Ten years after

Making the case for London has been complicated during the pandemic. It risks conflict with the ‘metropolitan elite’ myths so fondly fostered by government (and so ably skewered by my former colleague Jack Brown on Monday’s Start the Week). And, like many civic leaders, Sadiq Khan has been trying to tell a story of devastating impact to a seemingly indifferent government, but also to entice workers and tourists back into a renascent capital by reminding them of all London has to offer.

The pandemic has indeed had a particularly brutal impact on London’s citizens and economy, but recent figures suggest that the tide may be beginning to turn. Tube and bus ridership is higher than any time since March 2020, though still up to 50 per cent below pre-pandemic levels. Google mobility data also shows a slight return to central London, though more for retail and recreation than for work (which accords with higher public transport use at weekends).

And, according to the latest ONS figures, London’s unemployment rate has also dropped, falling from 7.5 per cent in the three months to January, to 6.5 per cent in the three months to April. Unemployment is still higher than any other region’s, London boroughs still have some of the highest claimant counts and furlough rates in the country, and the economic impact of coronavirus has hit specific demographic groups hardest, but there are glimmers of hope.

So, it’s worth looking back to the last recession and recovery when London has hit hardest but recovered fastest. Could history repeat itself? As the chart below shows, London’s unemployment rate rose sharply ten years ago, and was more than two points higher than the UK’s in mid-2011, but then fell much more quickly, roughly tracking the national rate from 2014. A similar gap opened up last year, but has begun to narrow since January.

Unfortunately for London there were specific features of the 2011/12 recovery that favoured the capital. Quantitative easing, Government’s response to the financial crisis, diverted investment into booming equity and housing markets. And the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games may have had a minimal direct impact on spending (most of the construction was complete by 2012, and Olympic Games years displace normal tourism expenditure), but were a powerful showcase for the UK internationally, and for London in particular.

Added to this, ten years ago, Boris Johnson (then Mayor of London) was keen to make the case for the capital, and able to persuade the Coalition Government that starving London of cash was no way to help the rest of the country, so projects such as Crossrail and the Olympic Park legacy development went ahead.

None of these factors are present today. Rather than being boosted by cheap money, financial services have been sidelined in Brexit negotiations in favour of more picturesque and politically salient (but far less productive) industries like fisheries. Big infrastructure projects, such as the redevelopment of Euston Station for HS2, are being squeezed, hopes of a swift return to international travel are receding, and the narrative of ‘levelling up’ looks pretty hostile to London and its nine million citizens.

At the G7 Summit last weekend, Boris Johnson warned against repeating the mistakes of the ten years ago, when (as he didn’t quite say) austerity extended and deepened the impact of the recession for many people and places. This is right, but the correct lesson is to extend support wherever it is needed to ‘level up’ the prosperity and life chances of citizens and communities, not to stall the UK’s economic engine in pursuit of headlines or electoral advantage.

Ceremony and memory (July 2019)

[Published OnLondon, 10 July 2019]

26 July, 2012 was a warm evening. I arrived to meet a friend at a pub in Brighton, which was hosting its annual visit from the Chanctonbury Ring Morris. As we sat outside, and the dancers whirled, jingled and clacked, I took a photo and tweeted – very drolly I thought – “Beat that, Danny Boyle.”

The next night, by common consent, he did. And how. After a slightly iffy handover in Beijing in 2008, featuring double-decker buses, bowler hats and a bemused-looking Boris Johnson, the London 2012 opening ceremony was a spectacular. It took in Brunel, Blake, Berners-Lee and Beckham; dancing nurses, lesbian kisses, and parachuting monarchs, Shakespeare and smokestacks. A nervous nation breathed a sigh of relief, and began to tell itself that maybe, just maybe, the London Olympic and Paralympic Games would go okay.

Seven years later, the lavish performance is still memorable, a very modern celebration of patriotism and pride, unity and diversity. But its meaning is now freighted with awareness of what followed, of the divisions that were triggered or laid bare by Brexit. We re-watch it through our fingers, like the opening scenes of a film where unsuspecting teens arrive for a party at a beautiful, isolated, cabin in the woods.

For many Remainers the ceremony stands for everything that Brexit threatens to destroy. Writing just after the EU referendum, Frank Cottrell-Boyce (who co-created the event with Boyle) made the contrast explicit: “The nation we saw in the opening ceremony and the nation we saw in the referendum are both real. They’re two parts of diptych. One holds out the possibility of inclusion and ease. The other might be seen as a kind of scream of pain and fury that tells us how it feels to be excluded from that ease.”

