Time to act to safeguard the Olympic legacy

What can London 2012 learn from past games in maintaining a healthy, successfully and economically sound legacy?


By Tom Bolton of Centre for Cities

As soon as the Olympics leave town, the legacy begins. Thanks to a supreme effort of investment, co-ordination and organisation, London delivered a remarkable Olympic Games. It is hard to believe the Olympic Park has now staged all the events for which it was designed and is now entering its decades-long post-Games existence.

However, in many respects, the hard work has only just begun. If London 2012 is to deliver the legacy ambitions that formed an integral part of its bid, including the skills, education and jobs East London needs, the policy focus needs to continue for many years to come.

Each Olympic Games seems unique, but there is a great deal that London can learn about its legacy from past Olympic hosts. Centre for Cities this week published “A Marathon Not A Sprint?” (pdf), a report looking at Games of the modern era and highlighting the legacy lessons for London.

Three major lessons emerge from previous host cities.

First, a clear and consistent vision is crucial. In Barcelona, a long-term improvement plan for the city was devised well before the Games, and continued unchanged after 1992. It survived ups and downs: for example, the Olympic legacy was regarded as a failure in the mid-90s as Spain was dragged into recession.

However, in the long-term the vision for the city was too persuasive and too crucial to Barcelona’s economic prospects to be derailed by short-term problems.

The London 2012 vision has to aim for the level of clarity and purpose Barcelona achieved. Since the bid was first mooted in the early 2000s, legacy aims have shifted from a social and environmental focus towards an economic rationale. Business growth in East London may therefore not take place until the national economy itself begins to grow.

The London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) has made a strong start to its work, and must continue to pull together the key players to ensure London has a legacy plan that is strong enough to survive future political and economic change.

The second lesson is that London needs a revitalised plan for the Olympic Park. It is difficult to create a lasting physical legacy from Olympic sites. Barcelona did it particularly well, creating a new business district based on a long-term plan that was backed politically and financially. London has yet to agree uses for all the Olympic venues, notably the main stadium, but a persuasive vision for business and residential development is what really matters.

The LLDC is the first legacy body to have been set up in advance of an Olympic Games; it is therefore well-positioned to set out an offer for the Park that provides persuasive reasons for firms and people to move there.

Thirdly, lessons from the past highlight the challenges involved in delivering long-term change for East London. No previous Olympic host city has successfully used the Games to tackle deprivation, but transforming East London is the headline legacy objective for London. This will require a serious commitment to improving skills to help local people into work.

The Olympic host boroughs have set up a ground-breaking collaboration to improve key socio-economic indicators. They have made an encouraging start, but there is much more to be done. Transformational change will require central government and the Mayor of London to fulfil their commitments and provide support and resources for many years to come.

The Games are a pivotal opportunity for London, and it has passed the first test with flying colours, staging an Olympiad to be proud of. Delivering a legacy is, arguably, a much bigger ask. Success will be achieved away from the limelight, and in the challenging context of competing priorities and squeezed budgets.

Learning the lessons from Barcelona, Seoul, Sydney and other modern hosts will help London deliver a legacy that reflects the success of 2012.

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