London Calling: After The Gold, Hush

In the wake of the London Olympics, the legacy is a good deal less than bright and glittering

By Rory MacKinnon

There’s a chill gust stirring on the pier near Tower Bridge, and the vast Paralympic logo strung across it wavers slightly in the breeze. Somewhere downriver Big Ben is chiming six, and world champion swimmer Tara Flood has just hopped down from a bare plywood podium. She’s acerbic and charismatic, dropping gags throughout the ceremony, and I only just catch myself in time before reaching to shake her hand — a spectacularly dumb move, since she doesn’t have one. That’s why we’re here.

Flood is one of Britain’s great Paralympians: seven medals, a world record for the 50m breaststroke that still stands a decade later, and a tireless career of activism ever since. Which is what led her to join today’s mock medal ceremony outside City Hall, a protest by grassroots campaigners against the Paralympics’ corporate sponsor, Atos Healthcare

For most people, Atos Healthcare is just another faceless government contractor in an endless sea of outsourcing. Presumably their £100m sponsorship deal with the International Paralympic Committee is supposed to change all that. But Flood and others with disabilities know all too well who Atos Healthcare are: their parent Atos Origin makes that much in a single year under a controversial contract with the Department of Work and Pensions, running ‘work capability assessments’ on benefit claimants more or less at will.

Trials in 2010 found a 70 percent drop in full benefits granted and a 30 percent drop in ‘unfit for work’ assessments, leading critics to accuse Atos of deliberately driving down payouts. The company has rejected the allegations, but last month Channel 4’s Dispatches team obtained undercover footage of an instructor telling her class a 13 percent approval rate was “too high”.

Nor is the pain inflicted merely financial. Flood – whose own assessment is scheduled for next March – tells me she’s already stewing, just as I’ve heard from literally dozens of others. Stress-related illnesses are rife among claimants, and Citizens Advice has corroborated “a number of cases” where people have died shortly after being ruled fit for work. In fact, more than a thousand people in last year’s trials were moved into its ‘work-related activity group’ – involving reduced payments and work-focused interviews – only to have died by March the following year.

This is a lot to bombard you with, dear readers, but it goes to show just how far removed the London 2012 games really are from, well, London in 2012. Perhaps I should have pointed instead to the 11 miles of seemingly permanent electrified steel bars and razor wire that now surround the citadel – protest-proof, ideal for your next arms fair or G20 summit – as a potent symbol of the Games’ intrusion on the political landscape. But equally distressing is the way that our commentariat have accorded the Games an untouchable a-political jolliness, even as they not only demonstrate a political and social disconnect on every level, but threaten to actively harm the host nation that they purport to celebrate.

Admittedly the Olympic opening ceremony’s paean to the National Health Service sent tribal Twitterati rushing to their touchscreens, given the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition’s breakneck privatisation agenda. Yet with all the attempts to divine director Danny Boyle’s intentions, few if any were sour enough to note the source of his funding — £41m funnelled from that same welfare state in a time of savage and ideological public spending cuts. All in all the Games have swallowed up at least £9.3bn in public funding — ironically almost exactly the same amount cut from support services for disabled people under the coalition’s austerity programme.

Even the non-profit sector has been ransacked: in 2007 the previous Labour government siphoned off £425m intended for charities through the BIG Lottery Fund, vowing to repay them with the cash from selling off post-Olympic assets. As for when? The standard line is that “lottery distributors should start to receive payments in the mid-2020s”. Presumably those food banks and women’s shelters can hold out till then.

Perhaps I’m overly cynical. Perhaps an avalanche of Games-nostalgic tourists will deliver their vaunted economic stimulus, At this point only the augurs can say. But it’s not just a matter of bad timing or bread and circuses: the political disconnect runs far deeper even than that. It’s a matter of the ephemeral ‘Olympic legacy’, a feel-good phrase that masks a genuinely sobering question. Just what will the Games leave behind?

