Broken record

Even as the Olympics provide compelling evidence that Britain is not as broken as the government makes out, the anniversary of the riots is a reminder that it is not fixed either.

In the glow from the marvellous opening ceremony and the stellar performances of the athletes it’s easy to forget that we are a country in austerity and recession.  Perhaps that’s because we weren’t when we won the games and when the stadia and all the other facilities were funded.

The Olympics and the Paralympics that follow are like a holiday from the cuts, unemployment and welfare ‘reform’. The thousands of volunteers who are being hailed as a living embodiment of the Big Society are happily working for nothing for the common good rather than being made to work for nothing for private contractors. And the homes that will be built at the athletes village and on the Olympic park will be a lasting legacy of all that investment.

What a contrast with a year ago today when the riots and looting led to (depending on your point of view) either despair about the deprivation and inequality that lay behind them or anger at the feral, feckless youth who caused all the damage. As this blog argued at the time, the truth was always much more complex than the kneejerk calls to evict the families of rioters made out.

When the independent Riots Communities and Victims Panel delivered its final report to David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband in March, it concluded that the main lesson was that everyone, and especially young people, need to feel they have a stake in society. In contrast to the Broken Britain propaganda, it found limited overlap between the rioters and the government’s 120,000 ‘troubled families’ and called for more help for 500,000 ‘forgotten families’ to turn their lives around. A month before, Inside Housing’s Riot Report had highlighted the positive work being done by housing organisations all over the country.

So far the Olympics have been a powerful antidote to the negativity about Broken Britain. The opening ceremony was an inclusive celebration of multicultural Britain that delighted everyone apart from the odd Nazi uniform-wearing Tory MP and Daily Mail columnist. It gave us an optimistic vision of ourselves that most of us did not fully realise was there.

At the games themselves, there are the thousands of enthusiastic volunteers, many of them drawn from deprived communities around the Olympic Park. Give or take the odd bit of dodgy timekeeping in the fencing they really do seem to have been a success.

And then there are the athletes. At first we were regaled with stories of public school domination in sports like rowing. The only mention of social housing seemed to be as a launching pad for missiles. But medallists like Bradley Wiggins and Louis Smith (and previous ones like Dame Kelly Holmes and Liz McColgan) have shown that success comes from state schools too – and from council estates.

The games will have a strong housing legacy too. The athletes village will be converted into 2,800 mixed tenure homes including 1,479 that will be affordable. Of these, 675 will be for social rent, 354 for intermediate rent and 350 for shared ownership or shared equity.

Another 6,800 homes will be built in five neighbourhoods across the Olympic Park. Last week, the London Legacy Development Corporation appointed Taylor Wimpey and L&Q to build 870 homes in the first of them, Chobham Manor. Of these 28 per cent will be affordable and a community land trust could be part of the deal. In a real sense, as Ricky Burdett of the LSE (a former chief advisor to the Olympic Delivery Authority) argued last week, London is taking the first step to its Great Leap Eastwards.

As Gavriel Hollander reported in June, the athletes village is likely to be England’s last large-scale social housing development. The affordable homes in Chobham Manor and the rest of the park will of course be ‘affordable’. Residents of the Carpenters Estate on the periphery of the park say that its 500 council homes will be replaced by just 80 once it is demolished and redeveloped after the games. Newham will be using the Localism Act to prioritise people who are in employment or actively pursuing it for the new homes. No matter what you think of some of the detail, London 2012 will at least leave lots of homes behind.

However, when the glow of the Olympics and Paralympics wears off, cold reality will reassert itself and we will be back in the same austerity and recession as before. How long will it be before we hear the rhetoric about Broken Britain all over again? Are we prepared to do something about inequality? When senior police officers and politicians like Tottenham MP David Lammy tell is that ‘the conditions that led up to the riots still exist now’, are we really listening?

Originally published as a blog for Inside Housing

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