Similar sentiments are easily found on Twitter:

“The opening ceremony was the best of our gods, Brexit is the worst of our demons.”

“The optimism, pride and celebration of multiculturalism woven into that marvellous opening ceremony should have been a launchpad. Instead we made it a diving board.”

“On the night before Brexit I will be watching the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony and wondering what the fuck went wrong…”

For some Leavers, on the other hand, the opening ceremony’s celebratory optimism remains a reminder of Britain’s potential, of what Brexit can recapture if only the nation would re-unite. In the recent words of Liz Truss: “We need to revive the Olympic 2012 spirit – a modern, patriotic, enterprising vision of Britain and we need to use Brexit to achieve that.” In 2016 – a few days after the referendum – Johnson wrote pointedly of the “gloomy predictions that were banished” by London 2012.

But not everyone is convinced. Writing in the Guardian this week, Dawn Foster identified the “false premises” underpinning “centrist thinking”; one was “that the 2012 London Olympic ceremony represented an idyllic high-point of culture and unity in the UK, rather than occurring amid the brutal onslaught of austerity, with food bank use growing and the bedroom tax ruining lives”.

Others have argued that the ceremony’s reprise of a rosy national story fostered a sense of “Britain can make it” nostalgia that stoked anti-EU sentiment. Conversely – and as hinted by Cottrell-Boyce – its inclusive vision has been seen as deepening the resentment of those who felt alienated from the multicultural zeitgeist – a resentment which would later find expression in some Brexit votes.

Certainly the ceremony’s narrative – The internet! The NHS! Britpop! – can sound like a Tony Blair conference speech, but with better dancing and more verbs. And the golden glow of our memories can blind us to what else was happening in the early years of this decade: the first austerity budgets, recession, riots on the streets of London, divisions that were perhaps as deep as they are today but less visible.

But fact that the meaning and significance of a sport festival’s opening ceremony is still so keenly contested is a tribute to its persisting power – as a symbol of what we are losing, as a reminder of what we could be, or simply as a powerful piece of propaganda for a national unity that was always illusory.

In 2016, scheduled “four years on” reflections on the opening ceremony collided with the disruptive shock of the EU referendum result. I suspect we will still be debating both on 24 July next year, as Tokyo 2020 gets underway.

Cash on the barrelhead

Listening to Alison Munro, chief executive of the High Speed 2 rail project, protesting that costs hadn\’t risen on the radio this morning, I had a faint sense of deja vu.  In between assuring us that \”there is no blank cheque\” (which usually means that the numbers involved have too many zeroes to even fit on a cheque), Ms Munro gave a masterclass in the popular sport of capital project obfuscation.  Here are some of the most elegant gambits:

  1. \’The previous costs didn\’t give the full picture\’Who on earth would expect the bill for a railway project to include trains?  Or an Olympic budget to include policing costs?  Of course these items were always seen as extra, even if not explicitly, so their inclusion does not represent a cost increase. Of course.
  2. \’The increase is in contingency\’.  The apparent increase in the budget is therefore the result of prudence, not prodigality.  Ministers have wisely allocated additional funding, sometimes squirelled away in departmental budgets, to allow for any cost overruns, whether from unforeseen circumstances, changes in specification or lax cost control.  

    At the beginning of a project, these contingency allowances are \’very unlikely\’ to be spent.  As the project continues, they gradually shift and slide to form part of the budget, below which the project will therefore be delivered.  In 2007, the revised Olympic budget of £9.3 billion included more than £2 billion contingency.  In 2013, the Government announced that the eventual cost of £8.8 billion was £500 million under budget.  (This explains, by the way, why Government is so reluctant to pass this saving to the National Lottery.)

  3. \’The original budget didn\’t include provision for Value Added Tax\’.  Some government entities have VAT exemptions; others have to pay VAT but cannot reclaim it like businesses would, as they are not selling goods and services to the public.  But surely, you might say, this is just a matter of one government agency adding 20 per cent to costs, so they can pass the money straight back to HM Treasury (who gave them the money in the first place)?  Is this a budget change, is it sleight of hand?  God (and the Chancellor) only know.
  4. \’The original figures were nominal values\’.  Public bodies (and many private bodies too) initially present project costs in the prices that would theoretically have been paid had the whole project been built and paid for in a single year (2011 in the case of HS2) rather than over the actual period of time taken to build it, during which costs would inflate.  The use of nominal values helps comparison of different proposals that would be delivered at different times, and revenues should inflate as much as costs do, but outturn costs that are double the nominal costs originally stated nonetheless add to confusion.

