'Stinky Stratford' sniffs out Olympic success

A deprived area of London is being rapidly regenerated to host much of the 2012 Olympics in a year, but there are fears the changes may not benefit locals despite efforts to leave a positive legacy.

The east London district of Stratford, home to the Olympic Park for next year's sporting extravaganza, was once so filled with smoke-belching factories it earned the unflattering nickname "Stinky Stratford."

But the noxious fumes went as industrial decline set in and until several years ago there was little work at all.

Since 2005 however, when London was awarded the Games, there has been a frenzy of construction work as the venues went up in the park, with its centrepiece the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium.

"It was all derelict here before," Jason Vaughan, a 25-year-old builder who has lived in the area for 10 years, told AFP as he gestured towards gleaming blocks of flats on the edge of the park.

"They have really fixed things, really tidied up the area a lot."

The frenetic pace of change is impossible to miss.

Cranes dot the skyline, men with hard hats and smartly dressed Olympic officials wander the paths and the air is filled with the noise of pneumatic drills and hammers.

Organisers have set up a body, the Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC), which is dedicated to ensuring the Games benefit local people and it has rolled out an ambitious 25-year plan to transform the area.

"The idea is to create a new piece of London that will help to regenerate one of the most deprived parts of the country," said an OPLC spokesman.

A major focus will be on ensuring the venues themselves do not become derelict and unused after the Games, as happened to many sites after the Athens Olympics of 2004.

The Olympic Stadium has been awarded to London football club West Ham to use after the Games, although rivals Tottenham Hotspur are contesting the decision.

Other ideas include turning the Aquatics Centre, designed by architect Zaha Hadid, into a community pool, and the press and broadcast buildings into a centre focusing on local employment.

Building homes in the run-down district is also a priority. The company aims to create five new neighbourhoods with up to 8,000 new homes, 35 percent of which will be affordable to local people.

It will also focus on creating green spaces and parks which will host an array of events in the coming years to pull in visitors, from open-air concerts to farmers markets.

Other initiatives to attract investment include a plan for a technology hub called "East London Tech City" to rival Silicon Valley in the United States as well as a new university.

If successful, the plans would amount to a social and economic renaissance.

The sprawling Olympic Park, which straddles several London local authorities, was for decades an industrial hub on the fringes of the capital, with factories producing everything from paint to cosmetics.

Industrial decline and mass migration from the 1960s onwards changed the area dramatically and nowadays it is a colourful, multicultural melting pot, which is however held back by high levels of deprivation.

Despite the well-intentioned plans of the legacy company, there are concerns that the regeneration may not spread its benefits equally to local people.

While acknowledging the positive side of the changes, Vaughan said the construction boom had so far failed to provide all the work promised.

"Everyone from east London was meant to have a job in there (the Olympic Park), and that never happened," he said. "For the immediate area, there won't be too much success, not as much as was promised."

Others see a danger that the area could become an "oasis for the rich", with local people pushed out as prices go up.

Dee Doocey, a Liberal Democrat lawmaker in the London Assembly, was critical of a lack of public money and a reliance on the private sector, warning the area could become like Canary Wharf - the expensive financial district in east London.

"I fear it will become another Canary Wharf - a great commercial success, but one that benefits wealthy incomers and foreign investors who wish to live in highly exclusive flats," she said.

"This would completely negate the original concept and vision of the park, which was to provide mixed communities and facilities, with the homes and jobs for local people."