Olympic makeover could deepen cracks in struggling communities

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Max Tobias looks at Leyton High Road’s recent Olympic transformation and questions how far it will help the local community 

What lies behind Leyton’s new facade?

With its pastel-painted shop fronts and glistening new paving stones, Leyton’s new-look high street is the quintessential picture of London’s Olympic aspiration.

But behind the multi-million pound makeover hides a reality that the government are clearly determined to paint over.

Some will see these brochure-page improvements as the perfect antidote to a long-suffering neighbourhood, but to others they are just another example of political decision making that sidelines the vulnerable and renders communities feeling powerless. Will this makeover give local people the ‘boost’ they have been promised? Not likely. If anything they’ll feel more disgruntled than they did when Leyton was tatty.

In the last few weeks Leyton has witnessed decrepit businesses and grimy display windows transform into shining resemblances of flourishing commerce, in a multi-million pound conversion seeking to breathe new life into E10. Placards have been upgraded, brickwork jet-sprayed, and original features restored.

And very nice it is too. The perfect facade to give tourists the impression that Leyton enjoys a ‘cafe culture,’ with the finishing touches appearing just days before the Games commence.

But behind the wet-paint is the fifteenth most deprived borough in the country. Every fifth household here is out of work and, in the Leyton ward specifically, 46 per cent of children live in poverty. Only about half of them leave school with 5 A*-C GCSE grades including Maths and English and for those that do, employment prospects are hardly abundant. 74 per cent of the borough’s businesses employ just four people or less. Can deep-rooted problems like these really be improved by surface touch-ups?

Local business owner Eldridge Cooke runs a small fashion outlet on the high road, Lo-Key clothing. It is one of 41 shops to benefit from the Council’s makeover. Is he expecting to see any evidence of the economic legacy local people here have been promised?

“Not really,” he tells me.  “Why wouldn’t people shop here before, but suddenly will do now?  It’s the same shops. It might look nice on the way to somewhere else, but it’s not exactly a shopping destination.”

Indeed. If it’s a launderette you’re after, or an off-license, or phone repair shop, then this is the high street for you. Skinny-latte minded shoppers, on the other hand, are unlikely to find retail therapy in this neighbourhood.

“Talk the cafe-culture thing all you want,” Cooke says.  “But there are only two coffee shops here.  So I don’t quite see how that’s going to work.  I only put a sign outside – let alone table and chairs – and the Council fined me fifty quid!”

So is Leyton’s makeover really intended to boost local business? “If they really wanted to help local businesses, they would bring in expertise and resources to develop business skills in the community,” says Cooke.  “They would give us information – like the demographics of all these people supposedly moving in, and their spending behaviour – not just a lick of paint.”

Cooke’s business has in fact suffered over the past eight weeks since work began. Scaffolding lining the pavement, dust filling the air, pneumatic drills thundering – affronts like these are hardly good for business. Couple that with the recent opening of the EU’s largest shopping centre just a half mile down the road and you have a rather neat recipe for bankruptcy.

No single retail outlet on the High Road has been granted permission to sell official Olympic merchandise. Food vendors here will compete with corporate sponsorship giants McDonalds and Coca-Cola. One wonders whether our Olympic visitors will stray down this street at all. Without compensation for the past weeks of lost trade, the situation for these micro businesses could be very bleak indeed. Every penny counts in this neighbourhood. In Cooke’s words, “Of course people are going to take the new paint. They’ll take anything they can get.”

The scheme is like doling out chocolates to appease customers who have been queuing too long. Here though, the impeccable timing of the Olympic makeover is not just tokenistic, but sinister. In the same way we would interpret parents who scurry to clean the house up when the social worker is due, one can’t help but ponder exactly what it is that needs hiding behind Leyton’s ostensibly shiny new exterior.

A hint may lie in the Council’s gang-prevention programme, for which they have recently allocated £3.5million. Much of the resources mobilised by that figure will be targeted at estates that are particularly blighted by gang problems – like Cathall and Beaumont, for instance  – each, incidentally, a stone’s throw from the picturesque new High Road.

In addition to running his business, Cooke designs programmes that teach skills in entrepreneurialism to the disadvantaged youth that congregate on estates like these. Their narcotic enterprises, though illicit, are financially successful in themselves: for Cooke, those same skills are entirely transferrable, and this entrepreneurial spirit is in fact essential for true regeneration of the area to be achieved: changing Leyton’s future means empowering and upskilling it’s youth.

“We’ve got a wealth of resources right here on our doorstep, but people don’t know about it. You wouldn’t know that I’m running these programs, because people don’t talk to each other and that’s how the community is. I’d love to take some of these kids in and show them how to make money properly. Why not equip us to do that instead of just painting the shops?”

In fact, it is efforts like Cooke’s that portray The Big Society rather accurately – a voluntary service to others, a common solidarity. But voluntary efforts will fail if people are not equipped to perform them. And herein lies the problem. Behind the harmonious pastel exterior, many in the community will consider schemes like this with contempt – as nothing more than hollow gestures enabling no tangible change. Leyton’s most vulnerable will not particularly benefit from this makeover and it is condescending to suggest otherwise. Community cohesion is undermined, not enhanced, by this paintwork.

Whatever your take on the new look, there is no detracting from the simple fact that it is only a colour scheme. Visible spends like these – tasteful or not – highlight budget priorities and can therefore fan the flames of fatalism. Why is the tourist’s experience superseding the resident’s reality? In a borough with such a bleak outlook for the young, the question looms large.

East London’s Olympic aspirations are apparent here, no doubt. But less obvious is exactly what will be left in the community when the Games have run their course – besides a lot of very disgruntled families wondering when the economic legacy will begin.

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