A Health and Social Legacy for East London: Narratives of 'problem' and 'solution' Around London 2012

by Claire Thompson, Daniel Lewis, Trisha Greenhalgh, Stephanie Taylor and Steven Cummins
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; Queen Mary University of London, Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry

Sociological Research Online, 18 (2) 1

Received: 9 Jan 2013     Accepted: 25 Feb 2013    Published: 31 May 2013


Policies and programmes that tackle neighbourhood deprivation have long been a feature of urban policy in the UK and elsewhere. Large-scale urban regeneration and neighbourhood renewal programmes have been deployed as the primary vehicle to improve the health and life chances of residents of deprived neighbourhoods. Often these areas have a long history of efforts at regeneration and redevelopment and, over time, have become labelled as 'problem areas' in need of constant intervention. The bid for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games was successful partly due to its promise to deliver a lasting health and social legacy by using the Games as a driver of regeneration in East London. Despite limited evidence for the effectiveness of such an approach, regeneration schemes tied to sporting events have emerged as popular strategies through which cities strive to enhance their urban fabric. Running through the core of the London 2012 bid was a discourse of East London as a 'problem' in need of a regeneration 'solution' that the Olympics uniquely could deliver. As a result, a wider narrative of East London was generated: as unhealthy; mired in poverty; desperate for jobs; with an inadequate and outdated built environment. The Olympic legacy was thus positioned as a unique once-in-a-lifetime solution 'accelerating' regeneration in East London, and delivering substantive change that either might not have happened, or would otherwise have taken decades.

Through documentary analysis of published Government policy documents for the period 2002-2011, we demonstrate how the 'problem' of East London was used as political justification for London 2012. We argue that the Olympic legacy was deliberately positioned in neoliberal terms in order to justify substantial economic investment by the UK government and suit the needs of the International Olympic Committee. Finally, whilst acknowledging that regeneration may indeed result, we also speculate on the potential legacy and possible challenges for the people in East London left by this neoliberal and entrepreneurial strategy.

Keywords: Olympic Legacy, Regeneration, Policy, Representation, Evidence, Health, East London


1.1 Social and political anxieties about the plight, morality and health of the urban poor articulated in the 1880s have shaped subsequent discourses of East London as a site of crisis, and therefore a suitable test-bed for social policies aimed at tackling urban social and economic deprivation (Greenhough et al. forthcoming). Since the Second World War, East London has been shaped and re-shaped by successive waves of regeneration and renewal with the aim of reducing social and material deprivation, and combating inequality. In the aftermath of the bombing of London's East End during World War Two, an agenda of redevelopment and social engineering emerged. One such experiment was the large-scale provision of state housing, in the form of high-rise housing schemes and low-rise estates, which replaced many pre-existing working class terraces (Widgery 1993). Deepening inequalities and deprivation had replaced the pre-war status quo, whilst wider anxieties about urban social and health inequalities (re)emerged in the mid to late 20th century. In recent years the property-led redevelopment of London Docklands introduced to East London the concept of large-scale change underwritten by a neoliberal economic agenda (Turok 1992). Slum clearance, housing regeneration, community participation, sustainable communities, education, employment and training programmes have all been implemented in the capital at various times (Kennelly & Watt 2001; Cave & Curtis 2001). Urban environments like East London, are researched and problematised in public and academic discourse as: deprived, dangerous and unhealthy. Reducing social inequalities between places, groups and individuals remains a central concern of Government policy. Recently, the Olympics has been positioned as an opportunity to regenerate and rebrand the city through large-scale redevelopment (Fussey et al. 2011).

1.2 In this paper, we demonstrate how a discourse of East London as a deprived and derelict area in need of intensive regeneration has been generated, and then presented as justification for Olympic-led regeneration. We provide an overview of the limited evidence of the effectiveness of such a strategy, together with a consideration of the risks or uncertainties that it might entail.

Data sources

2.1 The Department for Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) is the main Government body responsible for overseeing the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and its legacy. We focus on the published proceedings relevant to the Olympics of the select committee responsible for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport between 2003 and 2011. Select committees are cross-party groups responsible for scrutiny of government documents who report to the House of Commons. We considered all official DCMS material on the topic of Olympic legacy published over the same time period. In addition we referred to the British Olympic Associations candidature file, the host borough's strategic regeneration framework, and the Greater London Authority's (GLA) London Plan. Table 1 lists the documents analysed in chronological order.

