Park dwellers look away as Olympics approach

Published Jul 25, 2012 05:22am

An aerial view of the Olympic Village, Shopping Centre and the Orbit Tower (observation platform). – Photo courtesy London2012 Media Centre
An aerial view of the Olympic Village, Shopping Centre and the Orbit Tower (observation platform). – Photo courtesy London2012 Media Centre

The carpet has been laid out with all the trimmings, including the special “Games Lanes,” renovated parks and the fully constructed Olympic Village. With an estimated £9.35bn being spent on renovations and an estimated influx of 5.5 million visitors, London is all but overrun with the world media, athletes, bureaucrats and tourists on a spectacular scale.

London’s Olympic preparations began in 2005, with ambitious plans to locate 61 per cent of the Olympic Village in Newham. However, there has been disturbingly little critique on the rapid developments and treatment of the residents as London gets ready for its big party this weekend.

With the UK having the second highest settlement of Pakistanis abroad, it is no surprise that London is home to a Pakistani community of approximately 200,000. The highest percentage of these Pakistanis reside in Newham – the home of the Olympics – in towns such as East Ham, Stratford, Manor Park, Upton Park and Forest Gate. Pakistanis residing in the area mostly hail from the Mirpur district in Kashmir and surrounding districts of Jhelum, Rawalpindi and Gujrat in Punjab, as well as Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar. Newham, however, is not termed the highest non-White ethnic group area in the country, with over 60 per cent of its population, on the basis of its Pakistani community alone. It also comprises an equally large Bangladeshi community, as well as Indian and African Muslims.

However diverse it is, you only needed to pass through the area to see why it is equally well-known for its relative poverty. As the fourth most deprived local authority area in England and Wales, the local government has attempted to combat the high levels of unemployment and dependency on state benefits. An area traditionally famed for its shipbuilding and industrial expertise, the decline of industry over the years has increased the levels of poverty.

It was the prospect of overcoming these troubles and rejuvenating the area that was instrumental in securing London its bid for the 2012 Olympics. The bid was heralded by one of the locals as “the best thing that’s ever happened to London”. The mainstream media reported on the opportunities for tourism, development and sport this would provide, but seven years later it is clear that the reality has left the local community extremely polarised. One thing is certain: contrary to the city’s claim, these are not “Everyone’s Games” and if you lift the Olympic carpet, you are likely to be surprised by what you find brushed underneath.

The Olympics have served to systematically marginalise the working class and effectively ‘cleanse’ it of the poorest and most undesirable members of society. It all began before the building work even commenced. The London Development Authority (LDA) served 425 social housing residents with a Compulsory Purchase Order for the Olympic and Paralympic Games at the Clay Lane Housing Estate. The bid was won on its claim to sustaining the community and as Mohammed – a local – explains, the residents had been promised a ‘community move’ but that never materialised. As a result, some like Mohammed were relocated to a larger property in their chosen location with some compensation. However, an estimated 25 social housing residents were left in damp properties or forced into emergency accommodation in hostels. Individuals in private housing were denied re-housing altogether and this resulted in the constitution of an appeals panel to assess the ‘reasonableness’ of the relocation and compensation. In one case, however, the LDA refused to accept findings and as former resident Julian Cheyne explained the residents refusing to move were legally evicted and refused legal aid as “the High Court and Legal Aid Commission held that the Olympic Project was too important to be threatened by legal challenges.” With the Olympic Charter explicitly prohibiting “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” it is fair to say that these voices will be left unheard.

The plans for housing after the Olympics are equally controversial with local residents complaining that the properties will be unaffordable and they are being priced out of the market. Hassan Adani, 48, worked as a street cleaner for 20 years before a medical condition left him unemployed said “Spend a night sleeping in a homeless hostel with doors banging throughout the night and your priorities will change. To say the houses available in the Olympic Park will be ‘affordable’ is ridiculous.”

The displacement of these people is confirmed by the 2007 UN-funded Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) which released a report detailing that with more than two million evictees between 1988 and 2008, the Olympics is one of the top causes of displacement in the world.

Pakistanis in the area had varied opinions on the famed Olympic property boom that this would bring. Ahmed – who purchased a property to rent in Newham – explained, the local area is under-performing compared to the rest of London by 10 – 20 per cent due to the huge supply of new developments and exorbitant costs of local living. Property analysts are confident the rental market will pick up after the Olympic rush as 2,818 apartments in the village will become part of a new housing district – E20 – split between social housing provided by the local authority and private sector apartments from the Qatari Diar and Investment group Delancey (QDD).

