The legacy of the London Olympics

TEN YEARS ago, the London Olympics kicked off in style. David Beckham piloted a speedboat down the Thames, Paul McCartney sang “Hey Jude” and the queen appeared to parachute into the stadium with James Bond. The opening ceremony, and the sport that followed, created lots of happy memories. But what legacy did the games leave for Stratford, the deprived bit of east London in which they were held?

Regeneration was central to London’s bid to host the games, approved in 2005. The city would buy up former industrial land that lined the waterways in the Lower Lea valley, and build a 560-acre Olympic park on it. After the games the stadium, aquatic centre, velodrome and indoor sports centre would be repurposed for permanent use. Converted athletes’ quarters and other new construction would create lots of housing, with the aim that half of it would be affordable via methods such as social housing or shared-ownership schemes. London’s games would, the bid claimed, be a “model of social inclusion”. That hasn’t quite come to pass.

Boris Johnson, mayor of London between 2008 and 2016, lowered the affordable-housing targets and ditched plans for continental-style apartments in favour of Georgian-style townhouses that made less efficient use of space. Since 2012 the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), a public agency within the mayor’s office, has had the job of implementing plans for the park. On the land for which the LLDC has planning permission, just 22% of the housing completed since 2014 is affordable accommodation, according to an analysis by the London Assembly in 2021. In 2018 Sadiq Khan, Mr Johnson’s successor, recommitted to the 50% target for future developments.

The area has been more successful at luring young professionals. Landscaped marshland winds between the buildings that once made up the athletes’ village; a health-food restaurant doles out smoothies. The park extends into four boroughs: Newham, Waltham Forest, Hackney and Tower Hamlets. House prices in all of them have grown faster than the average for the capital: in Newham, which has the most overlap with the park, average house prices have risen from 51% of the London figure in 2012 to 79% today.

Businesses have also moved in. The former Olympic press centre is now a technology and innovation campus. The LLDC has secured tenants including the BBC, University College London and the V&A museum for a future culture and education quarter. Just outside the park a half-built business district and the Westfield shopping centre—both developed privately but in tandem with Olympic plans—have high occupancy rates.

People are visiting the park, too. Before the pandemic about 6m people visited every year; an analysis in 2017 found that 19% of them lived within 2.5 miles of it. The Olympic stadium, now known as the London Stadium and leased to West Ham United football club, is a sorrier story. Before the pandemic, it was racking up a £29m ($35m) annual deficit. The LLDC now wants to reduce the stadium’s annual losses to £8m-10m by selling naming rights and pruning costs, but it will continue to be a drain on taxpayers. The games fell short on their promises for affordable housing but did boost a neglected corner of the capital. That merits a podium place, but not gold.

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