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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.