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Local Heroes

By Leah Borromeo

The motto of the Games is "inspire a generation". However, not everyone is enthused. Londoners from the poorest parts of the city facing major upheavals from losing their homes, livelihoods and public spaces to the mercy of a few weeks of medal-chasing over the summer. They believe that the Olympics gave local councils and big business an excuse for a land grab - in which the community had little or no say. When they voice their opposition, they are hushed by the machinery of bureaucracy, the suppression of protest and the reality of losing the roofs over their heads. But their concerns are as real as the Games itself, which have received some £9.3bn in UK public funding. Community life will continue long after the athletes, the fans and the confetti have gone. I spent a week listening to and gathering the stories of Londoners shouting at the walls of an Olympic Jericho.

Joe Alexander: Photo: Leah BorromeoPhoto: Leah Borromeo

Joe Alexander, 38, is in property maintenance. He lives on the Carpenters Road estate and is vice chair of the local campaign group Carpenters Against Regeneration Plans. I spent the day with Joe - a quiet, eloquent divorcee and father who moved to Stratford in London's East End in the hopes of starting a new life. We met at the Carpenter's Arms, a green-trimmed pub at the edge of the Carpenter's Estate - a housing estate of over 500 council units being demolished to make way for a new site for University College London after the Games. We cycled past its three high-rise tower blocks and through rows of single-family homes. It's quiet - a consequence of its residents being relocated to surrounding areas as far as the adjoining county of Essex. Joe took me past many newly erected condominiums and demolished local businesses around its Greenway down to an Olympic park viewing platform. It's a contrast of slick, brushed steel and half-buildings covered in debris and brick dust. Night-time brings out an urban solitude. The three tower blocks are darkened and mostly empty - the result of the expulsion of most of their residents. "The council moved people out giving all sorts of excuses like asbestos ... then rented out the top floors to the BBC," a drinker at the Carpenters Arms explained. The trauma of the wholesale uprooting of a community is evident at the pub. Once a bustling watering hole for local workers and residents, it now sits at the edge of a regeneration scheme that's more about the replacement of a close-knit working class population in favour of more isolated but economically richer 'gentrified' middle class.

Joe Alexander: I imagined regeneration would be a good thing and that the Olympics would help. I had this naive idea that these things assisted local communities. I also thought that residents would be involved in the whole process. Regeneration plans were here before the Olympics. We're trying to ensure that we're not left behind. They gave Robin Wales, the Mayor of Newham, an excuse to speed through plans he'd otherwise have more trouble with. The idea that the Games were a great thing was used to shut people up. People are worried about coming out against the Olympics because it looks like they don't want Newham or the country to benefit. The Mayor is in his third term and is going for a fourth. Everybody traditionally votes Labour. So he feels his office is safe and that he owns Newham. We feel he wants this legacy of creating a new Canary Wharf to say "I did that".

Leah Borromeo: What sort of local support do you have?

Joe Alexander: We've had problems getting residents more involved. People are too busy trying to get by. So we've engaged with a few other campaign groups in Newham to share resources and collaborate. We hosted a tour of the area that brought in a lot of people who didn't know what was going on. We took them around the estate and showed them a sustainable community that's been around for forty years.

Leah Borromeo: What do residents want?

Joe Alexander: Stop this 'regeneration'. It may be too late and we may be aiming too high but if we can't stop the regeneration we'd like to be part of the new one that's being created. I don't think that's a lot to ask for. Council tenants are offered the chance to live in the redevelopments but tenants aren't told they're losing their secure tenancies when they sign up. This could mean they could be forced out of their accommodation if they fall behind on their rent. Because there's a benefits cap coming in, the local authority is restricting the number of local people living here. The council are making it harder for the poor to get housing within the borough. The new Westfield Shopping Centre is meant to bring jobs to the area. But local agencies given the jobs of finding people haven't been hiring local people. We still have a huge number of unemployed. We'd like to have the wider public to know that there's a community in the shadow of the Olympic stadium and that we'd like to keep existing. Although the Olympics have given us a platform for protest, we can't say we've benefited. Every day we lose more of our homes. We live under the spectre of compulsory purchase orders. We don't have the luxury of time and are too busy trying to make ends meet and feed our families. So the legacy for us, is that there is no legacy. These games are a tool used by the powers that be to get through the programmes they want to get us out - so they can move in a more economically worthy class. Once the Games go, we'll still be fighting this.