Nonetheless, the lower income Pakistani families in the area are unlikely to be able to afford these new apartments. Perhaps the jobs from the Olympics can offset this as according to the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) the development plans have created 200,000 jobs and skills, with 12,000 permanent jobs created by the Olympic Park alone. There is no doubt that the Olympic has stimulated the economy but at what cost?

From the day London won the bid many local businesses stood defiantly with their banners stating “2012: Killing Local Businesses.” The 300 existing businesses in the Marshgate Lane trading park were sentenced to eviction with many belonging to Pakistanis who traded in the area with fruits and vegetables, exported clothes and local amenities. They have struggled to relocate due to the unaffordable costs elsewhere in London. This treatment is not restricted to Newham. Nabil and Georgie, experienced this firsthand when both the Pakistani and Bulgarian – who work as artists in Leicester Square – were asked to “temporarily relocate” with nine others during renovations. They all continued to pay £550 per month for their licence to trade as they relied heavily on the visitors in the area for their income. However, with the completion of renovations last month, authorities have informed the artists they could no longer return to Leicester square. Nabil and Georgie, like many others, have been displaced without restitution.

With the completion of Olympic renovations, LOCOG undertook preparations for the staging of the 2012 Olympics, with military stylised control over the use of the Olympic brands and Olympic festivals around the city.

This requires added security, and in recent days the Olympics has received a great backlash in the court of public opinion for the militarisation of London due to the “G4S fiasco.” G4S – the security firm – has admitted it is unable to recruit adequate numbers in time for the games. The government has responded through the recruitment and deployment of over 2,000 military reservists in addition to the existing 13,500 military force – a military deployment greater than that in Afghanistan. It does not end here, as on 9 July less than three weeks to the Olympic Opening Ceremony, the Residents of the Fred Wigg Tower in Leytonstone started proceedings to sue the security forces for placing a surface-to-air missile on the roof of the building. The court held that the residents did not have a case as the government was obligated to “defend the realm and to protect national security.” This is one of six tower blocks to be used to host missiles, in addition to the Royal Navy battleship moored offshore in Greenwich, the 500 FBI Agents sent from the US, and the lightweight aerial droves hovering above the London skyline to provide the elite firearms response teams assistance. The city is certainly capitalising on catastrophe having spent an incredible $1.6bn on security.

So have Pakistanis, amongst other ethnic communities in Newham been brushed aside by the Olympics? Olympic cities have long established a trend to use this spectacular show to fast track the dispossession of the poor and marginalised through brushing them under the capitalist carpet for financial accumulation.

However, the relocation of the vast majority has been coupled with better living standards and £8,500 in compensation. The saturation of the housing market is predicted to work alongside buying schemes to make the housing more affordable, alongside the efforts to transition the Olympic Village to ‘East Village.’

At the Olympic Village, Moiz – a 34 year old working in IT in the local area – was navigating his way through the tourists and shoppers to take his children home from the mosque. He received the games with mixed feelings, commenting that “the atmosphere will be great for a while, but the legacy of the games is going to be whatever happens to all these sites after all the glitz and glamour have worn away.”

The sustainability of the local community and of the three generations of Pakistanis who have carved a home in the area, is vital for the legacy of the Olympics. History demonstrates that the UK does not gracefully execute its ‘exit strategies’ but the London Legacy Development Corporation has implemented plans to transition the sites from athletic arenas to functional city spaces. Have they thought of the Pakistani locals lost in all of these plans? As Moiz’s seven-year-old daughter aptly stated when asked about the Olympics Village, “I don’t know if I like it yet, I’ll see”.

The author is a freelance contributor based in London.


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Comments (16) (Closed)


