As the second anniversary of the Olympic and Paralympic Games rolls around, there will be a flurry of reports and very positive press articles from the Government and Boris about what’s been achieved in the last two years, and an upsurge in the number of calls from journalists who’d like Community Links to take the opposite view and say that’s it’s all bitterly disappointing.
For Community Links, a social action charity rooted in east London, the Olympic Games were always about the Legacy they would deliver.
East London won the Olympics on the strength of the story the bid told about the potential of the young, diverse and entrepreneurial population. Since 2005 when the bid was won, life is significantly tougher for this amazing community. The recession led to a sharp increase in youth unemployment, and family poverty has increased as welfare reforms bite hard. We support thousands of the most excluded young people each year, through projects which provide education for those excluded from mainstream schools, divert from gangs and crime, build confidence and skills, secure opportunities, apprenticeships and sustainable work. But in the years when young people have needed us most, funding for our services has reduced dramatically.
So the pressure couldn’t be higher for Legacy to deliver. We want the Legacy to deliver a significant shift in the mindset of young people who, up till now, have believed that they can’t achieve; that they can’t cross that postcode; that this isn’t for people like them. A Living Legacy.
So how are we doing?
The Park is open, it’s a beautiful and inspiring space which attracts a great mix of local people and tourists, and feels (so far) like a safe and neutral space for young people. The Park works because it was designed very thoughtfully and is being maintained exceptionally well. Often the redevelopment of public spaces in communities like ours has been done cheaply, almost as an afterthought, with no future revenue to maintain them, which leads inevitably to them not being cared for by the communities around them. Right now the Park is a place that local young people feel proud of. Sustaining this pride into the future will be essential.
The venues and attractions are open, many of them (thanks to the efforts of local councils) no more expensive than other local pools and tracks. The level of local employment in the venues is something that the Legacy Company can be very proud of – and includes some of the young people that Community Links has supported over many years during their journey from a young person in trouble or a young gang member, to fully qualified sports coach / caterer / maintenance technician. Westfield Stratford set the bar high by investing in an employment preparation programme that enabled them to beat their own targets for local employment and now enjoys the lowest staff turnover of any of its Shopping Centres around the world. The record of involving local enterprises in the Park itself is less good, despite quite radical procurement policies from the Legacy Company demanding supply chains that involve local subcontractors. Again, Westfield has been thoughtful on this, providing high end retail spaces as pop-ups for local enterprises – like our own Established initiative. The big opportunity for local employment and enterprise now is Here East (previously the media centre) – apparently larger than the Canary Wharf Tower lying on its side. The messaging is inspiring; the follow-through will require solid connections into what already exists locally alongside the best we can attract globally.
Families are now living in the East Village – the first housing scheme in the Park and the only one likely to have any significant social and affordable housing. We remain disappointed with the structural constrictions that limit the potential of regenerators to create genuinely mixed communities at scale in such a special place – the commitment of the Mayor to include a Community Land Trust is welcome but it will be extremely small. Of course the Park is surrounded by many square miles of some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country. The Legacy Company is wisely investing in engagement activities that blur the boundaries between the Park and its surroundings. Community Links is delivering all sorts of practical projects – carnivals and processions, fetes and picnics, sports, photography and arts, with others involved in growing, cycling, and a hundred other things that create the space in which neighbours can meet each other and begin to knit a strong link between new and old communities. It’s this kind of activity – small scale, almost invisible, hard to measure – which is first to get cut when the money gets tight, but that creates the invisible web of connections without which the billions invested won’t have made a blind bit of difference to the mindsets of the people who live around the margins. In fact it will reinforce the message to young people that “this is not for people like you”.
The plans in place for the next phase which will include a world-class cultural quarter and academic quarter are awesome (I believe it’s currently called Olympicopolous but let’s hope that swiftly fades…). With potential partners like the V&A, Smithsonian, the Young Vic and Sadler’s Wells, you actually can’t argue when Robin Wales talks about the centre of London moving east. Boris agrees – Stratford will be re-designated as Zone 2 on the London transport map from next year. How long before young people from east London feel like west-enders with all of this on their doorstep?
Potentially this all adds up to a far bigger and more life-changing opportunity for the young people of east London and their families than we dared to hope for back in 2005.
Of course, Legacy has had public investment at a level that other regeneration programmes can only dream of. How will what is being achieved in and around the Park influence the rest of the physical regeneration in east London (Canning Town, Silvertown, the Royal Docks etc) and more widely beyond London? Are we all committed to drawing out the learning? Who’s sharing it? And are the other programmes listening? And as more partners are engaged, how are we ensuring that the vision of Legacy doesn’t get diluted and start to be replaced with the old fashioned approaches that regenerators and developers are often so comfortable with: invest in shiny new stuff and offer a few entry-level jobs and over the generations the prosperity will trickle down and out into the surrounding neighbourhoods.
Because let’s be clear: Legacy is not the sole responsibility of a Government established legacy delivery body. We’re ALL responsible for Legacy. And that includes you, the negative journalists who seem to want young people to think that nothing good is ever possible. I hope that this blog shows that it’s not just the Legacy Company but the councils, the businesses, the local charities and enterprises who are working together to make this happen at every level. I think that together we’re on track to do regeneration better and righter than it’s been done before.
But despite my optimism, let’s not forget the wider context; these are difficult times to be young and poor. Unemployment here is still sky-high, jobs on offer are poorly paid and insecure, the safety net is being swiftly withdrawn (faster if you’re young) and there are significant public expenditure cuts still to work through. My two year report on Legacy is positive but there is a risk that wider economic forces will divert our attention, make our dreams smaller, or derail us completely.
That’s why Community Links will remain relentlessly positive about Legacy. But also why we will keep challenging everyone who’s involved to aim as high as possible. Get it right, now, and we will see an accelerator effect for all the young people of east London, lifting spirits and inspiring them to believe that they are the Living Legacy.