The net impact of these manoeuvres is that a project that was originally stated to cost less than £30 billion can rise to £42.6 billion through increases in contingency, add a further £7 billion for trains,  and finally grow to £73 billion to take account of VAT and inflation.  Each of these changes looks reasonable in itself, but taken together they make it look like Government is playing a game of fiscal Find-the-Lady, where virtually any number can be defined or redefined as the cost of a project.  This probably does not do much to boost public confidence in politicians.

The wrong sort of community

A few years ago, I visited one of the poorer districts of Sao Paulo.  Not a chaotic favela, but a cluster of housing projects in an isolated location on the edge of town, as grim as a concrete structure can be under the blazing Brazilian sun.

The Paulistanos – architects, urbanists, social scientists etc – who were showing us round explained how areas like this suffered from very weak social capital, with few organisations in place apart from well-organised gangs like PCC. What about the huge buildings by the side of the highway? one of our party asked.  Ah, they were just evangelical churches, we were told.  There was a brief pause, and then the conversation moved on, avoiding any further mention of what are clearly some of the most powerful players in Brazil\’s civil society.

I remembered this a couple of days ago when I read, in Zoe Williams\’ comment piece in the Guardian, that London Citizens had been one of the few success stories in the Government\’s dismal Work Programme, getting 1,500 people into work.  I have had dealings with London Citizens over the years; they are an effective community organising and campaigning organisation, which has been assiduous in securing solid commitments from local authoirities and other public bodies, by offering public adulation or denunciation.

But you\’d have to look reasonably closely at London Citizens\’ website to see that this is a group with deep roots in the churches and mosques of London.  My first meetings with the group, almost ten years ago now, tended to involve an Muslim imam or two as well as a multi-denominational smorgasbord of Christian ministers (though one of my colleagues remarked sotto voce as their list of demands were read out, \”They\’re not priests, they\’re fucking Trotskyites\”).

These religious roots are politely ignored on all sides, not only because the unified front would fracture if theological matters were brought to the surface.  There is a faint feeling of embarassement among secular middle class liberals (like those sitting the other side of the table in City Hall) when dealing with religion.  The awkwardness increases when the religious belief is manifested fervently, as a central plank of identity, rather than as a private hobby that goes unmentioned in polite company.

But travel on any tube in east London, and you quite quickly see people (usually poorer, ethnic minority people) poring over their copies of the Qu\’ran, Bible or other religious text.  And the big razzle dazzle evangelical churches (some, like UCKG, imported from Brazil) can pack out auditoria every weekend.  So I\’m not surprised that London Citiens succeeded where private contractors have failed: they are reported to have preached the scheme in church and mosque and to have intervened directly (dressing unemployed people up, and driving them to job interviews).

However unsavoury some of their teachings to liberal ears, these \’faith communities\’ still seem to be able to touch the parts of society that the best-intentioned outreach programmes fail to get anywhere near.  It seems perverse to ignore them, then to talk of \’hard to reach communities\’.

Nothing but flowers

As I walked along the river bank past the bright flower beds, it was the pale green bridge that provoked a dizzy rush of rememberance, more flashback than madeleine.  The bridge had been there in 2006, when we passed by on an Easter weekend walk up the Lee Navigation.  Just past the \’Big Breakfast House\’ at Old Ford Lock, opposite blank-sided factories, a tributary ran down to a small green bridge, overgrown and inaccessible, on which someone had scrawled \’Fuck Seb Coe\’, in futile protest against the approaching Olympic juggernaut. 

Seeing the bridge again, now cleansed of its off-message graffiti, made me remember how much had changed.  Around this solitary remnant of the pre-Olympic Startford Marsh, hoardings had been erected and replaced by fences, now patrolled by soldiers on cycles.  The waterways beneath it had been cleaned of their colonies of invasive crabs and knotweed.  The roads that had woven between bus garages, factories, print works, fridge mountains, car breakers yards and evangelical churches had been uprooted, and the land levelled, creating a moonscape occupied by giant yellow construction vehicles, their manufacturers\’ logos obscured to satisfy the strictures of Olympic sponsors.  On this boundless and bare terrain, sites had been pegged out, their labels (Handball Arena, Stadium) looking like an optimistic child\’s fantasy of a construction site.

But the fantasy had quickly become real: earth had been cleaned and moved, piles were sunk, and slowly the uncanny structures of the Olympic Park venues had emerged from the mud.  Now, days before the opening ceremony, I had the chance to walk again across the site, without hard hat or steel-toecapped boots, past venues familiar from countless bus tours.  What is amazing, and delightful, is the verdant landscape.  

