x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Not all Londoners are won over by race to Olympics

Britons debate the Olympic effect as concerns range from rising rents in the formerly neglected area where the Games will be centred to traffic snarls and the increased terrorism threat.

The construction the Olympic Stadium and other facilities for the London Olympic Games are expected to rejuvante a previously rundown area of the British capital, but there are doubts as to whether residents will benefit in the long run. Anthony Charlton / Olympic Delivery Authority / AFP
The construction the Olympic Stadium and other facilities for the London Olympic Games are expected to rejuvante a previously rundown area of the British capital, but there are doubts as to whether residents will benefit in the long run. Anthony Charlton / Olympic Delivery Authority / AFP

LONDON // While organisers and corporate sponsors gear up for the start of the London Olympic Games a year from today, one East London resident living close to the hyper-development for the global sports event has a more prosaic worry - rising rents.

"I have to meet my landlord soon and I'm worried he's going to put up the rent," said Antonio Curcetti, a photographer, who along with many other artists has helped transform Hackney Wick's disused factories and warehouses into a thriving urban arts scene in recent years.

Looming on the horizon is the futuristic £537 million (Dh3.2 billion) Olympic stadium, built on a 2.5 sq kilometre parcel of land between Hackney Wick and Stratford that will be the focus of next year's games.

"We have a great community here of artists and locals and I do worry what's going to happen because of the Olympics," said Mr Curcetti, 42, who works at the Hackney Pearl cafe to subsidise his photography work. "We won't know until May or June next year whether this will be good for us or if we'll be priced out."

Supporters of the games claim the flurry of development will transform what was a long-neglected part of London, the home of immigrants from the Huguenots in the 18th century to Bangladeshis and Somalis in recent decades.

Historically, the wealthy favoured West London because of prevailing winds that carried the stench of industry to the east, which still suffers some of the highest rates of poverty and lowest life expectancy in the country.

Critics of next year's extravaganza say only property developers and corporate interests will benefit from the multimillion-pound public investment, including upgraded transport links, stadiums and Olympic Village housing.

The opening of a £269m aquatics centre, designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, was scheduled for tonight along with the launch of the one-year countdown to the games. Boris Johnson, London's mayor, was set to invite the world to London.

A BBC poll released yesterday found that seven out of 10 Londoners believed the Olympics would benefit East London, justifying the public investment. But 55 per cent felt the capital's transport system would not be able to cope with tens of thousands of visitors. Just under half said they wanted "to avoid the Olympics" and one in five said they would leave London during the games.

The Conservative-led coalition government, meanwhile, is hoping the Olympics will lift the national mood and deflect attention from the country's economic struggles. The games were worth having because "they take people's minds off what's happening" elsewhere, Hugh Robertson, the sports minister, told the Financial Times.

Iain Sinclair, an author and Hackney resident, has been a persistent naysayer. In his latest book, Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project, he summed up the games as "an architecture of future ruins, invasion technologies and incubated terror, at enormous expense, at a time when ordinary services are being pinched out of existence."

Tessa Jowell, the opposition Labour minister for the Olympics, defended the development in a debate with Mr Sinclair published in last Saturday's Guardian. "What was derelict wasteland with 300 mostly struggling businesses has been replaced by the largest urban park in Europe for 150 years," she said.

She went on to say that consultation with local residents had even extended to delaying some construction to allow the harvesting of pumpkins and marrows grown in urban gardens.

But Mr Sinclair retorted that in Athens and Beijing, previous Olympics hosts, stadiums and facilities were now neglected and unused, having made little lasting impact to improve the lives of locals.

Security and terrorism fears are a big concern. The announcement in 2005 that London had won the Olympics bid was overshadowed the next day by the July 7 bomb attacks that killed 52 people.

The BBC reported that Chris Allison, the national Olympic security coordinator, told senior police officers recently: ""We're expecting the terrorism threat level to be severe. In fact, I think it will be right up near critical. They won't call it critical but it will be very close it. The top end of severe."

This would mean a terrorist attack was "highly likely" under the official grading system used in the UK. The overall threat level was downgraded this month.

Meanwhile, tourists and curious locals are already flocking to see the breakneck construction under way in East London. For the time being at least, they can also see evidence of the urban artistry taking place in the area.

Travellers getting off the train at Hackney Wick last Sunday were just as absorbed by the filming of a pop music video in a graffiti-strewn bit of wasteland as they were by the rising Olympic stadium.

But it remains to be seen whether local artists will win local government approval of a key demand of their recent manifesto published in the Hackney Wick newspaper: "Ensure that art is the defining character of the neighbourhood and is integrated at all levels of society and is not a separate luxurious thing. Everyone must live an artistic life."

sdevi@thenational.ae