2.2 Official records and documents can provide the researcher with a wealth of easily accessible and readily available data (Appleton & Cowley 1997). A qualitative document analysis treats documents as a symbolic representation that can be recorded and retrieved for description and analysis. The emphasis is on discovery and description, including searching for contexts, underlying meanings, patterns and processes (Altheide et al. 2008). The aim is to interrogate the data and examine how documents achieve their effects and create meaning by examining how events and behaviours are placed in context and what themes and discourse are being presented (Altheide et al. 2008). The documentary analysis of the texts listed in table 1 focused on how East London, as a place, was categorised and constructed and how Olympic regeneration was positioned within a wider discourse of urban transformation.

Table 1: Published evidence used for documentary analysis

YearTitleResponsible Party
2003A London Olympic Bid for 2012House of Commons
2004London 2012 Candidate CityBritish Olympic Association (BOA)
2006London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006Parliament
2007London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games: funding and legacyHouse of Commons
2008London 2012 Games: The next lapHouse of Commons
2008Before, during and after: making the most of the London 2012 GamesDCMS
2009Strategic Regeneration Framework: An Olympic Legacy for the Host Boroughs.London Boroughs of: Greenwich, Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest.
2009London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games Impacts and Legacy Evaluation Framework: Final ReportDCMS
2010Plans for the Legacy from the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic GamesDCMS (Coalition Government)
2011The London Plan: Spatial Development Strategy for Greater LondonGLA

East London: a problematic place

3.1 In the documents reviewed, London was cast as 'a ''world'' city in every sense... the wealthiest city in Europe, the most culturally diverse in the world, as well as the most popular destination in terms of inbound visitors' (House of Commons 2003). However, East London was positioned very differently in these documents, through repeated use of expressions such as a deprivation 'gap' and the need for 'convergence' with the rest of London by the Olympic host boroughs (House of Commons 2009). For East London to be a viable site for regeneration, it (arguably) had to be positioned as a place in need of regeneration, as well as a place that would allow experimentation, both in terms of physical infrastructure and as a 'population laboratory' (Greenhough et al. forthcoming). To achieve this positioning, Government policy documents problematised East London in three key ways: visually (what could be seen), objectively (via evidence – statistical, consultative or other) and rhetorically (by constructing a narrative about the kind of place that East London is).

3.2 In the earliest Government document in our dataset (House of Commons 2003), the context for Olympic-led regeneration was the subject of debate, with chief executives from the London Boroughs of Hackney and Waltham Forest arguing that it 'could act as a catalyst for action on moribund regeneration plans' (p. 13). But at this stage, without great clarity on the process, there was evidence of resistance to nascent attempts to problematise East London. Three local community groups offered emotive written evidence, and ...

'...argued vigorously against siting the Olympics in the Lea Valley as they regarded the area, not just as ''derelict land needing restoration'', but rather a ''tranquil and precious green lung'' close to central London.' (House of Commons 2003)

3.3 The British Olympic Association (BOA) subsequently announced in its candidature file, outlining London's bid for 2012, that the Lower Lea Valley "is ripe for redevelopment" (British Olympic Association 2004) p. 19), highlighting the sense of opportunity the site conferred. It is stated that '[t]he Olympic Park will provide local people with significant improvements in health and wellbeing' (p.23) in London's 'poorest and most disadvantaged area' (ibid). The official bid marks the effective start of the problematisation of East London in the context of the Olympic bid. However, it was not until the legacy agenda was fully articulated (from 2007 onwards) that this problematisation became a consistent narrative.

'Public money is being used to transform the Olympic Park, a contaminated wasteland, into a cleansed zone ready for redevelopment' (House of Commons 2007).

3.4 Not only was the Lower Lea Valley depicted as a 'wasteland', but it 'suffered from the worst poverty in London, perhaps the worst in Britain' (House of Commons 2007), as well as again satisfying the opportunism of having a 'ready potential for development' (ibid.) This discourse thus depicted the Olympics legacy as a sanitising force in East London's proposed transformation.

