Shifting legacy: why Olympic Park plans are changing

The rebranding of the Olympic Park as a cultural and educational quarter could mean that only just over half the number of homes originally promised are built, reports John Geoghegan.

Vision from above: the Chobham Manor development
Vision from above: the Chobham Manor development

When former London mayor Ken Livingstone decided to bid for the Olympic Games more than a decade ago, he said his key motivation was their potential for regeneration, rather than sporting glory. In securing the games in 2005, that potential became a reality and the promise of a legacy that would economically transform a large swathe of east London was repeatedly made by both the government and the mayor's office. The successful staging of the world's premier sporting event was two years ago. But the work to meet those legacy promises continues.

The 20-year post-games development of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and the surrounding area is the responsibility of the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), headed by Livingstone's successor, Boris Johnson. But the current legacy blueprint was set in place by the LLDC's predecessor body, the Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC), which drew up and submitted the ambitious legacy masterplan, outlining the park's development up to 2031.

Published in the autumn of 2010, the masterplan proposed building 8,000 homes, comprising a mix of apartments and low-rise family homes. The housing target represented a major shift from the vision outlined in the 2004 outline permission for the park drawn up by the London Development Agency. This had proposed 10,000 homes, made up mostly of high-rise oneand two-bedroom flats.

In 2010, the OPLC chief executive Andrew Altman said the new vision was inspired by London's "great estates" such as Grosvenor and Portland. Family housing would be at "the centre of the plan", Altman said. Baroness Ford, then OPLC chairman, explained that, following a public consultation, it became clear that the high-density vision in the 2004 masterplan was "not wanted" and "not appropriate for such a treasure of a place".

When it was finally given outline approval in June 2012, the Legacy Communities Scheme (LSC) masterplan had changed again, now proposing five new neighbourhoods totalling 6,800 homes, as well as 130,000 square metres of employment space, 100 hectares of green space and supporting infrastructure. The LCS had an affordable housing target of 35 per cent and indicated that 42 per cent of homes would have three bedrooms or more.

In October 2012, the LLDC became the planning authority for the park, which covers parts of four London boroughs, taking over from the Olympic Delivery Authority. Since then, there has been a further shift in the legacy vision. Dennis Hone, LLDC chief executive, says there is now a new focus on culture as a means of transforming the area, with plans progressing for a new cultural and educational quarter in the park. Last December, chancellor George Osborne, with the backing of Johnson, announced the "Olympicopolis" project, in which the Victoria and Albert Museum and University College London (UCL) would both move to sites on Stratford waterfront, near the park's stadium. The project promises to create 10,000 new jobs, says Hone.

Last week, it was reported that the American Smithsonian Museum was in talks with Johnson over setting up a British branch in the park, though the LLDC was only able to confirm that "exploratory discussions" were taking place with "several overseas bodies".

A cultural offering

Olympicopolis was prompted by a surge of interest from developers and institutions keen to invest in Stratford and the wider area, according to Hone. As a result, the LLDC and the mayor looked at how to create a cultural and educational quarter in the park that would "rival the South Bank" and the museums of South Kensington. While the park had top sporting facilities, open space, new homes and a huge shopping centre, Hone says, it lacked a "culture and education" offer, adding that the LLDC is close to agreeing terms with UCL for a "huge new campus". Vivienne Ramsey, former director of planning policy and decisions at the LLDC, who retired last October, adds that it was pressure from the host boroughs on the mayor for more "wow factor" in the park that prompted the Olympicopolis project.

Ralph Ward, a former government regeneration adviser for the Olympics, now a visiting professor at the University of East London, welcomes the shift in focus. He says: "The legacy is now moving in a much more interesting direction which is cultural and employment-led. Trying to turn the park into Bloomsbury always struck me as cute and fanciful. This is a vibrant, urban place, not a suburban place."

But, following the Olympicopolis announcement, it transpired that the overall housing target for the park is likely to be cut again to make way for the new hub, which prompted concerns from some London Assembly Labour members. Hone says the LLDC's "worst case analysis" was that there would be 1,000 fewer homes on the park. But he said the project's "transformational impact across the East End" would result in "house-building all over the place".

Despite the legacy's new cultural element, the "great estate" vision is still intact, say Hone and Ramsey. Hone, who is due to leave the LLDC at the end of the summer, points to the first of the new neighbourhoods, Chobham Manor, as an example. Seventy per cent of its 850 homes, granted planning permission last October, are for family housing of three bedrooms or more. Both the family and affordable housing targets are still intact, Hone adds, though the latter is "subject to financial viability".

