Once British glee about beating the French to host the 2012 Olympics had subsided, the popular sentiment was ‘oh b*gger!’ For some reason that I can’t fathom, British people nowadays shy away from big public projects (unlike their French cousins who see in the vanity projects of their presidents a reflection of their national glory). I’m convinced it was this natural antipathy that did for the Millenium Dome, and not – as many in the media would have you believe – because of a mess up on seating arrangements on opening night which left many influential journalists out in the cold – and much worse sober – on New Year’s Eve.
So what does this mean for the Olympics? Clearly noone wants a humiliating spectacle like the Commonwealth Games being hosted in Delhi. The public and the media will probably rally behind the Games in the run up to the big event (with a few side grumbles). But once the glory of the games has ebbed I predict a massive Millenium style backlash against the regeneration project.
Last night I attended a talk at the British Library on ‘London And The Olympics: Predicting the legacy of the twenty-first century‘ , part of the excellent Story of London festival. Despite a barrage of stage support for the biggest regeneration project in London (costing £9.3 billion) from the people making it happen, the flamboyant Stephen Bayley, architecture and design correspondent for the Observer, gained the biggest cheers from the audience when he said it was all wrong. Rather than put all the resources into regenerating one of the most deprived areas of London (and the UK), a project he argued was doomed to fail, the government should have sprinkled the event around the city, making use of its existing venues. Bob Allies, designer of the Olympic media centre, appeared to sort-of agree. While that might have been a good idea, he said, the sprinkle effect would never have worked because it was the concentrated regeneration project the Olympic judges were looking for.
Arguments in favour:
Allies: connecting East London with the rest of the city. Setting up potential for the next thirty years.
Paul Brickell, Newham Council’s executive member for Olympics, talked of all the private sector investment being attracted to the area. The Westfield shopping centre, destined to be the biggest retail centre in Europe creating 8,000 jobs, a project which pre-dated the Games, but would surely have been mothballed if they hadn’t happened. The location of part of Birkbeck, the university for working people, to Stratford brings career progession opportunities to locals, as does Siemens £30 million investment in the area. More will follow, he predicted….
But still, despite the promise of hope for the impoverished East End of London, Britons are bashing it before it’s even begun (the regeneration effort will mostly happen after the Games in 2012). The only people to benefit will be the developers who have cosied up the local politicians, is the common wisdom. On the one hand it is a massive waste of money, on the other hand £9.3 billion divided by 30 years only makes around £300 million per year, or about five houses on Mayfair. Which means it won’t make much of a difference…..
Why this need to bash our Grand Ambitions? We didn’t used to be like this. In the Victorian era we build great monuments, bridges and infrastructure, much of which (because we have lacked the will for big projects since), we still rely on today. Bayley argued that even the French have given up on their Grand projets, arguing that it’s time for petit projects (he clearly hasn’t heard of the Grand Paris project to transform the French capital by linking it with its hinterland in the Ile de France). But he’s not alone. I’ve met up with a few friends and acquaintances in the British media and their verdict on the Olympics is either ‘boring‘ or a target waiting to be picked on. Even some of my planning colleagues say the arguments are becoming a bit stale. Could this lack of enthusiasm be a sort of post colonial masochism I wonder?