Untroubled by Democracy

The consultations surrounding the Olympic Games are a stitch-up.


By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 20th March 2007.

The Mayor of London, Lord Coe and the Prime Minister have all now graced the pages of the Guardian, defending their preparations for the London Olympics. Anyone would think they were rattled. They have all justified the astounding, ever-escalating bill with the same formula: the games will be good for the people of east London. Ken Livingstone argued that the Olympics “have made the massive regeneration project centred on Stratford and going south to the Thames deliverable when it was not before.”(1) The games, he claims, will bring 40,000 new homes and 50,000 new jobs to one of the poorest parts of London.

We could quibble. Was regeneration not taking place already? What about Stratford City, the £4bn development being built just to the east of the Olympic Park, and planned long before London won the bid? What about the inexorable eastwards march of City money? But I can accept that the Olympics will accelerate the redevelopment of east London, and that they will provide houses and jobs for local people – albeit at a gob-smacking cost. But if it is true that all this is being done for the good of the residents, why have they not been given time to speak?

Yesterday, the consultation period for the Olympic Delivery Authority’s plans came to an end. The authority first received planning permission for the Olympic Park in 2004, a year before London won the bid, but since then its plans – for both the Olympics and the buildings and public spaces which come later – have changed. It has applied for planning permission for a new “framework” for the entire site(2). If you had an objection to any significant aspect of the plans, you should have said so by yesterday. Otherwise, forever hold your peace.

I have spent the past four days trying to read the ODA’s planning applications. Partly because of the volume, partly because the authority’s website (like everything to do with the Olympics) is plagued by technical glitches, I have not been able to open all the papers, let alone read them(3). But I can report that it has lodged three applications. The first one is supported by 907 documents. The second one consists of 569 documents, some of which cover 600 pages. The third consists of a modest 82 papers, of no more than 300 pages each(4).

Altogether, there are over 10,000 pages of new applications. It would take a team of planning laywers several months to wade through this lot. But the consultation began on February 6th. The people affected by these plans, most of whom know nothing about planning law, had six weeks in which to read them, understand them, work out how they differ from the previous applications, then present their responses.

Or not even six weeks. When the ODA released its leaflet advertising the plans, there were only four weeks left(5). You could then read them online, or buy DVDs or a hard copy, or find them in a local library. Over the past four days, I have been able to get onto the right page of the ODA’s planning site around 10% of the time. Then it crashes my browser.

When the plans were published, Martin Slavin, a local resident who runs a group called Games Monitor, tried to buy the DVDs. He phoned the authority’s planning team and was met with incomprehension. He was passed on five times before he found someone who knew someone who knew how to obtain them. The hard copy is easier to find – if you have £500. Local campaigners report that Waltham Forest, Tower Hamlets and Newham libraries either did not possess full sets of the documents or did not make them available until the fourth week of the consultation(6). By then, you had two weeks left.

This isn’t a consultation; it’s a stitch-up. Even the great crested newts living where the ODA will build a cycle track have been given more time to object: their champions had six months to respond to the plans for their relocation(7). But local people have been granted as much real influence over the future of their communities as the villagers flooded by China’s Three Gorges Dam. If £9.4 billion were really being spent for their benefit, you’d have thought they would have some say in the matter.

The objectors aren’t being unreasonable. They are asking for an extension until July, which would give them time to read the documents. The ODA has turned them down. Why should it wait for local people to respond? It already knows what’s good for them.

While big regeneration schemes often use fake consultations, the need for a proper democratic process is even more pressing here. The Olympic Delivery Authority, for example, is both the developer and the planning body. It applies for planning permission from itself(8).

As if this conflict of interest weren’t bad enough, the ODA’s functions are also at odds. For all the bluster about assisting disadvantaged communities, its main task is not to help the people of east London, but to make sure that the games are ready on time. If there’s a straight fight between the Olympics and their legacy – as there will be whenever the ODA is faced with a funding crisis – the games must win. Long-term development loses out to a few days of sport.

Most importantly, schemes of this kind tend to suffer from the paradox of regeneration. The paradox works like this. You regenerate an area in order to improve the lives of the poor. You clean it up, reduce crime, improve the housing stock. The rich move in from neighbouring boroughs. House prices soar, rents rise and the poor are pushed out. The developers congratulate themselves because the borough’s social indicators have risen; but they have risen because the people the scheme was meant to help have been replaced by yuppies.

The Olympic legacy is almost always gentrification. The Barcelona games, in 1992, are celebrated as the catalyst for one of Europe’s most successful regeneration schemes. But house prices in the city rose almost three-fold in the six years before the Olympics began(9). In Atlanta, private landlords started racking up the rent with the first sniff of Olympic gold(10). The same thing happened, though to a lesser extent, in Sydney and Athens. As soon as London won the bid, prices around the Olympic Park started warming up for the 2012 high jump. While the cost of housing in north London fell by 4.7% in July 2005, in east London it rose by 3%(11). Many of the 40,000 homes Ken Livingstone has promised will be classified as “affordable”. But the games are likely to make many more houses in the area unaffordable. As far as regeneration is concerned, this is a sign of both success and failure.

With risks like this, local people are desperate to be heard. But while the ODA has evidently spent a long time and a great deal of money preparing the plans, it has left them with no chance of making a reasoned response. In east London one endowment from ancient Greece crushes another. The pantheon on Mount Olympus remains blissfully untroubled by democracy.



1. Ken Livingstone, 9th March 2007. We must defeat these professional 2012 cynics. The Guardian.

2. Olympic Delivery Authority, February 2007. Comment on the latest London 2012 Games Planning Applications. Leaflet, ref LOPD/5/07.

3. http://planning.london2012.com/publicaccess/tdc/DcApplication/application_searchform.aspx

4. Planning applications 07/90010; 07/90011 and 07/90012.

5. The leaflet (see ref 2) says: ” We have now received three important planning applications which we would like your views on in the next four weeks. … We need to receive your comments no later than

19 March 2007.”

6. Letter to Vivienne Ramsey, Head of Development Control, Olympic Development Authority, from Phil Michaels Friends of the Earth Rights & Justice Centre, 13th March 2007.

7. Julian Cheyne, 14th November 2006. Relocation Double Standards. http://www.gamesmonitor.org.uk/node/215

8. Olympic Delivery Authority, viewed 17th March 2007. ODA Planning Authority. http://www.london2012.com/en/ourvision/ODA/ODA+Planning/

9. Brent Ritchie and Michael Hall, 2000. Mega Events and Human Rights. In Tracy Taylor (Ed). How You Play the Game: Papers from The First International Conference on Sports and Human Rights,

1-3 September 1999. Sydney. http://www.ausport.gov.au/fulltext/1999/nsw/p102-115.pdf

10. Charlene Houston, 2000. Olympic Games and the Citizens:

A Look at the Potential Impact of Hosting the Games. In Tracy Taylor (Ed), as above. http://www.ausport.gov.au/fulltext/1999/nsw/p92-95.pdf

11. Jane Padgham, 11th August 2005. Olympic gold touch for East End homes. Evening Standard.

I was led to refs 9-11 through the excellent Games Monitor site: http://www.gamesmonitor.org.uk/