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Party pieces

Simon Barrow

BarrowNow that all the medals have been awarded, the plaudits made and the ceremonies completed, the final Olympic and Paralympic contest is underway. Who will claim political gold in the much publicized Games 'legacy' race?

London Mayor Boris Johnson has certainly opened up a lead over David Cameron. His profile boost follows much flag-waving, a series of barnstorming speeches, and a rapid move to replace socialite Daniel Moylan as chair of the London Legacy Development Corporation after only a few months in the job.

But the benefits to be gained from being wrapped in an Olympic flag do not come without a price. The handling of the major stadium deal is not straightforward, and communities in East London are busily scrutinising regeneration promises made in a flush of calculated optimism.

Housing and economy will be two significant areas of contention. Living costs for local people in the Olympic catchment area are rising, displacement has been significant, gentrification has set in, and there has been a sharp escalation of up to 35% in rental prices across the host boroughs.

In Stratford, the Clays Lane Peabody Estate, once Europe's second largest social housing cooperative, was bulldozed to make way for Olympic facilities. Over 200 businesses were lost and 5,000 jobs dispersed, in addition to hundreds of people losing their homes. Allotments and local sports or leisure facilities were cast aside.

Compensation battles are only part of the story. Critics say that what is spoken of as an Olympic boost to the local economy is mostly a reallocation of expenditure, not a net increase in activity. The massive £4 billion Stratford City development was planned well before the Games came to town. Some £2.2 million worth of National Lottery funding has also been redirected.  

Globally, research into the long-term impact of mega sporting events does not back extravagant claims made by commercial beneficiaries and sponsors. But it is in the interests of politicians to sweep awkward facts aside in the rush for glory, and much of the media has been uninquisitive or compliant about this.

Meanwhile, disability campaigners point out that while the Prime Minister talks of a sea-change in attitudes arising from the Paralympics, the reality is that £2.1 billion per year is being slashed from benefit and welfare support for disabled people over the next decade - a figure that could increase if former defence secretary Liam Fox's new think-tank gets its way.  

'Civic boosterism is the preserve of transient growth coalitions drawing personnel from chambers of commerce, financiers, business leaders and real estate developers,' concluded analyst David Harvey in a landmark study of urban transformation two decades ago. Large-scale, prestige projects divert attention from broader problems. The real question remains, 'whose legacy?'

Simon Barrow