I’ve been criticised in a few quarters for never saying anything positive about the Olympics in Greenwich, so let me find something good to say about it now: it’s over. Apart from the bill, of course. And the Games Makers’ Christmas single. Oh yes, and the damage to the park, that place of little importance - parts of which, at the time of writing, look a bit like the Somme.
More about the park later. In the meantime, however, let’s talk legacy. You know how keen I am to realise the full benefit for Greenwich of our Greatest Ever Summer. I will shortly be announcing my new Column Legacy Masterplan Framework for a world-class, 21st-century greenwich.co.uk column, a column aimed at inspiring all SE10 residents to Go For Gold!
By no later than August 2136 (date subject to change), my powerful and dynamic vision will bring about the unparalleled transformation of Olympic-related online commentary. In a true expression of the spirit of the Games, it will totally regenerate grassroots column-writing, creating up to 10 million new hyperlocal bloggers (figure to be confirmed) in vibrant multimedia hubs throughout the Lower Lea Valley. Using only the latest exemplar sustainable word-processing technologies, our columns will deliver a lasting legacy for London of year-round sunshine, free drinks and England winning the football.
The real claims actually being made about the legacy of the Games are, in fact, scarcely less preposterous. This week, in an example of churnalism at its worst, the BBC did a story headlined “Olympic legacy report: 5,000 jobs created in Greenwich.” Alas, both the Beeb piece, and the council report it’s based on, only make clear obliquely that all these “5,000 jobs” were temporary. They were “created” only to disappear again. They no longer exist.
Indeed, it appears that the vast majority of even these “jobs” had a lifespan only slightly longer than the average mayfly’s. I was puzzled by the 5,000 figure: I’d thought that across London, including Stratford, only about 1,000 Greenwich borough residents were involved in building the Olympic venues. And indeed, the council report confirms that figure: 1,177 is the number it gives, plus a further 22 apprentices.
Incredibly, it looks like almost all the others in Greenwich Council’s claimed 5,000 total were even more temporary: staff taken on by Locog only for the period of the Games, that is, two to six weeks. Some of them may even have been volunteers – it’s not clear. Frankly, a fortnight’s work as a hot-dog salesman is not going to be the economic lifeline anyone is looking for.
The actual number of real, permanent jobs created for Greenwich residents by the Olympics is almost certainly nil, or possibly even negative. Careful reading of the report reveals that a much-ballyhooed link with China, under discussion since 2007, has so far produced rather more photo-opportunities and trips to Beijing than it has produced jobs for people in Greenwich.
Away from the fantasyland of councillor junketing, a big part of the area’s real economy depends on tourism – but despite the council’s attempts to spin the Games as “a substantial boost to an already thriving tourism industry,” shopkeepers tell me that trade is very sharply down this year.
That’s hardly surprising, since the centrepiece of the Greenwich tourist “offer” – the park and observatory – was completely closed at the height of the tourist season, and partly closed for the vast majority of the entire year. Several other attractions, including the 02, had reduced access, too. Non-Olympic visitors were explicitly told to avoid Greenwich. And even the Olympic crowds were coralled away from anything resembling a local business.
As I reported back in August, trade in the town centre collapsed at what is normally its busiest time. A couple of town centre businesses have closed and I would not be surprised if others had cut staff.
The rest of the council’s report does the usual trick of claiming as “Olympic legacy” a lot of things that were happening anyway – such as the three new hotels that have opened on Greenwich High Road. Hotels earn their construction costs back over a period of many years. The presence or absence of two weeks of sport cannot possibly have any bearing on the long-term viability of businesses like these.
Then there’s the line that Greenwich businesses secured “£28 million of contracts” with the Olympic agencies and their main contractors. Yes, but the vast majority of that £28 million was our own money, taken from us all in taxes. On a simple population basis, Greenwich taxpayers’ share of the Olympic bill was at least £50 million – in practice it will be more, since there are more higher-rate taxpayers in London than in the rest of the UK - so we actually got less back from the Games than it took from us.
But perhaps the crowning inanity comes with virtually the only real “legacy” project in the whole report – almost the only substantial thing in Greenwich that really wouldn’t exist without the Olympics. Can you guess what it is? No? Well, at a cost of £3.1 million, the council will next year open a new “equestrian and horticulture centre” in Shooters Hill to offer courses in “horse handling” for those who want to get a “career in the industry.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but is this 2012 or 1912? Is there some redoubt, some pocket of hansom cabs and draymen that I’ve missed? Or isn’t the “horse industry” in London these days really quite small?
Ironically enough, part of the site was previously used for one of the few genuine equine enterprises that existed in the “Royal Borough,” pre-Games: the donkey rides that Len Thorne has offered on Blackheath for the last six decades. Mr Thorne was evicted from his traditional pitch, by the Greenwich Park gates, because of the Olympics. Then he found that he was also losing his stables, on Shooters Hill, to the council’s preposterous equestrian legacy project. He died in July, a few days before the Games started, a penniless man, according to his daughter.
The Shooters Hill centre was originally puffed as enabling disadvantaged children to take up horseriding – but a little line in this week’s Greenwich Time says its courses will now only be open to over-16s with “some experience of working with horses.” For its millions, the council is getting only a limited share of the centre’s time – so it could quite easily end up as essentially another middle-class riding school of the kind that exists perfectly happily across the Home Counties without the need for a taxpayer subsidy.
In one final element of the travesty, the centre has been built on what was supposed to be protected Metropolitan Open Land – so the legacy of the Golden Games will actually be less public space in Greenwich for sport and recreation than there was before.
What improvements does Greenwich need for the future? Less traffic, better schools, more jobs? No, silly, what Greenwich needs is less open space, and more horses!