March 2007 Archives

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George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian, highlights the lack of local democracy in the planning application process for the forthcoming Olympic Games development disaster.

This Olympian stitch-up remains blissfully untroubled by democracy

East Londoners are told the games will be good for them, yet it has been made almost impossible for them to have their say

George Monbiot
Tuesday March 20, 2007
The Guardian

The mayor of London, Lord Coe and the prime minister have all now graced the pages of this newspaper, defending their preparations for the London Olympics. Anyone would think that they were rattled. They have all justified the astounding, ever-escalating bill with the same formula: the games will be good for the people of east London. Ken Livingstone argued that the Olympics "has made the massive regeneration project centred on Stratford and going south to the Thames deliverable when it was not before". The games he claims will bring 40,000 new homes and 50,000 new jobs to one of the poorest parts of London.

We could quibble. Was regeneration not taking place already? What about Stratford City, the £4bn development being built just to the east of the Olympic Park, and planned long before London won the bid? What about the inexorable eastwards march of City money?

But I can accept that the Olympics will accelerate the redevelopment of east London, and that they will provide houses and jobs for local people - albeit at a gobsmacking cost. However, if it is true that all this is being done for the good of the residents, then why have they not been given time to speak?

Yesterday, the consultation period for the Olympic Delivery Authority's plans came to an end. The authority first received planning permission for the Olympic Park in 2004, a year before London won the bid, but since then its plans - for both the Olympics and the buildings and public spaces which come later - have changed. It has applied for planning permission for a new "framework" for the entire site. If you had an objection to any significant aspect of the plans, you should have said so by yesterday. Otherwise, forever hold your peace.

I have spent the past four days trying to read the ODA's planning applications. Partly because of the volume, partly because the authority's website (like everything to do with the Olympics) is plagued by technical glitches, I have not been able to open all the papers, let alone read them. But I can report that it has lodged three applications. The first is supported by 907 documents. The second consists of 569 documents, some of which cover 600 pages. The third consists of a modest 82 papers, of no more than 300 pages each.

Altogether, there are more than 10,000 pages of new applications. It would take a team of planning lawyers several months to wade through this lot, but the consultation began on February 6. The people affected by these plans, most of whom know nothing about planning law, had six weeks in which to read them, understand them, work out how they differ from the previous applications, then present their responses.

Or not even six weeks. When the ODA released its leaflet advertising the plans, there were only four weeks left to respond. You could then read them online, or buy DVDs or a hard copy, or find them in a local library. Over the past four days, I have been able to get on to the right page of the ODA's planning site about 10% of the time. Then it crashes my browser.

When the plans were published, Martin Slavin, a local resident who runs a group called Games Monitor, tried to buy the DVDs. He phoned the authority's planning team and was met with incomprehension. He was passed on five times before he found someone who knew someone who knew how to obtain them.

The hard copy is easier to find - if you have £500. Local campaigners report that Waltham Forest, Tower Hamlets and Newham libraries either did not possess full sets of the documents or did not make them available until the fourth week of the consultation. By then, you had two weeks left.

This isn't a consultation; it's a stitch-up. Even the great crested newts living where the ODA will build a cycle track have been given more time to object: their champions had six months to respond to the plans for relocation. But local people have been granted as much real influence over the future of their communities as the villagers flooded by China's Three Gorges Dam. If £9.4bn were really being spent for their benefit, you would have thought they would have some say in the matter.

The objectors are not being unreasonable. They are asking for an extension until July, which would give them time to read the documents. The ODA has turned them down. Why should it wait for local people to respond? It already knows what's good for them.

While big regeneration schemes often use fake consultations, the need for a proper democratic process is even more pressing here. The ODA, for example, is both the developer and the planning body. It applies for planning permission from itself.

As if this conflict of interest was not bad enough, the ODA's functions are also at odds. For all the bluster about assisting disadvantaged communities, its main task is not to help the people of east London, but to make sure that the games are ready on time. If there is a straight fight between the Olympics and their legacy - as there will be whenever the ODA is faced with a funding crisis - the games must win. Long-term development loses out to a few days of sport.

[...]


Douglas Adams wrote about this sort of incompetent and corrupt bureaucracy in the first chapter of his radio series / novel / tv series / film The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

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