Well, lots of money for the Rio delegation at any rate: PM David Cameron has already pledged £500m in funding for training 2016’s team, “to reward the success of the UK’s outstanding elite sport system.”

Yet the rollback of PE programmes and facilities in decidedly non-elite state schools chugs on. Just the week before the Olympics’ opening, Department for Education officials confirmed they had scrapped requirements to offer secondary students at least two hours’ PE a week — nor will schools even need to report what they actually are offering.

Nor will secondary schools require a minimum size and number of playing fields, instead needing only the vagaries of “suitable outdoor space” — no doubt a tempting offer for the government’s newly-converted academies and free schools, which are free to sign off asset sales all by themselves.

Likewise its delivery of School Sport Partnerships, which offer PE teachers paid leave to co-ordinate competitions and programmes, has been cut by a massive 37 percent.

Since ring-fenced funding was cut from £162m to just £51m, in 2010 days on release across every region in England have more than halved — and more than one in four local authorities no longer have any Partnership programmes at all.

Meanwhile those bastions of public health McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Cadbury’s have put their Olympic sponsor status to good use with a marketing blitz — in a nation where a third of children are overweight or obese by the time they finish primary school.

But the worst of that crisis is yet to come. In the ‘Olympic boroughs’ of East London – Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham, Barking & Dagenham, Greenwich and Waltham Forest, some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country — the dubious 2012 legacy is already hitting home.

Community organisers long ago predicted the current flurry of opportunism among landlords, but it’s the more permanent rise in housing costs that’s really worrying people. What Olympic organisers call regeneration, locals call gentrification.

Developers Delancey have promised to convert part of the Athletes Village post-Games into ‘affordable housing’ in a nod to corporate social responsibility — 1,379 apartments’ worth.

But affordable for who? In statutory terms the label covers anything up to 80 percent of market rents, and the illustrious new E20 postcode is hardly going to keep the yuppies at bay. In fact in Newham, where the Village is based, locals are already under attack from their own council.

Data collected by the Digital Property Group in January found the average flat in Newham now cost £1,589 a month — just £244 less than the area’s average household income, and with housing benefits now capped at £400 a week. No surprise then that researchers from housing charity Shelter last year reported the second highest rate of repossession claims in the whole country. Meanwhile its waiting lists now equate to around 35 percent of the existing accommodation across the borough — a backlog that, given the current rate of new builds, would take 40 years to relieve.

Which is why a Stoke-on-Trent housing association in April blew the whistle on Newham’s attempts to bump tenants off their waiting lists, exiling them to the town 170 miles away instead for what council officers described as “the buoyant young professionals market.”

Brighter Futures CEO Gill Brown was adamant: Newham faced “a real issue of social cleansing” — and that was just the start, based on previous relocations of needy people. “The result was huge, unplanned pressure on local services, the collapse of already vulnerable neighbourhoods and the rise of divisive right-wing extremism. We believe that, if London boroughs are allowed to export their most vulnerable and challenging families to cities like Stoke-on-Trent, then exactly the same will happen again.”

Nor is it just Newham. In Tower Hamlets – where the corporate headquarters of Canary Wharf loom over some of the poorest streets in Britain – around a fifth of households get by on less than £15,000 a year.

The council has built no less than 4,670 ‘affordable housing’ units in the last four years, but reports that around 7,600 homes on its register are still overcrowded — a figure that comes as little surprise when a two-bedroom flat comes in at a median market rent of more than £1500 a month.

In Hackney the figures are no better: a waiting list of around 12,000 would-be tenants, in a neighbourhood where the median household income is £343 a week — and a typical one-bedroom flat is £270.

As for cheaper social housing, Hackney is the only one of the three boroughs to meet even half of its new build target for 2010. So far, London’s shiny happy regeneration project has shown every sign of simply squeezing out the old untouchables — and those signs are being studiously ignored by the likes of ‘legacy ambassador’ Lord Sebastian Coe and Prime Minister David Cameron.