East London boroughs are different from the rest of London – their populations have lower incomes, higher unemployment, lower skills, bigger concentrations of residents from ethnic minority backgrounds. Their population is younger with more lone-parent families, higher population turnover, more social housing. But the East End also has many valuable assets – more spare land and more disused buildings, more space for redevelopment, faster improving skill and lower house prices than London as a whole. All this is the legacy of centuries of intense development as London’s backyard. The Olympic Games came to East London to overcome this twin legacy of high deprivation and spare capacity, which divides the area into extremes of wealth and poverty.
The LSE Housing and Communities team made repeat visits over ten years to one hundred low-income East End families in two of the Olympic boroughs – Hackney and Newham, both before and after the bid was announced. Today the LSE team is again interviewing residents about the direct impact of the Olympics on family life and local neighbourhoods. Newham is the main host of the Games and the borough will be directly affected. Before the Games, Newham had three times the national level of lone parents, double the unemployment rate, three times the rate of violent crime, double the proportion claiming benefits, double the proportion living in social renting. Despite the Games developments, Newham still ranks among the very poorest local authorities in the country.
Families struggling on low incomes in deprived neighbourhoods want a better future for their children. They welcome investment in their area, as long as it doesn’t directly threaten them, such as demolition of their homes. The Olympics, building on largely derelict sites, will add a major park and better transport connections, but locals are still unsure how much they will directly benefit. Olympic jobs have not proved easy to access. The Olympic site itself was firmly closed up to the Games; and the much vaunted legacy of new homes, school and health centre is yet to kick in. Only the brand new Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, the dense blocks of the athletes’ village in the distance, the festive street improvements, the outline of the stadium and the sight of the huge Olympic Park suggest the massive legacy there will be.
Yet real community change has happened since our family interviews began in 1998. Firstly, the arrival of high speed international trains at Stratford, long in coming, paved the way for London winning the Games, making King’s Cross less than 10 minutes from the Park. London buses, local trains and underground have improved around this long run plan. Secondly, the local Stratford shopping centre rose to the challenge of upmarket Westfield, by upgrading its image while still providing cheap, affordable goods for low-income local populations. Thirdly, local schools have climbed steadily from their very poor performance in the 1990s to catch up with national scores in the last few years.
So post-Olympic East London may become an easier place to bring up children, it may become a more harmonious, more hopeful, more resilient place. Or it may be left even poorer as spending cuts bite harder and resources tighten. Local leadership will need to fight for their existing communities, not for richer newcomers. More jobs, more education, more opportunity, more local events and more support for families and young people are the lifelines of survival in tough times. Local communities will be the losers if developers take their space and displace them. There’s a lot to win or lose after the Games.
Note: LSE Housing and Communities is carrying out research into the long term impact of the London Olympics on deprivation in the London Borough of Newham.
Other books by Anne Power with The Policy Press:
- City survivors: Bringing up children in disadvantaged neighbourhoods
- Jigsaw cities: Big places, small spaces
- Phoenix cities: The fall and rise of great industrial cities
- Family futures: Childhood and poverty in urban neighbourhoods