London's Olympic Whingers

Homeless Hostel, East London.jpg

Busted. "Even in the best of times, whinging, as Britons call the persistent low-grade grousing that is their default response to life’s challenges, is part of the national condition", Sarah Lyall writes in the New York Times, about Londoners’ failure to embrace the Olympic Spirit. If a British newspaper mocked America there would be a flood of patriotic remonstrance right back at us. But when The Guardian asked its readers whether it was true that Britons were whingers, this is how the poll went:

There is a lot to complain about with the Olympics. The police have been heavy-handed, pushing around people who have argued with the Olympic hype. The Olympic Park has been forcibly cleared of its official and unofficial tenants.

Dave Renton, author of Lives; Running, who believes in the Olympics but not in the corporate hype and security that comes with it explains:

Already the park is enclosed by a sky high fence, topped by razor wires and electronic sensors, with CCTV every few metres and security patrols inside the fence, all to protect the Park from intruders. But in addition the towpath was closed to public access 23 days before the Olympics even began. All across London on the edge of Olympic venues there have been similar restrictions imposed. (see his Olympics-and-other sports blog,

Most shockingly, the army has put surface to air missiles on the roofs of local tower blocks, to the outrage of the residents, who see them as a threat against London’s rioting youths rather than any imagined Al Qaida attack. Pointedly, the one estate that has welcomed the installation is the Bow Quarter, a super-rich gated community in the heart of impoverished East London (the site, ironically, of the re-birth of British trade union struggle in the nineteenth century, the Bryant and May match factory).

There are special Olympic lanes painted on the roads, like those that the old Soviet bureaucracy had for the Zil limousines carrying officials. We are warned that spectators wearing the wrong logo will be barred from the stadium, as will Tibetan flags and any kind of political slogan.

There is much to complain about, but Sarah Lyall is right: scoffing is the British way. Poor Sebastian Coe, goody-two-shoes of the 1980s track, has a hard job selling the Olympics to the British public. This coming Saturday radicals of the counter Olympics network will meet at noon to protest in Mile End Park.

Of course Briton’s have not been big on public celebration since they lost that last toe-hold on world domination, as subalterns to the United States in the Cold War. The Falklands War against Argentina (oh, the shame!) was the last that drew out a jingo crowd. Ever since the Berlin Wall came down, we only come out on the streets to object or mourn. That is why the Millennium celebrations drew such a vicious reaction from the intelligentsia here, and why the most recently celebrated Queen’s Jubilee was such a damp squib. By contrast, hundreds of thousands mourned the death of Princess Diana, and perhaps a million marched against the war in Iraq.

It is not easy to be a British sporting star. Jaded Britons willed Wimbledon tennis finalist Andy Murray to lose with the fervour that in years gone by they would have willed him to win. England's soccer captain, John Terry, is better known for swearing at Anton Ferdinand than for his defending skills (after a failed prosecution for racial abuse, the press, unwilling to accept the jury’s decision, found him guilty anyway). The mood behind team GB in London right now is markedly downbeat. Londoners’ main interest has been whether they could make any money letting out their homes (no, it turns out, the market was flooded).

The mood is not helped by the downbeat promotion. Filmmaker Danny Boyle is in charge of the opening ceremony. He says he will not follow the Beijing triumphalism, but instead threatens a mawkish recreation of the English countryside, complete with sheep and even a mob of countercultural festival hippies. On television, Britons follow not the hype, but a mockumentary satire of the hype, Twenty Twelve.


The London that Britain will showcase to the world is at a difficult crossroads. It is the centre of the financial services sector, Britain’s most successful export since deregulation in the 1980s, but currently mired in successive crises, most recently the manipulation of the LIBOR rate by Barclays (with the apparent connivance of not only shamed Chief Exec Bob Diamond, but the Governor of the Bank of England, too). There is little doubt that Britain’s economy is dangerously skewed in favour of its financial sector, which buys influence from out-of-touch and cash-hungry politicians. Sadly, the one occasion when the financial sector might have been reined in, the crash of 2008, led to a massive bailout instead. Advice from financiers that the banks were ‘too big to fail’ was accepted with much the same gullibility as advice from the securocrats that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction could strike London in 15 minutes. In the manner of a naïve maiden aunt, the press and the politicial establishment here were repeatedly surprised that the billions the government gave the bankers went straight into bonuses, instead of being passed on as loans to businesses. Did no one ever tell them that banks are in the business of making money, not giving it away?

The problem with the banks, in any event, is misunderstood. The febrile financial sector is more symptomatic than causal. It has been fuelled for some years by the surplus capital that British and European industry fails to reinvest in its manufacturing base. Europe’s risk-averse business leaders are reluctant to disturb their cozy relations with each other and government by innovating new processes or products. Where their forebears ploughed profits back into the business, our business leaders prefer to put them in the bank, hunting around for some fantasy of high yield investments that do not entail any relationship more demanding than a phone-call. It is not that bankers steal the cash from business so much as that business that is falling over itself to give it up.

High on the list of London’s problems is its house-building industry, which has systematically failed to meet the expanding demand for homes. Characteristic of the institutional prejudice against development here, house-building has been stymied by a planning system that restricts building to brownfield sites, and is strangling London’s growth with a ‘green belt’.