Peter
Jul 25, 2012 03:20pm
Excellent article Shabana. All that glitters is not gold. The cost of living has skyrocketed in an already socially deprived area. The Olympics is employed forceful marketing tactics at the expense of liberty and employment has NOT hugely benefited the local area as we were told it would. Im live in Stratford and i am staying well out of it in ireland!
Salma Hussain
Jul 25, 2012 02:46pm
A very interesting article. I agree we won't be able to see the true effects until the Olympics and Paralympics have passed. It has no doubt created a number of job opportunities for the residents of Newham but I doubt it will leave any long term benefit. I am just looking forward to it all being over as it is causing chaos in the surrounding areas!
Irteza Siddique
Jul 25, 2012 02:51pm
So true Hassan Tariq...throughout the western world wherever there are large Pakistani communities you see this story being repeated again and again...not trying to integrate, not making use of the opportunities that are there, ultimately create a sort of slum where conditions are little better then what they left behind in Pakistan, get marginalized with little contribution in the mainstream discourse and then blame it on somebody else...
Dominique
Jul 25, 2012 01:46pm
This is a particularly timely article. I read recently in The Economist that the UK has invested heavily in the media centre at the Olympic park, including a pharmacy, a UPS facility and a free beauty and hairdressing salon within the media centre. The author suggested the reason for this was to ensure that the journalists at the Olympic park reported positively on the Games. As such, I wonder whether journalists at the Olympic park will report on the more unsettling aspects of the Olympics, as Ms Saleem has done. I would echo the comments of Ms Saleem and a fellow commenter in stating that we will have to wait and see whether the plans to transition the Olympic site will indeed benefit the local community.
Sam
Jul 25, 2012 11:00am
British Pound (GBP) exchage rate is still very very high in currency exchange market and this high GBP exchange rate is badly hurting UK manufacturing industries.UK prices are not competative enough to match with China or US markets.
riz
Jul 25, 2012 10:57am
well it has already shown some impact on unemployment rate as it has gone down. let see the aftermath of the olympics.
Shahid
Jul 27, 2012 03:26pm
A fantastic and informative article that is covered in quite some depth.
Hasan Tariq Khattak
Jul 25, 2012 07:48am
Very unfortunate for our community, even more unfortunate is having got the opportunity to settle in a first world country for a better living for themselves and their generations to come (a third generation for those being here since the 60's influx), they have not capitalized on this opportunity. If a nation of unskilled workers can not acquire skill and education to up its standard of living in almost 40 years of being in the UK, we really have brought this situation upon ourselves and the Olympic Park is not to blame for our woes today. We choose to live in the UK while maintaining to live like we did in our native villages in Pakistan. Its the mindset, not the locality. Pakistan Zindabad.
A Londoner
Jul 25, 2012 08:29am
Good article! Few people are pausing to weigh the benefits of the Olympics with its potentially high cost. Let's not forget that the city of Montreal almost went bankrupt in hosting the Olympics. Will the Games be the economic boost we need or will this remain a false promise? As the author says, we will have to wait and see!
Amir
Jul 25, 2012 05:52pm
Interesting points of view, i feel in the long run it will be positive as such a development will be taken into other sports, developments and overseas investors. Perhaps the pakistani community could even pool together to create something for their own community as opposed to being critical of a government that has given them more then many other countries in the world...just food for thought. :)
mike
Jul 26, 2012 10:58am
Excellent article giving great insight and depth to the machine that is "The Olympic Games" get in its way at your peril. The article provides great detail and indepth information that is as usual in these cases kept out of the limelight to portray a completely diffrent scenario. The community will be left with the majority of the problems which the organisers will wash their hands of and nearly all of the infrastructure put in place to host and accomodate the games will more than probably be of no use to the remaining community and will inncur more costs to make it suitable for day to day use. So many lifes and businesses affected in a detremental way and this is of no concerne by in large to the organisers. Excellent Journalism, keep up the good work
nobody
Jul 25, 2012 10:26pm
great. you did not sound like a typical pakistani, happy that there are more like myself, bang on it is the "mindset" that plagues us in Pakistan and ouside Pakistan.
Ali Khan
Jul 25, 2012 10:41pm
Agreed. British Pakistanis have by and large stagnated. What pray tell is the point of traversing continents in the hope and expectation of progress just to...drive a taxi! Other than perpetuating a stereotype, that is.
Humayun
Jul 26, 2012 02:20am
I like the article as well as the author very much. Article is very informative. Although I am a Pakistani, borned in Lahore but not living in the UK. This article gave me a very insight into the 2012 London Olympics. Thanks. Humayun
Agha Ata
Jul 26, 2012 03:11am
The future Olympic holding countries will have to change the theme of the opening and closing ceremonies. I mean that instead of a show of POWER and WEALTH, it should be harmony, beauty, simplicity, efficiency, etc! so that even poorer countries have a chance to hold olympics.
Susanna
Jul 26, 2012 03:20am
The Guardian recently posted an article about the state of Athen's Olympic Park 8 years after it hosted the 2004 games. Pictures showed that it is now abandoned, rusty and desolate. This seems like a trend of many host cities after the Olympics have come and gone. What is to stop this from happening to London? What the Author has rightly highlighted here is the dark side of the Olympics. As Londoners, it is all very well being carried away by the bright lights and shiny medals over the next few weeks but we must not forget that it is the Newham locals that will be stuck with it. They have a big job on their hands to integrating the Olympic site into their community and the Government should have done better job not to alienate them.