RABBIL SIKDAR warns that the Olympic legacy in east London is one of destruction
The Olympic legacy was supposed to be about regenerating a neighbourhood stricken by poverty, unemployment, homelessness and crime.
It was about providing fresh hope for a new generation in London. Its flame would burn far and bright and light up the area. Only, four years on, flame guttering out, there hasn’t really been regeneration has there? And if the legacy can be defined by anything, it’s surely that it will kill London’s second oldest league club: Leyton Orient.
This is the story of the underdog fighting corporate interests and commercial pressure. This is the story of the greengrocer refusing to submit to the chain of supermarkets opening up nearby.
West Ham are bigger than Leyton Orient and now they’re moving closer geographically into a larger stadium. A territory that belonged to Orient is now being forcibly taken by the Hammers. O’s former chairman Eddie Hearn’s suggestion to share the ground was refused by the Irons.
West Ham’s move into the stadium will heighten the pressure on Orient to survive. The club has already been struggling to get by — doing so on cheap ticket prices, family tickets and huge community involvement projects to foster bonds between club and local people.
They are a genuine working-class club railing against the tide of time, toiling under the close shadows of not just West Ham but Tottenham and Arsenal too. It’s a difficult situation for Orient, boxed in between those clubs.
The House of Lords even intervened at one point, suggesting the entirely sensible and rational idea of a ground-share. Criticisms of the idea might be that Orient could never fill that stadium up but when West Ham cannot fill up a 34,000-seater stadium, what chance of a bigger one themselves? The London Legacy of Development Corporation (LLDC) remain convinced that West Ham are best positioned as the tenants — they are able to pay £2 million in rent annually while Orient could only manage £500,000.
It’s a statement of ambition on the part of West Ham, a hungry aspiration to climb and keep climbing, and the Olympic Stadium, close to the Canary Wharf districts and all its lucrative ties, represents an upward trek for the club. West Ham aren’t really a yo-yo club anymore but firmly entrenched in the dull stasis of mid-table comforts.
For the owners, this stadium switch represents an eye on Europe and more.
For Orient it represents a dagger to their own survival. They could contest the move on those grounds alone, but there are also the shady goings-on that landed West Ham the tenancy.
For example, how much has the role of state aid contributed to the club’s bid? West Ham will pay between £2 million and £2.5m when they move into the £700m stadium, while the taxpayer will still foot the bill for “facilities and services” worth an estimated £1.4m and £2.5m a year. The club also paid a mere £15m towards the £272m costs to convert the site for football use.
In a time of austerity when cuts to public services and squeezes on wages and benefits have hit the poorest, most vulnerable and disadvantaged hardest, the idea of a football club dipping into the taxpayer’s purse feels reprehensible.
But the club already secured a £40m loan from Newham Council — one of the most deprived boroughs in Britain.
This is perhaps the strongest footing Orient have to fight. There isn’t much else to stand upon when West Ham are taking away the ground beneath their feet.
West Ham resorted to taxpayers’ funds to put forward their plans. State funding of football clubs seems like something out of Spain in the times of Franco.
West Ham have maintained that transparency and honesty was always there but few are buying it now. There is something suspicious in how West Ham have snuck away with their raiding of the public purse. Maybe it has something to do with Karen Brady being a Tory peer.
Orient’s fortunes on the other hand have regressed rapidly in recent years.
A Wembley play-off final away from being in the Championship to languishing in League Two, with revenues now struggling.
They cannot compete with West Ham but they were content to survive. Now even that is fraught with perilous uncertainty.
So is this then the Olympic legacy? A shattered ruins of a working-class club rooted in its local community, defeated by the commercial interests imposed essentially by the legacy itself.
The Olympics has regenerated and transformed Stratford, this can never be denied. And yet at the same time left many questions, not to say least over the absurdly expensive housing prices.