. Close to 60,000 people for a mid-week match against a little-known Romanian team is quite an achievement (though West Ham lost!). What was also impressive was the gender and ethnic composition of the crowd, which was noticeably more mixed than I remember not so long ago at Upton Park. Clearly, West Ham have made an effort to attract a larger, and more diverse crowd.

However, I did notice a lack of segregation between rival supporters in the crowd though, with a very a small contingent of Romanian fans, this was not much of an issue. There were no police inside the stadium, but West Ham employ their own stewards who were thick on the ground. Indeed, they were thick out of the ground as well. The route to and from the stadium from Stratford Station was very tightly controlled, keeping fans well clear of Westfield Shopping Centre. The centre was totally sealed off from fans going to the match, with no exit in the direction of the stadium. There were also manually controlled pedestrian traffic lights to stop fans when the station entrance and the road ahead became too crowded. There seemed to be even more stewards employed outside the ground than in it. That must surely be a huge expense for the club (though, presumably, one they can afford with vastly increased attendances).

Whether the new, more diverse, West Ham supporters will continue to be attracted to matches on a regular basis, if they turn into mass brawls, remains to be seen. The club were very quick to condemn the actions of a minority of mindless supporters and threaten lifetime bans from the ground if they are identified and caught. But, there seems to be a clash of cultures between the new, inclusive, modern football supporters and the traditional, tribal fans, with a prepondance of aggresive white males. Who will be the winners of this battle, I wonder? As I said in an ealier blog (15th May), you can take West Ham fans out of the East End, but you can't take the East End out of West Ham fans.


18th August

Rio 2016

I can't believe it is four years since east London hosted the Olympics. Now, with the Games happening in Rio, it is a good time to reflect on what has been achieved, and what has not. So far in Rio, much has been the same - the promises before the Games of what legacy they will bring, panic that the venues will not be ready in time, Team GB overachieving in the medals table and Usain Bolt running off with three golds (maybe - he's only got two so far). Perhaps, the most important similarity between the two Olympics has been the fear that both east London and Rio de Janeiro, whose reputations for deprivation and crime went before them, were the wrong locations to choose for such a prestigious event. Well, east London proved the doubters wrong - let's hope Rio can do the same.

There have also been differences. Of course, east London could not boast Rio's spectacular views, including Copacabana Beach, Sugar Loaf Mountain and the statue of Christ the Redeemer (the Arcellor Mittal Orbit came nowhere near!). However, preparation for the Games in Rio has not been as meticulous as London's. So, for example, London made safety a priority, setting a target of zero fatalities during construction - a target which it achieved. Rio did not set such a target and there were sixteen fatalities during construction. This does not augur well for the legacy in Rio, which may not have been so carefully planned and, in any case, would have to go a long way to better the London legacy.

Legacy planning is mainly down to the city itself and while the International Olympic Committee may pay lip service to the importance of 'legacy', in reality their focus is on the Games themselves and moving on to the next city as soon as the last one is over. So, Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham in east London claims, "The IOC may organise the Games, but in my experience they don't care about the legacy. They may say they do, but they don't. When the Games in London were finished, off they went. There has been no coming back to see what can be done."

Fortunately, the legacy of the London Olympics was left in the hands of the London Legacy Development Corporation. They inherited a well-devised plan for the Olympic Park after the Games and, so far, they have done a good job in ensuring that the legacy has been delivered for east London. There is still a long way to go and the LLDC may be around for many years yet, before they hand over to the neighbouring boroughs. It remains to be seen how well the Rio legacy has been planned and how it will be executed. That may yet be the main difference between London and Rio.



25th June

It's all downhill after Brexit

24th June 2016 will be memorable for all the wrong reasons. It was the day we voted to leave the European Union and it was also the day the new slide opened at the Orbit in the Olympic Park. In case you've forgotten, the Orbit is the large, red squiggly thing in the middle of the park. There are some images of it in the slide show on the homepage of our website.

There is a connection between these two events that happened on the same day - one tumultuous and potentially life-changing for all of us, the other hardly significant in the grand scheme of things. The connection, in case you can't guess, is Boris Johnson, once mayor of London and, if the bookmakers are to be believed, to be our next prime minister.

The slide that opened yesterday plunges 178 metres from the top of the Orbit, through a series of twists and turns, thumps and jumps, down to ground level. It will cost you £15 for 30 seconds of terror and I'm sure it will be popular. The Orbit has not been a great success up to now. It was conceived by Boris as an additional tourist attraction in the Olympic Park that would continue to draw visitors long after the Games were over. It was not one of his vanity projects, you understand! Since 2012 the Orbit has stood rather sad and neglected, unlike its neighbours, the Aquatic Centre and Velodrome that have attracted hundred of thousands of visitors. However, popular opinion has always been that the Orbit looks like a giant helter-skelter and that is what it has finally become. It was left to someone, other than Boris, to work out how it could be made successful.