Julian Cheyne: Photo: Leah BorromeoPhoto: Leah Borromeo

Julian Cheyne, 64, now lives in Stepney - two miles away from the Olympic park. He was one of the many bought out by a compulsory purchase order placed on the Clay's Lane Estate - Britain's largest housing cooperative set up as an experiment to help vulnerable single people. The London Development Agency, the body which issued the CPO, said they had to clear the area to make way for the Olympic athlete's village. Despite his own disability - Julian suffers from myalgic encephalomyelitis, M.E - he was part of a group of tenants that fought compulsory purchase and gained leave to hold a public inquiry into the decision. It was eventually dismissed in a High Court ruling and the 430 residents of the Clays Lane Estate were issued orders to leave by July 2007. The estate's residents were scattered across London and each given £8,500 in compensation.

Leah Borromeo: Tell me about how you left Clays Lane.

Julian Cheyne: I was a long standing resident. I had a lot to lose. I smelled a rat when "Park Village", the University accommodation next door, was closed by the LDA. This housing had around 500 units like Clays Lane. I contacted the LDA and asked why they were doing that. They said they were going to redevelop the area. I asked what needed redeveloping. They said it was something they planned before the Olympic bid. Why were they closing down a housing estate for students when it was still perfectly functional? Then London won the bid and all those concerns were thrown out. A mass eviction like this only works if you can downgrade the condition of an estate. LDA was making out that it was a derelict slum. But we had free parking, a community centre, a bus route into Stratford and we lived next door to the Eastway Cycle Track which had a woodland and a small stream. The Manor Gardens allotment was nearby and in some parts of the walkway, it's like you were in the country. The LDA tried to spin it that this bit of green was disadvantaging us because we were being isolated - it was written off as being a 'scar' or an 'urban desert'. Complete rubbish. The LDA came round and said Olympics or not, we had to move and showed us a non-Olympics plan. I made a Freedom of Information request and found out there was no plan - they'd made it all up. In 2003, around the same time the bid went in for the Games, they raised the idea of us moving as part of a community and then sent a letter saying they'd consult with us about everything. They promised we'd get accommodation as good as if not better than what we had - which later changed to "as good as but insofar as reasonably practicable".

Leah Borromeo: What's a CPO like?

Julian Cheyne: What you got was "this is what is going to happen, like it or lump it". LDA said nothing about the promises they made. It was "you get what you get, you are being done a favour, stop being difficult". I felt bullied. We went through the whole process with them. Whether this was any good, we don't know because we still had to go. But we were arguing for the best deal we could get because this was a huge disruption to our lives. We still feel shortchanged. Because our community was so fragmented, we didn't work as well as we could have. When the bid was won, I thought "we're next". And we were. When people talk about a housing legacy from the athletes village, they never mention that they already knocked down housing for a thousand. In the end, some of us stayed at the estate until the very last moment. I was there until five o'clock when the estate closed on 23 July 2007 with another ten or fifteen people.Clays Lane has been erased, levelled. It's now going to be back-of-house facility for the athlete's village. There's nothing there. Not even the name.

Leah Borromeo: What's the Olympic legacy?

Julian Cheyne: Back in 2002, the government commissioned a report called Gameplan that said that the Games wouldn't improve sport participation, you're not going to improve people's health, don't expect increased tourism or economic benefits - this is just a national celebration. So the government already knew that but still decided to go for the Olympics? It is quite baffling why London made the bid. At that time, the economy was bumping along nicely. You could argue this scenario: you take over a piece of land and set about a project to remake that in your city. You reshape the East End - along the lines of the Docklands model. You import the City, you import a new population and new culture. You economically colonise the East End. Colonisation in the guise of regeneration. They couldn't have done this in west London because they'd come across too much opposition. But in the east you are dealing with poor people and an industrial history that's ripe for the picking if you're a property developer. Here's a project that's sold as something that will benefit a poorer end of London but instead what you have a transfer of assets, a transfer of land and a transfer of wealth. Regeneration doesn't mean the community stays while you improve its ameneties. It means removing that community in favour of a more affluent group. After the Games I think people will come away with the feeling they'd been tricked. There is no legacy.

Claire Weiss at Leyton Marsh, where the Olympic basketball facility is due to be built: Photo: Leah BorromeoPhoto: Leah Borromeo

I met Caroline Day and Claire Weiss at the Leyton Marshes campsite occupation. Nearly two dozen tents, a field kitchen and a campfire greeted me on a misty weekend morning. This was Portisfield Meadow on Leyton Marsh - the site of the proposed Olympic basketball facility. The campsite straddled a large, fenced off section of land next to long grasses, a towpath, a canal and as much countryside as you could hope to see in London. Considering the London riots of 2011 took place ten minutes down the road, this was positively rural. Behind the fence were diggers, enormous piles of rubble, guard dogs and what looked like the foundations of a building being laid. It all looked very, very sudden.

Caroline was the first to greet me. 31 and a local resident, she likes to run her greyhound around the Marsh. She's taken on the role of spokesperson for the Save Leyton Marshes campaign. Claire is 64 and a former anti-apartheid campaigner. From a working class East End Jewish family, she's lived in the area for over forty years. Leyton Marsh has "always been green" for as long as she's been there.