Between the hard angular shapes of the venues, and the wide walkways and concourses, great banks of flowers have erupted: Ox-eye Daisy, Purple Loostrife, Ragged Robin, Cornflower, Corn Marigold, Star of The Veldt, Pot Marigold, Tickseed, Red-hot Pokers, to name a few identified on the website of Nigel Dunnett, consultant horticulturalist.

The flowers and lush green lawns – well-watered in our rainy season –  soften the hard spaces of the Park, creating a genuinely beautiful landscape.  It\’s idyllic, but slightly ersatz, in stark contrast to the gritty pictures of Stratford that the Daily Mail delights in publishing.

The title of this blog post refers to a Talking Heads\’ song, a satire on arcadian nostalgia, which I couldn\’t get out of my head as I wandered round:

\”There was a factory; now there are mountains and rivers…there was a shopping mall; now it\’s all covered with flowers…once there were parking lots, now it\’s a peaceful oasis; this was a Pizza Hut, now it\’s all covered with daises.\”

Nostalgia for the grubby Lower Lea Valley of six years ago is tempting, but would be foolish.  The area was dirty, inaccessible and polluted, even though it hid secret jewels of natural beauty between car breakers, fridge mountains and other post-industrial drek.  What has replaced it is extraordinary, alien even. Perhaps that is what makes for an uneasy feeling; this lurching contrast with the world \’outside\’.

After the Games, and the remodelling and construction work that follows, London Legacy Development Corporation (who I work for) hopes that the Olympic Park will be a jewel in east London, and a force for change in one of the poorest areas of London.  But perhaps the traffic needs to be two-way, so that east London can also return to the Park, stretching to embrace it like tendrils of ivy, and blending the everyday and the extraordinary.

Triumph of the bland

David Runciman\’s talk on the politics of three London Olympic Games at Queen Mary College last week was amusing and enlightening. In 1908, Anglo-American relations became strained – the English felt the American\’s habit of training was unsporting – and the organisers kept the prices high to deter dangerous crowds of the wrong sort of spectator.

In 1948, the tone was one of austerity (athletes had to hire towels if they didn\’t bring their own) and restraint. The malnourished English took a perverse pride in the fact that the national anthem was only heard five times (opening and closing ceremonies, and three gold medals), compared to Berlin in 1936, where Deutschland Uber Alles and Horst Wessel had rung out continuously.

The 1948 Olympics were also the last Games where medals were awarded for artistic endeavour. The quality of entries was mixed, to put it politely: no medals were awarded for music, and the sculpture that won gold was a heroically anodyne piece by Gustav Nordahl called Homage to Life (photo, right, Bengt Oberger).

Runciman compared this inoffensive couple to the heroically striving ubermenschen whose representations triumphed in Berlin in 1936. A retreat to the bland was understandable if not inevitable given the horrors of the previous 12 years. Together with an irreparable fracturing of consensus on what constitutes \’good\’ art, nervousness about the appropriation of sporting iconography by fascists signalled the end of art as a competitive Olympic activity.

Even today, sport-inspired art tends either to the heroic or the apologetic, to the apotheosis of man and the spirit of \’36, or to mushy statements of universal brotherhood (see Invictus, though I doubt I will). The International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne manages to combine both (photo, above left, IOC/Juillart). Leni Riefenstahl casts a long shadow.

It\’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

Browsing survivalist websites recently (don\’t ask), I clicked on a banner ad for Hardened Structures, and specifically for their \’2012 Shelters\’.

The 2012 Shelter sounds like a serious piece of kit. The website tells us: \”As a specific Threat Event, the anticipated catastrophic effects resulting from 2012 are far greater than the anticipated effects from WMD’s, anarchy, climate change or any of the other specific Threat Events for which we have developed mitigation designs … most engineers and scientists agree that for a fully protected 2012 shelter the following threats must be mitigated;

  1. 3-Bars Blast Overpressure of 45 psi
  2. Force 10 Earthquake in successions
  3. 450 MPH winds
  4. Extreme Gamma & Neutron attenuation from a 100 megaton air burst detonated 20 miles away
  5. Solar Flares with 1,000,000 volt EMP
  6. Flooding (complete submersion for 100 hours)
  7. Extreme External Fires at 1250 F for 10 days
  8. Magnetic Pole Shift
  9. Radiological, Chemical and Biological Weapons
  10. Forced Entry and Armed Assaults
  11. 12’ of snow and 10’ of rain
  12. 500 lb Hail Stones or flying debris at a speed of 100 mph\”

Usually I find that ignoring TV for six weeks keeps you safely insulated from the Olympics, but some people are clearly determined to take no chances. 900 days to go, and counting.

