A YEAR after hosting the Olympics, London is trumpeting the economic benefits of the Games. But residents living near the Olympic Park are still waiting for the promised benefits as rents soar.
Usain Bolt is in town and the scent of 2012 is in the air as London’s Olympic Park reopens its doors for an athletics meet and anniversary festivities, 12 months after it hosted the greatest sporting show on earth.
Eventually, the site will be handed over to the people with the ambitious aim of creating the “Hyde Park” of the east.
But in the neighborhoods surrounding the site, it is very far from Chelsea and other upmarket districts as cranes and futuristic buildings vie for attention against the grey backdrop.
Stratford, chosen as the main site of the Games, ranks among the poorest areas of Britain. It has problems of crime, rampant unemployment and dire child poverty levels, which run at 40 percent in Tower Hamlets, one of its districts.
The organizing committee sold its bid on a promise to “fundamentally transform” these districts by committing to them a significant chunk of the £9.3 billion ($14.3 billion, 10.8 billion euros) spent on the Games by the taxpayer.
London mayor Boris Johnson this week declared that it was already “Mission Accomplished”.
Beyond the economic boost to the country, which the government this week claimed was £9.9 billion, and the city’s biggest baby boom since 1966, Johnson also welcomed the “astonishing economic story of regeneration in east London”.
According to him, it have taken at least 70 years to materialize without the Games.
“Transport, investment, homes, Westfield (shopping center)—all these are hard facts,” the mayor said.
It is beyond dispute that the Olympic Park, built on a polluted brownfield site, has changed the area beyond all recognition. It now has an international train station and Westfield, the largest shopping center in Europe.
This temple of commerce, with its international retail chains and Brazilian barbecue, is meant to embody the new Stratford, even if its surroundings still resemble a construction site in a soulless urban desert.
But most of the area’s population lives on the other side of the major railway junction, in old Stratford, which is a different world.
At the foot of the railway bridge is the far less glamorous, brown-bricked, Stratford Center, where Norman Williams sells socks and £2 T-shirts.
“Westfield brought more people, and it didn’t really harm this center,” he explained to Agence France-Presse.
“There are not so many quality shops but local people are mainly poor people who don’t need Westfield shops all the time.”
Born in Stratford, Williams said he was “mainly positive” about the efforts of Games organizers, despite initial doubts.
Many in Stratford are also grateful to the Games for “putting them on the map,” he added.
“Young kids can use the track, swimming and cycling facilities, and there is a major football team (West Ham United) coming,” said Jo Pearce. “I believe London did really well.”
On the downside, rents and house prices have soared.
In Newham, another struggling district of Stratford, they have increased by about 19 percent in two years, while the average across London stands below 13 percent.
Around the Olympic Park, one-bedroom apartments are being leased out at £300 per week, an eye-watering cost out of the reach of locals.
Some 35 percent of the 2,800 Olympic Village apartments will become social housing. But half were sold to the Qatar sovereign wealth fund, which intends to rent at the rising market value.
“Rents went up, that’s for sure,” explained Harriett Haynes, a retiree who owns a three-bedroom apartment with her husband.
“My neighbors had to move out because they couldn’t keep up anymore, it became too expensive.”
In fact, renters have long anticipated the regeneration of the area, and also that they would never be able to afford to share in the promised rewards. AFP