Popular opinion has also just taken us out of Europe and even Boris looked rather taken aback by this turn of events. The Brexit campaign was always going to be his launchpad for the leadership of the Conservative Party, but whether he imagined that would result in us actually leaving Europe I rather doubt. Like the Orbit, Brexit was a big idea that was rather hazy on the details. Sadly, it will be the younger generation that will be left to pick up the pieces, long after the architects of this disaster have left the scene. Rather like the Orbit.



15th May

West Ham v Leicester - a tale of two clubs

The trashing of the Manchester United coach on its way to the match by West Ham fans last week was a reminder of days gone by. There was a time in the 1980s when such events were commonplace. Green Street (on which the Upton Park stadium is located) was the scene of regular battles between rival supporters on a Saturday afternoon. So, it appears, hooliganism has not been banished - simply buried. You can take West Ham fans out of the East End, but you can't take the East End out of West Ham fans.

Photos of the supsects police are searching for in relation to the attack on the coach, show four white men, probably in their thirties. I will stick my neck out and say they don't live in east London. They represent the typical West Ham fan - white, male and living a long way from West Ham. The exodus of the largely white population from east London to Essex over the past fifty years, means that West Ham fans are more likely to live in Brentwood or Billericay, than Barking or Bow. They have been replaced by the largely Pakistani Muslim population who now live around Green Street. Green Street's other claim to fame is as an Asian shopping centre, specialising in saris and jewellery. They go together with football like chapatis and chips.

West Ham, despite their attempts to engage with 'the community', have never really scratched the surface of the Muslim community. None of the team's players are Asian (and, so far as I can remember, never have been). Nor, looking around the crowd, do you see an Asian face. Thankfully, I hear none of the racist chanting that echoed from the terraces in the 70s and 80s, and there are now a few black supporters, as well as much of the team this season. But there is still a huge chasm between the club and the local community. Few tears will be shed in Upton Park when West Ham move to their new home at the Olympic Stadium next season.

Compare that with Leicester. I can't pretend to be an expert on Leicester - I've only been there once. However, what it shares in common with Newham, the borough in which West Ham is located (and will still be located next season), is a minority white population, with a large part of the majority being Asian. But, there, the similarity seems to end. From what I've seen recently, Leicester's astonishing success in winning the Premier League, is celebrated by all sections of the community - white, black and Asian. I'd be interested to know how the club have managed to engage with all parts of their community and why West Ham haven't. It could form the basis of an interesting geographical investigation!


5th May

Good-bye Boris

By tomorrow, London will have a new mayor. Boris will be moving on to focus on more pressing matters, like leaving Europe and putting himself in pole position to challenge for the Tory leadership.

Has it all been worthwhile? From Boris’s viewpoint, almost certainly. He has become the most high profile politician we have, to the point that even most 14-year olds I meet know who Boris is. I doubt if David Cameron could boast that, let alone George Osborne. Both of them need to watch their backs.

What about London’s viewpoint? Boris has left his mark on our city. We now have Boris bikes – less well known as the Santander (formerly Barclay’s) Bicycle Hire scheme. Then there is the new generation of Routemaster buses, which, I have to say, are a great improvement on the bendy buses bequeathed to London by previous mayor, Ken Livingstone. There’s also the London skyline to consider. It has transformed over the past ten years, with skyscrapers of all shapes and sizes. Sadly, true architectural masterpieces, like St Paul’s Cathedral, now hide in the shadows, dwarfed by their brash new neighbours.

But these are cosmetic judgements on Boris’s tenure as mayor. What about the things that really matter? The really big changes in London are not ones that Boris can either take the credit or the blame for. Truth be told, the mayor doesn’t have a greater deal of power, nor even money to spend. I’m thinking of the growing gap between rich and poor, our burgeoning population including an ever growing proportion of immigrants and, above all, the escalation of house prices in London, leaving young Londoners unable to afford to live here.

Boris has not instigated any of these changes, yet nor has he done much to tackle them. I am left with the distinct impression that he is comfortable, if not actually proud, of the legacy he is leaving behind. I for one won’t cry when Boris says good-bye.



5th April 

No place like home

I went to my last home game at Upton Park on Saturday to watch West Ham play Crystal Palace. The score was 2-2, just for the record. It is the end of an era for me and other lifelong West Ham fans. Next season we are off to the new stadium in the Olympic Park. At least many of us will be. I will be one of those who will probably hang up my West Ham scarf and watch from the comfort of the armchair at home. However, I think I might be in a minority. Most fans seem to have been won over to the idea of the new stadium, if only by cheaper tickets and the prospect of greater success on the pitch, as West Ham join the elite clubs in the Premier League. 