Nothing can stop them?

It\’s good to see that Saint Etienne have offered to write a song for London 2012. SE are the quintessential London band, and What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? their unsentimentally-filmed elegy for the Lower Lea Valley\’s vanishing grimescape is well worth watching.

But, based on the evidence to date, their bid to craft a 2012 anthem is doomed to disappointment. From Barcelona to Beijing, understatement has rarely been an Olympic theme. London\’s bid was buoyed along by mannered M-People caterwhauling, and our contribution to the closing ceremony at Beijing was a faintly embarassing attempt to distill the essence of \’Cool Britannia\’ (remember that?), while ticking appropriate boxes. Red double-decker bus, as seen in establising shots in every film from Goldfinger to 28 Days Later? Check. Old white man from once-important rock band? Check. Inoffensive young black woman from talent show to counterbalance said rock dinosaur? Check. Global brand/footballer type person? Check.

I hope I\’m wrong, and there may still be a lot of suprises before the 2012 opening ceremony, but I am afraid that Saint Etienne\’s music, while not always my cup of tea (too winsomely Heavenly Records, if you know what I mean), is too subtle, too particular, too crafty and crafted, to fit into the bizarre, homogenised world of Olympic culture and bombast.


It\’s hard to get a sense of the scale of London\’s Olympic Park. 270 acres is the size of about 135 football pitches, to use the official journalistic unit of measurement (though, apparently, football pitches also differ in size). This is not one park, but a whole new network of new green spaces in one of the most built up and complex areas of London.

Yesterday, to accompany the announcement of the Park\’s designers, London 2012 issued some material about the character and content of the Park after 2012. The plans are starting to take shape: there will be areas of woodland, open space for events, hills to challenge walkers and cyclists, and a \’One Planet Pavilion\’ to encourage environmental responsibility.

I think the Park will be incredible, but this is the first time that I have ever considered a landscape design to be bossy. This Park is not going to let us alone: it will be telling us to take more exercise, to recycle more, to appreciate native trees, to run, to cycle, to jump, to lose weight. Where\’s the space for more leisurely activities – for lazing, for smoking, for drinking, for kissing? Will the Park tell us to pack a healthier picnic, to watch out for our units, to practice safe sex? I wouldn\’t rule it out.

We can expect more homilies as the 2012 Games draw nearer. The quasi-spiritual wing of the Olympic movement is fluent in the international language of pious eyewash: children are the future, cleanliness is next to godliness, mens sana in corpore sano, we don\’t own the planet we are just borrowing it from our children (or is that Patek Philippe watches?), citius altius fortius, now wash your hands.

It\’s at times like these, to paraphrase the Beck song, that the IOC makes me want to smoke crack.

(Not) going down the pub

Raised on concrete stilts, the Docklands Light Railway affords a privileged view of East London to its passengers. Amidst austerely functional blocks of post-war housing, churches and pubs stand out – richly tiled and decorated relics of a Victorian past. Owned by the breweries, they (the pubs, that is) were left standing on street corners as the slums of Poplar, Shadwell and Whitechapel were demolished.

But changes in the pub trade are now conspiring with London\’s insanely effervescent property market to dismantle what the Luftwaffe and the planners left intact. The Evening Standard recently reported that around a quarter of pubs near the Olympic site in Bow are closing. It\’s unfair to blame the Olympics for this – a changing population (more muslim in East London), the smoking ban and changing attitudes to drinking all contribute – but London 2012 is accelerating the process that kills boozers.

As the market value for new-build flats goes through the roof, the new pub-owning companies – nowadays as canny as property speculators as they are at managing licensed premises – are quick to take advantage. Depending on your views, you can call this regeneration or gentrification, but the outcome is the same – a gradual retreat from the ideal of mixed-use neighbourhoods to which modern planners and developers must at least claim to aspire.

It\’s not just happening in East London. Urban 75 lists some of the shabbier (and I mean that as a compliment) drinking dens that have closed around Brixton in recent years, to be replaced by \’luxury apartments\’. Fight backs can work: the Pineapple in Kentish Town managed to see off developers a few years ago, but it\’s probably easier in NW5, where stars like Rufus Sewell will rush to your aid, than in E3 or SW9.

Councils are taking notice, and several (including Tower Hamlets) have put in place policies to protect viable pubs in residential areas, but it may already be too late. The city is zoning itself, making a mockery of mixed use. As brutal \’vertical drinking\’ districts spread like a rash, neighbourhood pubs are in retreat, before the relentless march of housing-led \’regeneration\’.