Many of you may have been one of the countless thousands straining to glimpse a sight of the Olympic torch pass through Central London last Thursday. It had been the same a week before in the host boroughs as huge crowds greeted the Olympic flame in Greenwich, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Waltham Forest and Barking and Dagenham. It is overwhelming how this country has come together to celebrate these games. We must make sure that we use that good will to carry the Olympic spirit into a legacy for people.
When London won the right to host the Olympics and Paralympics in 2005 the promise of a tangible legacy was a fundamental reason for the bids success. In 2007 that promise was restated and augmented with a series of promises by Government including to use the Games to “transform the heart of East London.”
There has long been a view in East London that this should be about more than just the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park and a few thousand houses. It has to be about the lasting change for this part of London and a reversal of a century of inequality that has existed between the East and the rest of London.
In 2009 and in response the 6 host boroughs published the ‘Strategic Regeneration Framework’, which sets out their objectives to meet this challenge. It is epitomised by the principle of ‘convergence’: that within 20 years the communities who host the 2012 Olympic Games will have the same social and economic chances as their neighbours across London. Central Government and the Mayor of London are on paper signed up to this.
Last year the host boroughs published their record on convergence and there are signs of success, particularly with excellent schools in East London contributing to a good 5 A*-C GCSE rate. But the notable issues of low skills in the working age population, high unemployment and low median incomes remain. Beyond the report, the issues of poor quality housing and overcrowding are a barrier to success.
This is an issue of severe inequality within one of the richest cities in the world. Billions of pounds of public money has been spent, not only on the Olympics and Paralympics but on trying to resolve the health and skills gaps that exist and in the overlarge benefit cheques which result from the failure of those policies. Yet unlike eradication of inequality between nations there is no mass movement campaigning for ending this scar on London’s face.
In parts of East London convergence may be achieved through natural market forces. Areas such as Bethnal Green, Dalston and parts of Stratford are seeing new developments and young professionals moving in who will change the mix of people, the employment levels and the incomes. But do we want the legacy of the Games to be a replacement of the people who live here? Or do we want it to have been a genuine shift in opportunities for people who have lived here their entire lives and those that choose to make East London their home?
Labour should lead for London in embedding the spirit of convergence in our policies and ensure that the power of the Games is truly used to transform lives. These two weeks and the Paralympics will be an amazing celebration for our country; a country which is comfortable taking a centre stage in the world. Let our political leaders now deliver on that promise of legacy that made all this possible.