The end of the Olympics marked the end of two amazing weeks for Hackney – the final step of one journey and the beginning of another.
After five years of preparation we can now stop holding our breath and have a moment to reflect on what we’ve achieved. As one of the five host boroughs, we’ve had a summer-long spotlight on us and come through with aplomb. In Hackney’s east, the Radio 1 Academy and Hackney Weekend bought together the best of British and international music as part of Britain’s biggest free festival. To the north, we thronged the streets to welcome the Olympic torch. At the borough’s heart, Haggerston Park has been packed with big screen devotees throughout the games, many of them watching events in our own Olympic venues. At our southern edge, Shoreditch’s Hackney House welcomed locals and visitors alike, promoting us to the world.
And we took the opportunity to show that we are a borough transformed. Our schools are among the best in London, our streets are clean and well kept, we have top-quality parks, thriving arts, sports and culture, crime that is at its lowest for many years, a technology start-up cluster that is the fastest growing in Europe, nightlife that draws people from all over London – and an area that – despite local disbelief – Italian Vogue really did dub the ‘coolest place in Britain’. Hackney is now a place where new graduates want to move, and families want to stay.
We have worked hard to make this new popularity and wealth work for all our residents – new housing at the heart of Dalston gave us our first new library in twenty years. Working with existing residents, we are rebuilding aging council housing by using money from new private stock to pay for top quality social homes. At both Hackney’s colleges the focus on employability and business links gives our young people the best possible start in life. The London Overground has put us on the map and connected us to our neighbours like never before.
It’s a journey that’s not over yet. Around our Town Hall, Mare Street is transforming into yet another vibrant and thriving urban centre. Shoreditch continues to change every day, welcoming firms bringing new jobs on a weekly – if not daily – basis. When the Paralympics depart, the Olympic media centre will become iCity, a new technology cluster, backed by experienced and committed investors, situated at the borough’s eastern tip.
It would be wrong to say it is all sunshine and roses. Like all London boroughs, we face the tensions of cheek by jowl city living and work hard to find a way through. We can always do more to spread the benefits of the Borough’s newfound prosperity to our poorer communities. We continue to work through the legacy of last year’s riots. Heading towards us from Westminster, ill-conceived benefit reforms are already hitting many of our residents hard, and we face cuts to the Council’s budget that are among the highest in the country.
But, despite these threats, the experiences of the past few weeks leave me hopeful we can remain on the path towards making Hackney a place where everyone achieves their potential and leads the life they want to lead. At the opening ceremony, as the fireworks came to life on screen we ran out of our flat – and, unanticipated, many, many of our neighbours did too. With the Olympic stadium on the horizon, together we watched enraptured as the sky set alight with colour. As it ended, a cheer went up –a cheer that came not only from where we were but also from the streets and houses around.
Many of these neighbours I had not met, or even seen, before. Many of the things I knew I treasured I did not know they treasured too. Boyle’s genius was to point out to each of us the broad, strong community we share in this country, and inspire us to continue to unite behind that vision in good times and in bad. In our own small way, Hackney is a living example of that. Amongst the welcome and unwelcome changes that will shape our borough over the coming years, and among the many imperfections that are the reality of any place and any life, holding onto that will be crucial in ensuring we remain a beacon of what a modern, ambitious, forward-looking, open-minded Britain can be.
Tom Ebbutt is a Labour councillor in Hackney