I am old enough to remember watching the team of '66, including Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters. It was West Ham (and a few other English players) who won the World Cup that year, don't forget! Upton Park has other special memories for me, none more so than when as boys we used to climb the gantries at the back of the North Bank stand in order to get a glimpse of the action on the pitch, over the heads of the crowd. It was standing room only in those days, with no allowance made for those of us of shorter stature. The days of all-seater stadia was still a long way in the future.

Now, West Ham have announced that the former Olympic Stadium will boast a capacity of 60,000 seats for matchdays, compared to 55,000 that was originally proposed and far more than the current Upton Park capacity of 35,000. This has happened with the surge of interest in season tickets for next year. The list for those who have applied exceeds the number of seats available by a ratio of 5:1. I don't think this interest has come about because of West Ham's unusually successful season this year, nor even the attraction of the new stadium. It has more to do with the lure of record low prices for season tickets, at less than £300 for a season, lower than any other Premier League club. For once, West Ham have managed to get ahead of the curve, anticipating the pressure from fans around the country for more affordable ticket prices.

So, what will happen to the old, Upton Park stadium? Almost inevitably, with the chronic shortage of housing in London, the land will be sold to build new homes. Unlike, the old Highbury Stadium where Arsenal once played and which was a listed historic structure, none of the old stadium will remain and the pitch will disappear under concrete. West Ham, who have already got a good deal, paying rent of £2.5 million a season for the new stadium, will be cashing in on the old one too. Watch out for new signings in the team next season! And, the last relic of the team of '66, a bronze statue of Bobby Moore holding aloft the World Cup, sitting on his team-mates shoulders, is to be moved from Upton Park to be near the new stadium. All that history will be erased. What a shame.


24th February

Class war around the corner

A new cafe has opened around the corner from where I live in Forest Gate, about a mile from Stratford. Not much news there, you are thinking. But this is the fourth new cafe in Forest Gate over the past couple of years, in an area where, up to now, the height of culinary achievement was fried chicken. The latest addition to the array of cafes is Corner Kitchen, so named because it sits on the corner of Woodgrange Road, the main shopping street, opposite the station. For the past fifteen years, the premises has lain empty, a symbol of the lack of wealth and enterprise that was Forest Gate.

Now, all that has changed. The interior of the new cafe is in the 'shabby chic' mould of such enterprises, walls taken back to the brickwork, counters knocked together from rough, sawn timber and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. And, for those Forest Gate residents who can't afford the inflated price of a home-made pizza, there is a massive plate glass window to gaup through, to see the sort of people who can. In short, a new divide is opening up in the neighbourhood between those who have recently made a choice to pay a fortune to come and live in one of east London's many 'up and coming' areas and those who have always lived here.

The rift was exposed by anarchists who, under the cover of darkness, took advantage of the plate glass to daub their graffiti on the window. It read, "you poor take courage, you rich take care", a lyric from a Leon Rosselon song, 'World turned upside down', covered in the charts by Billy Bragg in 1985. The message was quickly removed, but the cat was out of the bag. There was some local sympathy for the new owners, who live in Forest Gate and had opened the cafe just two days earlier. If this was the alternative to the eyesore of an empty premises on the main street, who could be against that? Someone, or some people, apparently.

It was reminiscent of the attack that took place in Brick Lane last August, when anti-gentrification protestors threw paint at the Cereal Killer Cafe, scaring customers inside. Their crime? Selling bowls of cereal at £5 a time. It seems to me, the anarchists might be missing the point. Don't take aim at the people trying to make a livelihood on the back of London's new wealth. Instead, direct the protest at the finance companies, the property speculators and foreign oligarchs driving the growing inequality. Of course, most of them don't actually live here, so they are much harder to find.


14th January 2016

3 into 2 will go

Last week came the announcement we have been waiting for. Stratford has now become part of Zone 2 on the London Underground map, having previously been in Zone 3. For those of you unfamiliar with subtleties of travel zones in London, this is the urban equivalent of the English Channel being redesignated part of the Atlantic Ocean, or Berwick moving back into Scotland. It is big.

It is especially big for commuters into London, for who the change of zone could mean a saving of 40p a day. Not only that, people in Stratford will still get the benefit of being in Zone 3 for outward journeys towards the edge of London. They will still be at the cheaper, Zone 3 price. Of course, there will be payback when the cost of their rent goes up by £100 a week, or they now have to pay £300,000 rather than £250,000 for a one-bed apartment in this part of London.

The redisgnation as Zone 2 is the final stage in recognition that east London has forever changed. It is not just Stratford. West Ham and Canning Town, the next two stops on the Jubilee Line have also been redesignated. Those places, formerly mentioned in geography textbooks as being 'among the most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK', will now have a different claim to fame. Transfer from 3 to 2 is the ultimate in 'rebranding', another phrase much used in the modern geography textbook.

The Underground zone in which you find yourself is even more important to a person's, or a company's, prestige than a post code. Westfield, Stratford City, alongside the newest postcode in the country - E20 - can now boast being in Zone 2. How good does that sound?