3.5 One of the major objective problematisations of the area was the depiction of a decline in community sport: 'evidence in 2005 that participation levels in England were lower than those in France, Germany, Japan or the USA and were substantially lower than those in Canada, Australia and Finland' (House of Commons 2008). It is with this in mind that East London was cast as a 'laboratory for change', in which there was a need to 'address the lack of sports facilities open to schoolchildren, in particular, on whose doorstep the Olympics will be held' (House of Commons 2008). The London Plan (Greater London Authority 2011) worked in tandem with the articulation of an objective problematisation of East London, presenting the Index of Multiple Deprivation for 2007 (p. 25) as an indicator of the 'importance of geographically targeted approaches to development and regeneration' (ibid.) and linking high relative deprivation with 'highest need' for regeneration. Similarly, the DCMS legacy agenda depicted East London as 'an area of traditionally high unemployment' (DCMS 2008). Whilst there was evidence to support this, there was also an implication that worklessness had become part of the culture of East London's working age population, and that the Olympic legacy would have a transformative role.

3.6 It is in these later, legacy-inspired documents that the rhetorical aspect of East London as a problem emerged. For example, Tessa Jowell (the then Olympics Minister) talked about '[f]aster progress towards a healthy nation' (DCMS, 2008), and marked an intensification of the use of the emotive term 'transformation'. The DCMS promised to 'transform the heart of East London' (DCMS 2008: 6) by transforming: 'place', 'communities', and 'prospects'. Indeed, the use of terms such as 'regenerate' and 'transform' were used almost interchangeably in this later document. However, revisions by the subsequent coalition government talked of 'exploiting to the full the opportunities for economic growth' (DCMS 2010), and again, more forcefully, that:

'The Games were sited in Stratford, East London, deliberately, to exploit the opportunities they present to develop and accelerate this regeneration agenda. This regeneration has cleared away and cleaned up over 300 hectares of centuries-old industrial contamination and blight in the heart of East London' (DCMS 2010)
In this excerpt, the notion of exploitation and opportunity is set alongside the recurring image of the 'heart', linking redevelopment with notions of vitality and healthfulness, as well as furthering conceptions of sanitisation and cleanliness.

3.7 East London was established as in need of regeneration in three main ways: firstly, through a visual discourse of 'blight' that presented East London as unfit, unclean and deviant in relation to the rest of London; secondly, through an objective assessment of East London's place as a deprived area with poor prospects for employment and thus ripe for regeneration; and thirdly, through the use of emotive and humanising rhetoric that sought to 'transform' (not regenerate) a 'heart' (not an area). This narrative set the stage for the framing of Olympic regeneration as the 'solution' to the 'problem' of East London.

The Olympic transformation: solving the problems of East London

4.1 Olympic regeneration is somewhat different from previous interventions in East London. The Olympic Games were presented in our sample of documents as an accelerator, utilising the sporting 'spectacle' it would create as a driver for regeneration, tourism and public investment (Horne & Manzenreiter 2006). Staging the Games involved contributions from numerous stakeholders across the public, voluntary, and private sectors, with London's bid document placing greater emphasis on the legacy and the after effects of the Games than on the event itself (Evans 2007). Mobilising the mass popular appeal of spectacular events to legitimise regeneration and investment programmes had become a standard policy strategy. This section outlines how this legacy-based regeneration strategy was framed and the rationales provided.

4.2 The London 2012 bid for the Games was presented as the last chance for the UK to host the Olympics for the foreseeable future. London was believed to be the only city in the UK that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would take seriously. Tessa Jowell noted, for example, that 'it is in East London that you get the synergy between space required for Olympic development and the planned regeneration' (House of Commons 2003). The formation of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA: London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006) mirrored the powers given to the London Docklands Development Corporation during the 1980s. For example, the ODA had the right to land acquisition, planning and contracting of work on the Olympic site. Whilst this removed local Government responsibility over the area, it was felt that the ODA could 'deliver higher quality infrastructure, in a systematic way, and faster than we could otherwise hope to' (House of Commons 2007). Post-Games, the ODA would open up the land 'as development sites, with the assumption that developers will contribute to the costs of further infrastructure—social, physical and economic—through planning conditions and agreements' (House of Commons 2008).

