As the tenth anniversary of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games approaches, the first depictions of what is now known as Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park have been rendered from the black and white palette of betrayal. It’s no surprise – that’s how you get attention in journalism and academia, and there’s going to be a lot more like that to come. Let’s add a few shades of gray to a complicated picture that negativity stories tend to exclude.
It is important to bear in mind that the planning and development of the post-Games Park as a new piece of town in the Lower Lea Valley has gone through many changes and still is, varying according to political priorities. , previous commitments, terms of delivery, imperative financial conditions, market conditions, etc. Early hopes and estimates of, for example, the number of homes and jobs that would be created on the park and the wider benefits for east London were always subject to revision, adaptation, challenge and risk of being too optimistic.
With housing still a hot topic in London, five residential areas are in various stages of development on land within the park itself owned by the public body responsible for the park and its surroundings, the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC): Chobham Manor, East Wick, Sweetwater, Pudding Mill and part of Stratford Waterfront. The first is almost finished, the last two not started yet. Stratford Waterfront Homes will stand alongside the emerging cultural and educational hub of the West Bank, and help pay for it. The entire site was previously intended for high density housing and the abandonment of this – an important story in itself – is a good example of how and why the park project has changed over time.
Between them, the five neighborhoods will eventually include about 5,500 homes, 40% of which will be “affordable” of one type or another, i.e. available for rent at below market prices. or through “low-cost home ownership” programs designed to help middle-income households move up 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 smaller developments on LLDC lands that are just outside the park itself (hence the grand total of 5,855 houses).
The term “affordable” is slippery and a persistent source of cynicism about how “affordable” homes are affordable and for whom. Affordable housing, the creation of the Tory-led Coalition government, can be priced at 80% of local market rates, although in practice in London most are not because housing associations consider that as incompatible with their objectives.
The amounts and types of “affordable” housing in park developments are the product of a number of factors. There was pressure for housing to be delivered as soon as possible after the Games had ended – hanging around could have been called ‘treason’ – and the first of the quarters, Chobham Manor, was approved under Boris Johnson, who placed less weight on affordable percentages than Ken Livingstone before him or Sadiq Khan after.
Another consideration for the LLDC was the need to earn money. There has always been a tension between this and his duty to ensure that the park provides maximum benefit to local people. The Chobham Manor site had been purchased from the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, and money previously borrowed from the government to purchase land for the park is to be repaid in the long term under a legal agreement – quite favorable, of which more another time – between Mayor Johnson and the Treasury (see paragraph 56).
It was in this context that initially only 28% of the houses in Chobham Manor were to be ‘affordable’. It has since risen to 35%, a result of Sadiq Khan pumping more funds into housing on stock (which is why the “affordable” proportion will eventually be quite healthy). London Affordable Rent is a term coined by Khan to reflect his insistence that the rents of affordable housing which he helps to pay through his Affordable Housing Scheme, using funds allocated by the national government, are adjacent to what the new social rent levels would be. Another thing to bear in mind is that many Londoners in social housing and other affordable rental accommodation are on Housing Benefit or Universal Credit with a housing cost component (558,000 households social tenants according to the Mayor’s Housing Strategy database).
“Affordable” mid-range housing, called London Living Rent and London Shared Ownership when backed by Mayor’s money, are “low-cost home ownership” products suitable for middle-income households. It is often protested that these are not really affordable, even for this group. In his ‘Betrayal’ article for the Guardian, Oliver Wainwright reports that to qualify for condominiums in ‘the Olympic area’ one needs ‘an annual income of at least £60,000’ and compares this with a “middle income in local boroughs” from “around £27,000“.
The Office for National Statistics’ labor market statistics for 2021 tell a different story about local incomes. Its median figure for Newham residents is £677.60 a week, which equates to £35,235 a year. For the three other original Olympic boroughs, whose boundaries straddle the park, Hackney, Waltham Forest and Tower Hamlets, the figures were £705.30 per week respectively (£36,675 per year), £727.70 per week (£37,840 per year) and £797.30 per week (£41,460 per year), the latter being likely to be biased by high incomes residing in Canary Wharf. Also, the qualifying figure for these dwelling occupancy types is for housework income, not individual income. London Living Rent is for households earning a maximum of £60,000. So maybe the local median income couples, earning around £70,000 a year between them, will be able to afford these intermediate homes in the park. A number already do.
The focus is also often on what happened to the former Olympic Village, built next to the Stratford City shopping center in Westfield, where athletes can reside during the Games. In what was to him an almost friendly description of the region as it is today, writer Iain Sinclair, who was the media’s go-to man for anti-Games scorn and mockery before London 2012, described for the Financial Times the lack of kitchen facilities in each unit as a “design flaw anticipating hipsterdom at the restaurant”. But the original village was built with communal restaurants and the plan has always been to convert the apartments, the building and its surrounding infrastructure for normal residential use after the Games.
It had been envisaged that the village would be privately funded, but the global financial crisis of 2008 put an end to this. It was left to the Olympic Delivery Authority to find the money from its park construction budget and then sell the flats with the competing goals of meeting local housing needs and balancing its own books with taxpayers’ interest in mind.
About half of the apartments went to a housing association for social renting and condominiums, and the rest were bought by developer Delancey and Qatar’s property investment arm. ODA’s £1.1bn costs were not fully covered by these deals, to the tune of around £275m, but this result was defended on the grounds that public investment would still be needed to develop the site. Could and should the ODA have done better? You probably had to be there to answer that. But if these agreements had not been reached and if the village building had remained empty despite a promise being made that it would be turned into houses, people might have cried “treason”.
The pre-anniversary coverage has already relied on an important sub-meme of pre-Games churalism, the destruction of the Clays Lane housing estate. In Wainwright’s article, this is quite characterized as “an experiment in building tight-knit communities to help vulnerable singles”. It’s more problematic that one of its former residents, a dedicated anti-Games activist who was also closely involved in running the estate, is quoted as saying the community there had been “shattered” by his eviction and the destruction of the domain.
Readers of the Guardian were not told that much of the accommodation was student accommodation and that many residents of the estate did not consider the experiment a success. A survey carried out in 2005 revealed that 84% of them did not want to live in collective housing and would have preferred an independent apartment, and that more than half of them wanted to be rehoused outside a cooperative or collective housing set up. Previously, in 2000, a report by the Audit Commission of the Housing Corporation, which at the time funded affordable housing, concluded that the management of the estate was extremely poor and that there were very few prospects for improvement.
It’s another example of how monochrome controversies over the legacy of the Park and the Games erase complicated details from the history of the Olympic Park project. Charges of “treason” are easy to make. Explaining why things happened and describing how they could have been different is trickier.
Dave Hill is the publisher and editor of About London and author of Olympic Park: When Britain Built Something Big.