The day after we spoke bailiffs visited the Save Leyton Marshes camp. They came with the police who arrested six protestors. Shortly after, the first Olympic anti-social behaviour order [ASBO] was issued.


Leah Borromeo: When did you find out about this building?

Claire Weiss: In December 2011, 250 letters were sent to the residents here about this. But if you're a resident of Leyton - which is a mile away - you got no consultation. Had we read some small print in a local newspaper that gets delivered before Christmas, we might have spotted it.

Caroline Day: That's deliberately minimal. No one would've seen it. It was a token gesture in case we had a legal case they could say they had a screening opinion. There are local centres that could be used for basketball - Hackney Community College and Barking Abbey School in Newham have one court each. Or used one in Waltham Forest or Leyton or built on the site of the old Walthamstow dogtrack.

Claire Weiss: It's in the planning conditions that this building comes down and the land is restored after the Games. What we fear is that it's the thin edge of the wedge - once this land has been used for this purpose, it stops being greenfield. If the authorities want to use it again, the planning permission for the use of the land has been granted and has set a precedent. What we've found is that builders are going down half a metre under the soil to set in foundations. Under planning permission, it says that they're only going down a "skim of fifteen centimetres".

Leah Borromeo: Do you know what we're breathing in from that pile of rubble?

Claire Weiss: Asbestos and lead. And an unexploded bomb. In the planning conditions, the allowance of earth is supposed to be covered so it doesn't spread contamination. As you can see, that's not covered.

Caroline Day: The soil contamination reports said that they couldn't identify any unexploded ordinance because there's such a high level of contamination in the soil. We can't even identify the bombs. That's what they've churned up on our marsh. Right next to an SSSI - a site of special scientific interest.

Leah Borromeo: What got you involved with this?

Claire Weiss: I found out about the Save Leyton Marsh group on Facebook. Went to the first meeting - the first idea was that we'd go through a legal route. I said "we have to get down there and protest". So every Saturday, we had a presence down here. The construction started in March. So we decided that we'd use the marsh in everyday ways and play some games. The first morning the lorries arrived, we stood in front of the lorries - myself and another person my age - and just chatted as people marked out a boules pitch. And we stopped the lorries. Then one day the contractors just stopped work on the site. We think this coincided with the point they realised the geological problems they've come up against and we were a convenient smokescreen.

Leah Borromeo: Who is trying to stop you?

Claire Weiss: The Olympic Delivery Authority. They're the ones who want this built. They've leased this land for that very purpose. They don't want us to protest in the way that we have - or any other way either.

Leah Borromeo: What do you hope?

Claire Weiss: That we've blown a loud enough whistle and that this stops. Immediately. And they use local facilities. Then that this site is restored to its original condition. We have to keep up the pressure that this happens. We don't want contaminated rubble tipped back into the land. The ODA took us to the high court for obstructing their vehicles. But the judge upheld that protestors had a right to protest. The Lee Valley Regional Park and the ODA waste public money by going through hugely expensive cases in the High Court over protest and one of them tried to charge "persons unknown" with £330,000 to compensate the contractors.

Leah Borromeo: If they don't stop this, then what?

Claire Weiss: We'll continue to protest but there is no way we'll be involved in anything unlawful. There are many ways to protest. We won't break injunctions. The Save Leyton Marsh group isn't against the Olympics - we are against what is being done in the name of the Olympics. It's shameful. The spoilsports are these guys that destroy communities in the name of the Olympic Games.

Leah Borromeo: What do the Games mean to you?

Claire Weiss: A potentially positive force for people across the world to do something that is not warlike. What I don't like is that big business intervenes and that there are landgrabs. Even the right to protest about that is being contested by the authorities. We don't want this. We want to keep the open space. In the middle of East London - a poor part of London - we need every green area we have.

The day of the arrests at the Leyton Marsh, I asked if Caroline and Claire had any reaction. This is what they sent.

Four years ago this country rightly pointed out to China that it should allow peaceful dissent to take place and the voices of its people to be heard during the Beijing Games. Yet here we have seen a peaceful protest by the local community and its supporters criminalised in order that an unnecessary, wasteful and even dangerous construction go ahead for the Olympics. The authorities should have consulted with, listened to and engaged with the local community. The local community have never been given answers as to why viable alternatives with legacy benefits were not chosen. The choice of this site has resulted in both a huge waste of resources and the use of force against people who only wish to protect their open green spaces.

This piece is published with the permission of the author, Leah Borromeo.
It is from the Olympic edition of Index on Censorship, Sport on Trial, available at http://indexoncensorship.org/Magazine/olympicsissue. You can also find this text at Leah's blog FryingPanFire http://fryingpanfire.com/2012/07/local-heroes-the-olympic-unwanted.


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