Predictably, the limit on building new houses has forced up prices, and priced poorer Londoners out of central London. According to a study by Tom MacInnes and Peter Kenway for the City Parochial Foundation:

… more than half (54%) London’s low income population live in Outer London. This is an increase compared to the late 1990s, when London’s low-income population was split equally between Inner and Outer London. Reflecting this relatively bigger population, a larger number of children in low-income households live in Outer London (380,000) than Inner London (270,000). (London’s Poverty Profile, 2009, p 29)

The impact of high prices on where people live, the gentrification of the inner city, and the exodus of the poor, has been dramatic. For poorer residents to carry on living in London gets more and more difficult. That is particularly so because the rise in rents mirrors the rise in house prices. For too many families living in London means accepting less and less space. Meanwhile, in Caledonian Road, a local developer bought up local shops to convert into flats, and then realised that the cellars could be made into houses, too.

With some cheek, London's former Mayor, Ken Livingstone, architect of the London plan that put the dampeners on development is now protesting that ‘rents have soared beyond people's ability to pay’. But it was Livingstone’s policy, with its mantra of building up, not out, on brownfield, not greenfield land, that created the scarcity of homes that is forcing up prices and rents. All of Livingstone’s solutions are about redistributing the limited housing stock available, without understanding that the real problem is in the realm of production.

The Olympics, of course, are supposed to have a lsting and positive effect on the London’s housing. But that will not happen unless there is a cultural shift in favour of development that is not engulfed in precautionary regulations and political indecision.

So let’s hope that Londoners do cheer up before the games start, and enjoy the sight of people giving their all. It ought to be a good antidote to the dog-in-the-manger attitude that is wrecking the prospects of recovery. Londoners have to choose between Olympic spirit, or Olympic whinging.

Photo by BBC World Service: Homeless Hostel, East London

James Heartfield’s latest book The Aborigines' Protection Society: Humanitarian Imperialism in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa, and the Congo, 1836-1909 is published by Columbia University Press, and Hurst Books in the UK.


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Participants of Olympics

Participants of Olympics must have a beautiful place for accommodation where they can feel like a penang homestay after every Olympic event. It's good to be an athlete someday to bring some honor to my country.

So whether youre trotting

So whether youre trotting the London marathon remark football at Wembley Stadium playing Rec to Rec Singapore tennis at the All England club or having a area on equine protocol at Sandown Park London is sure to have something to offer.

Smart Growth: the 6-decade working experiment

Good to see James Heartfield on this forum. We can learn a lot from the best assessments of the UK's 6 decades of "Smart Growth". Although not called that in the UK. The advocates of "Smart Growth" everywhere are culpable for their unwillingness to engage with the consequences that are visible in the UK.

Someone once said that "conservatism" means you do not assume you are smarter than your great grandparents. It is clear that the connections between incomes and economic land rent while urban areas remained necessarily restricted in size, were well understood circa 1900; yet somehow our civilisation has succumbed to the irrational assumption that reverting to these conditions is costless or irrelevant.

The popular narrative today, holds that the relentless deterioration in space and quality for the lowest income people in urban areas 100 years ago, was due to evil and greedy men; but this deterioration in space and quality is inevitable if there is income growth in an economy and yet the urban footprint remains constrained. The developers of NYC's infamous "Dumb-bells" tenements, for example, were merely meeting the market. Kowloon Walled City is probably the extreme example. The logical alternative is the "favela" or shanty-town immediately outside the city walls. Where this is prohibited, "dumb-bells" tenements are the only possible "solution".

The ability of the urban populace to cover greater distances is essential to breaking this paradigm, as is "freedom to build". The ability to travel greater distances by rail, and freedom to build adjacent to rails, is nowhere near as effective in breaking the malignant connection between income growth and economic land rents, as "automobility" and "auto dependent development" is. But deliberate urban growth constraint does not allow this to happen.

We are having to rediscover the link between income growth and economic land rents in the context of post-automobility urban growth constraint. Specialist academics, especially in the UK, are in the lead here along with think tank analysts. The urban planning profession itself, bureaucracy, environmental activism, NIMBYism, and "big property" interests, are arrayed against truth and common sense. Inequality, social exclusion, and the denial of opportunity are the inevitable consequences. We can expect to see more and more social breakdown in the UK, while interestingly, although the USA's cities have a reputation for "colour" riots, nowhere is this LESS evident than in the cities with low urban density and affordable housing, both of which are a legacy of unrestricted automobility and freedom to build. The rate of suburbanisation of once-deprived inner city minorities will correlate with social stability.

The opposite paradigm is at work in the UK; the impact of the rationing of space for urban populations falls most heavily on the lowest incomes. Indeed, the rationing by income ends up applying to all attributes of housing and location, so that those on the lowest incomes tend to end up with "housing" with the least space, the lowest quality, the least local amenities, the greatest depreciation, and the lowest "location efficiency". Heartfield's point above regarding the relationship between commuting distances and income in London, is well made. The corollary to this, is that those on low incomes who ARE living in central London, will have traded off near-unthinkable amounts of space and quality so as to be able to gain "location", and a dispoportionate amount of such people are recent immigrants who are hardened to such conditions in their countries of origin.

Meanwhile, native Britishers all over the UK who are unemployed, will not move to where the jobs are, that these recent immigrants take. And why should they? They are better off on welfare and in the state-provided housing they currently have. The fiscal dis-incentives for becoming employed AND paying one's own way in the housing market, are so steep as to be like a "wall".