4.3 Wariness that regeneration brought about by London 2012 might be 'superficial' (House of Commons 2007) led to an ambitiously broad definition of legacy. Intent on going beyond the physical regeneration of infrastructure, residential and commercial space, and the creation of new jobs, a 'softer legacy' was also defined. This included the chance to 'change the area and the life chances and experiences of many' (House of Commons 2007). Events such as the Olympics are often framed as 'a unique opportunity to improve public health' (Jacobs & Dutton 2000). The 'greatest prize' from the Games was depicted as being 'a demonstrable increase in participation in sport throughout the community' (House of Commons 2007). However, although sporting events are often described as having an impact on population physical activity levels, especially for children and young people, there is little evidence to indicate that individual participation and physical activity rates actually increase (Weed et al. 2009). Rather, it is improvements in the physical activity related infrastructure (associated with the events) that are taken as indicative of greater participation (Murphy & Bauman 2007). Tellingly, it was acknowledged early on that '[a]n East London Olympic bid needs an 80,000 seat athletics stadium but East London itself does not' (House of Commons 2003). The Government, in lieu of evidence, thus suggested that '[i]nternational sporting events can bring considerable gains to a nation. They can promote economic and social development and bring a ''feel good factor'' to the host country' (House of Commons 2003).

4.4 There is surprisingly little research that directly addresses the legacy of major sporting events in relation to their social and health impact. Most evaluations focus primarily on economic outcomes such as employment (McCartney et al. 2010) where research has raised questions about the significance of sporting events for economic development (Misener & Mason 2006). Indeed, some negative socioeconomic effects of Olympic regeneration are reported, including: inadequate planning; poor stadium design; the withdrawal of sponsors; political boycotts; heavy cost overruns on facilities; the forced eviction of residents living in areas wanted for development; and subsequent unwanted stadia can tarnish the Olympic legacy (Gold & Gold 2008). In a systematic review of the health and socioeconomic impacts of major sporting events, McCartney et al. (2010) found that associated investment could result in positive and negative effects; higher levels of investment in public services, and delayed investment in health and education provision, as was the case in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. They also reported that, after the event, satisfaction with the local area improved, along with a rise in house prices. In fact, house prices in the London borough of Hackney have risen as a result of the London 2012, which is portrayed as a positive economic outcome but also serves to further fuel local gentrification and a loss of space for disadvantaged groups (Kennelly & Watt 2011).

4.5 Housing and overcrowding is a long standing policy concern in London and is especially felt in East London, as a historically popular site for new immigrants (Widgery 1993). Scherer (2011) points out that although large scale social housing has been a feature of Olympic bids for the last 10 years, it has never yet been successfully delivered; the process of Olympic regeneration lacks transparency and is characterised by top-down decision making that does not consult with low income and disadvantaged groups or social housing advocates. In fact, public consultations do not normally start until bidding for the Games begins, and typically the purpose of those consultations is primarily to convince the IOC of the existence of public support. Once the Games are secured they are seen as a success and the consultation process often stops at that point (Hiller & Wanner 2011).

4.6 Olympic-led regeneration was presented, in the documents discussed above, as the most logical and practical way of ensuring both a timely 'transformation' of East London and an enduring legacy for its residents. Legacy benefit is positioned in opposition to a narrative of deprivation that is both subjective (through visual imagery of blight) and objective (through statistics and consultancy). Further, an emotive rhetoric of transformation is clearly and consistently stated, despite inconsistent evidence to support legacy plans.


5.1 The discourses of problem and solution outlined here position London 2012 as an essential transformative process to be enacted upon East London. Scherer (2011) argues that although popular rhetoric equates the presence of the Olympic Games with community-wide benefits, this is clearly not the case. The relationship between public costs and private gains is an uneven one, and the benefits of living in a world-class city are very unevenly distributed (Whitson & Macintosh 1996). The grandeur and spectacle of the Games do not necessarily guarantee a legacy, especially the ambitious legacy and regeneration outcomes set out by London 2012. Very little is known about the impacts of such event-led regeneration and there is no evidence of positive impacts of any single event across a range of criteria, therefore it is difficult to speculate about the possible outcome of future ones.

5.2 However, this does not refute expectations of a legacy, be it good or bad (McCartney et al. 2010); the power and potential of the Olympic Games as catalyst for change should not be underestimated. The cultural symbolism of spectacular sporting events can at once perpetuate a unifying rhetoric and, at the same time, highlight and exacerbate existing inequalities and unequal power relations. The Games have always had aspirations that extend beyond sport (Fussey et al. 2011). Despite the many criticisms levelled against neo-liberal and entrepreneurial regeneration schemes, we can, at the time of writing, only speculate on the outcome for East London. What we do know is that that neoliberal ideals about how to (re)make places almost always result in winners and losers.


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