But there are concerns about whether development pressures, particularly given London's growing housing shortage, could compromise this. Andrew Boff, the London Assembly's Conservative group leader, says: "I'm disturbed there's too much high-rise and not enough great estate. We need to keep the pressure on the mayor and the LLDC to stick to the original vision." John Biggs, the Labour group's regeneration lead, says it is "difficult to say at this stage" whether the great estate vision remains intact. He expects it will be "tested over the next few years" if the development industry finds it tough to sell family homes, creating pressure for higher density.

Ramsey hopes the LLDC would resist any pressure, either from the GLA or from developers, for higher-density housing. She says: "If people are sensible, they will stick to family housing. I'm not convinced that London needs to be full of tower blocks of oneand two-bedroom flats that sit empty for investors. If Stratford ends up like that, then it won't be a place - it will be dead."

Repaying lottery loans

Another potential challenge, says Ramsey, is the LLDC's need to repay the loans from the National Lottery that the government took out to pay for the games. The LLDC is expected to pay this back through the sale of land for development. Ramsey fears that could mean pressure to build more units on sites to maximise a return. The London Assembly Labour group has also voiced concerns about whether the pressure on the LLDC to generate land receipts, creates a tension with the longer-term vision.

But Hone says there is no deadline to repay the loans: "The deal with the lottery is not specific on when money has to be repaid. We're confident that the uses we've gone for will generate substantial receipts, so that the lottery will get repaid."

Despite some concerns about potential pitfalls, commentators applaud the work of the LLDC in luring jobs to the park. On top of Olympicopolis, Biggs cites the impending move of the Financial Conduct Authority and Transport for London to the International Quarter on the edge of the park, promising 4,000 to 5,000 new jobs as "good news". Boff, meanwhile, a self-confessed sceptic about the Olympic project, praises the successful letting of the former press and broadcast centre, now called Hear East.

Both Hone and Ramsey say the creation of jobs remains a vital part of the legacy. Hone says: "We have a finite amount of land and we have to use it in the best way to get economic growth and job creation into the East End of London." He says that he is happy with the LLDC's work over the past year. Development has been accelerated to bring forward homes as quickly as possible, he says, including the speeding-up of plans for two of the neighbourhoods, East Wick and Sweetwater (see panel).

Hone is also pleased with the progress of the LLDC's local plan, which has been published in draft form. Both Hone and Ramsey say the document does not involve a change of direction from the legacy masterplan, other than the recognition of the new cultural and educational quarter. Hone says a key feature is to preserve the character of surrounding areas of the park such as Fish Island and Hackney Wick, with their artistic communities and "industrial feel". He says: "Building 25-storey, one-bedroom apartment towers is the last thing we want to do across the surrounding areas."

It was important to build flexibility into the local plan, says Ramsey, alongside a clear vision. The future vision of the park is "bound to change" over time, she adds, because of varying economic circumstances or a bold new idea. "That's the reality of the development world," she says.

Key events 2013-14

July 2013: Community Infrastructure Levy draft charging schedule published for consultation.

October 2013: Zonal master-plan for first neighbourhood, Chobham Manor, consisting of up to 850 homes, approved.

October 2013: 330 homes for Lend Lease's International Quarter given outline approval.

November 2013: First residents move into East Village, which has outline approval for 2,818 homes.

December 2013: "Olympicopolis" project announced by the chancellor George Osborne and mayor Boris Johnson, involving the Victoria and Albert Museum and University College London both moving to sites on the Stratford waterfront.

December 2013: First draft of local plan published for consultation.

March 2014: Planning permission granted for up to 522 homes and 3,000 square meters of commercial space at Neptune Wharf, Fish Island.

February 2014: Planning permission granted for 927 homes and 4,800 square meters of commercial space at Chobham Farm.

April 2014: Extension to Hackney Wick and Fish Island Conservation Areas approved.

April 2014: Lend Lease announces that the Financial Conduct Authority will move to the International Quarter's first office development.

May 2014: Transport for London announce they will relocate from St James to the International Quarter.

May 2014: LLDC and Here East complete lease agreement to develop a creative and digital cluster at the former Olympic Press and Broadcast Centres (formerly known as iCITY). it will create more than 7,500 jobs, says the LLDC. BT Sport is already operating from the venue, while Loughborough University and Hackney Community College plan to move there from 2015.

May 2014: Community infrastructure levy draft charging schedule published for further round of consultation.

June 2014: Three shortlisted bidders announced for the accelerated delivery of new homes at the second and third neighbourhoods, East Wick and Sweetwater, comprising 1,500 homes. Last summer, the LLDC said it wanted the homes built by 2023, six years ahead of the original masterplan.

July 2014: Final reserved matters application for East Village approved.

July 2014: "Publication" draft of local plan goes before LLDC board ahead of the consultation scheduled for late August/September.

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