Insight: Anna Minton, writer

'The whole economics of the Olympics project have failed absolutely'

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The Independent Culture

Writer and journalist Anna Minton's 2009 book Ground Control – the story of how Britain's public spaces have been privatised and the effect this has had on society – has just been reissued in paperback, with a new chapter on the legacy of the Olympic development in east London. At the end of last year Minton was awarded a two-year fellowship from the 1851 Royal Commission.

Many books could be written about the Olympics merry-go-round. There's an awful lot to write about the International Olympics Committee and how all of that works. An awful lot about the Olympics that is worthy of really close scrutiny.

What I've been focusing on is the manner of the development. I wasn't motivated to write about this four-yearly sporting spectacle. I became interested when I realised there was going to be this opportunity to create this enormous part of the city. Another huge piece of urban fabric in this same entirely privatised manner [as others, like Docklands, discussed in the book].

It was seen as huge regeneration opportunity by British politicians. But when people talk about regeneration in this country, what they really mean is creating these enormous privatised, segregated parts of the city. It began in Docklands and it seems to be ending with Stratford City.

I don't think the issues [behind privatisation and regeneration] are ever really clearly explained. It's not a level playing field. It's never explained as in "there will be this loss of public land, we'll have this new park but it's going to be an entirely private park. It's not going to be a democratic space." Those issues are not put on the table.

London Citizens [the civil campaigning group] repeatedly asked for more information about the lack of democratic accountability [ie, who would been in charge of the new Olympic district after the Games]. And the so-called consultations, which are more like roadshow exhibitions, offered no opportunity for any discussion over these schemes. And it's really difficult to get to the bottom of it.

You have to really know what you're talking about to get behind the jargon of planning.

The way these things are sold and marketed, you're not really told the reality of what's going on. That's been the case with regeneration schemes everywhere.

The most shocking aspect [of looking at regeneration in the Olympic borough, Newham] was looking at housing. I went around Newham, because what I wanted to do was contrast the promises of affordable housing with the reality of what's going on, especially in the context of housing benefit cuts.

I went around the borough and I was absolutely shocked by the conditions that people are living in. And they're really invisible. You'll see a house that looks OK from the outside. There's not really any indication that inside there's 20-30 men sleeping in a two-up, two-down in really terrible conditions with damp and mould on the walls.

Someone from Shelter told me that he had even had a client who was sleeping in a commercial fridge. It really is totally invisible. It's not like it's clearly a ghetto or a shantytown – it's nothing like that. It's behind what seems like a perfectly ordinary building. This is what's going on. These are proper third-world conditions.

The Olympic story is full of shocking aspects. I was also shocked by the ethical Olympics pledge [signed before the games were won but abandoned by the Olympic Delivery Authority on the basis that they didn't exist when it was agreed] and the fact that they were so cavalier in abandoning it on what seemed like legalistic grounds. That is against the Olympic spirit entirely.

The spirit of previous great British projects [like the the Great Exhibition and the Festival of Britain] is gone. But the reason the spirit is gone – it's not some nebulous thing – lies in legislation. The reason we've lost this idea of the public good is because, in 2004, it was removed from legislation very quietly and replaced with [the need for] economic benefit.

This also happened in the US. Over there it caused a massive national outcry. It led the national news bulletins. Over here it's still very much there. Even in discussions about localism, the idea of the public good has not come up at all.

That was the point when turbo-charged uber capitalism really started to take off. If the public good was at the centre of legislation, then the Olympic legacy company would not have been able to say that the Wellcome Trust bid [a £1bn bid to turn the Olympic Park into a centre for science and technology] did not offer value for money. It's so obviously a bid which is so much more in the public interest than what's been selected [elements of the park have instead been sold off to the Qatari Royal Family and other property developers].

The whole economics of the Olympics project have failed absolutely but when a £1bn pound bid comes in, they turn around and say: "We could get so much more for this". The idea that we're going to get back to a place when vast amounts of the Olympic park can be sold off for money and the whole thing will make a profit... it's just not going to happen. It's that bottom-line mindset that dismissed the Wellcome Trust proposal.

I constantly find that audiences agree with me [about the perils of privately controlled public places], but the unintended consequences behind a lot of the policies which have created this environment are very difficult to unpick and unravel unless you're very committed and interested. But mainly it just needs as much discussion and debate as possible. The real problem is that people at the top have not taken these arguments on board at all.

When you have lots of external controls [like gates and CCTV] you undermine the conscious interactions between people. The outcome is that you make places less safe and you rely on high security and these visible differences which increase fear and distrust. The solutions put forward in the last 10 years or so have very much been part of the problem.

We've become so distrustful of human interaction, we've tried to replace it with technology that will tell us what to do; how to behave. Or human interaction that is based on punitive measures. What we used to have was benign authority figures like bus conductors or park keepers. These people had some authority, but they couldn't issue you with a fine or wear authoritarian uniforms. In the name of efficiency, we've taken all those people out of the picture and replaced them with a phalanx of private security guards. That creates a very different environment.