Who's to blame for the funding debacle at the London Stadium, formerly the Olympic Stadium? We'll probably never know, but leading politicians have been busy passing the buck between one another since it was announced last week that Newham Council will never recoup the £52 million of ratepayer's money that they put into the project. Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has blamed former mayor, Boris Johnson, claiming that he bungled the post-Olympic conversion of the stadium into a multi-purpose venue. Boris, in turn, blames the previous mayor, Ken Livingstone, who was in charge when the original Olympic bid was made and the decision taken to create a temporary stadium that would convert into an athetics arena after the Games.
The blame game is being played, not just by London mayors but also, by local politicians. Sir Robin Wales, the elected mayor of Newham, also blames Boris, regretting that the borough will not get its money back. But, local councillor, Conor McAuley, says it outrageous that Sir Robin should blame Boris since he was also part of the deal that saw Newham agree to help the funding of the stadium conversion in return for some of the profit. It is now clear that there will be no profit. Indeed, the stadium is running at loss with matchday costs at the stadium of £220,000 set against the £2.5 million paid by West Ham each season. It could get even worse if West Ham were relegated this season and their rent is halved.
It's a shame that politicians can't talk to, or about, each other more sensibly because, while mistakes were clearly made, my interpretation is that they were made for understandable reasons. Going back to the original plans in 2005, the stadium was designed at a time when the empty Millenium Dome (now the O2 Arena) was an embarrassment to the government, having cost £3/4 billion. Rather than repeat the mistake, they decided to build a temporary stadium that could be dismantled after the Games and re-erected elsewhere, leaving the running track inside a much smaller arena. This plan had the added merit that it would help to make London 'the greenest games ever', by using less steel and concrete than any previous Olympic stadium and even making use of old, recycled, gas pipes in its construction.
The fortunes of the Millenium Dome changed and it became successful as the O2 Arena. So, plans for the stadium changed too as Boris decided that it might have a future after all. A tenant was sought that would fit the plans for a multi-purpose stadium that could be used through the winter as well as being an athletics arena again in the summer. West Ham put forward the successful bid, with the support and financial backing of Newham Council. We are left where we are today, with Newham residents, already some of the poorest in London, £52 million poorer.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'?