Citius, Altius, Fortius

Erik Empson and Arianna Bove

A £9 billion (1) public financed initiative that began with the winning bid in 2005, and continued under three prime ministers of governments composed of all of the major UK political parties, the 2012 Olympics is a relevant case to examine. Sustainability was high on the agenda of the Olympic Delivery Authority: in their 40 page-long statement of ‘Commitment to sustainable regeneration’ it was claimed that the Olympics would provide the ‘benchmark of the regeneration of the Lea Valley’.(2) Moreover, from the speeches of the London Mayor, local council news bulletins, to flashy corporate advertising and the pigmentation of London streets with the garish pink and orange branding, participation – being ‘part of it all’, and perhaps most importantly, proud of Britain – was utmost on the agenda. As part of this ambition the Olympic Delivery Authority and the London Development Agency produced a 24 page-long ‘Code of consultation’.(3)

Typically in a representative democracy, political right is exercised in elections to parliament once every five years so at other times, consultation is one way to engage people in political processes that affect them directly. So how did this state-of-the-art project understand consultation?

The document defines good consultation as a proportional, genuine, transparent, inclusive and consistent process that reflects equality and diversity and the need to ensure the social inclusion and engagement of hard-to-reach groups. The document understands consultees as stakeholders and identifies them as statutory agencies, businesses, the community, specialists, political actors and the general public. It then outlines a series of market research instruments for sampling opinions, such as surveys and interviews.

One problem already emerges from the definition of stakeholders: apart from the ‘general public’, whose opinion none of the suggested research tools would be able to sample, stakeholders are already constituted and identified ‘interest groups’, groups with their own structures of political representation in place. Heads of governmental agencies, MPs, businesses and landowners, leaders of faith groups: this consultation is for invitees only, those who are already formed political identities and themselves emerge out of some kind of process of leadership, delegation of authority or transferral of political right (which may or may not be democratic). Within the document much emphasis is placed on the importance of ‘communication’, such as how to handle ‘dietary requirements’ at meetings where there is a high concentration of one ‘ethnic group’. In short, the document reads like a handbook of diplomatic etiquette from the British Empire for meeting delegates from new found lands. Warnings are made that the area of the development affects too diverse a community to be addressed as a ‘homogeneous mass’.(4) So faced with such diversity the advice is to split it in smaller sections, possibly not in dialogue with one another, and take them one at a time.

But why stakeholders rather than just citizens? Wedded to discourses of corporate social responsibility, the idea of stakeholder democracy is itself widely debated. At worst it is little more than a marketing campaign geared to prevent dissent and pre-empt debate, at best part of the wishful thinking of management studies eager to show the mass-market potential of their new product.(5) That governmental organisations have resorted to adopting this ambiguous and largely unsuccessful corporate language in their relations with British subjects is in itself an indication of their own awareness of the shortcomings of existing structures of political representation and their aporetic collusion with corporate thinking.

Now with the dramatic results of the development before our eyes, the question is unfortunately not so much how successful this inevitably complex consultation was, but firstly whether it ever actually took place. And if it did, how could it produce what it did.

Amongst the commitments to sustainable regeneration are ‘establishing sustainable communities with mixed and balanced profiles and community infrastructures’, and ‘strengthening local community cohesion’. Were these strategies ever actually implemented? Sadly, the evidence points to the contrary. Thanks to the juridical state of exceptionality that made it possible for compulsory purchase orders to be executed in areas where it would have previously been illegal to privatise common land, demolish old housing, build on allotments, replace green fields with car parks, ancient marshland with basketball training facilities, clear out squatters, nomad camps, gypsies, suspend navigation rights and shift boating communities up the river, one of the effects of the numerous displacements that occurred has been the pitting of a set of people against another: those who fought hard and won to keep their entitlement to space were cynically relocated at the expense of other groups defending theirs and thus effectively forced their eviction.(6)

The Olympic park shows how an area of exclusion can be built using the rhetoric of inclusion. This 200 hectare exclusion zone has lasted for the past six years and will continue for another two. Until 2014 the park and the facilities will remain closed off to the general public. During the development process there was no effective public consultation on what needs the development might help address.(7) People were not polled, surveyed, or asked what they thought was needed, best or desirable for their neighbourhoods. Instead, they were occasionally presented with facts to say yes or no to, warned and briefed on how things would change for them.(8) Opposition to ready-made plans was carefully managed by a sophisticated PR machine, ignored, dispersed, silenced. Small concessions and improvements were made, but overall once the Olympic juggernaut was unleashed, little could stand in its way.

During the development if you lived within 1.5 miles of the Olympic park you were entitled to go and have your say, or join an organised tour to watch the massive operation of demolition and building. If you said any form of ‘no’ however, this effectively became a disentitlement to stakeholder status. The disruption to the lives of people around the zone was substantial.

The result has been a private island in the middle of East London: a hole in the community, largely hollow, but scattered with white tents and grey metal, like an ugly corporate refugee camp, sponsored by international champions of environmental devastation, labour exploitation and migrants persecution, protected by the fences we are used to seeing in our ports minus the barbed wire, by scanners, armed police, circling helicopters, and surrounded by newly instituted dispersal zones in our neighbourhoods.

Throughout the lead up to the games, locals faced charges of crimes against intellectual property and ambush marketing: Stratford ‘stakeholders’ who sold Olympic coffees and who had or had not read LOCOG’s brand protection document were criminally depriving LOCOG of ‘key revenue’ and preventing the games from ‘being the great success to which we all aspire’.(9) During the games, officials (often local volunteers) with megaphones marshalled crowds away from here and neighbouring areas into the soulless new ‘Stratford City’, one of Europe’s largest new shopping centres. Roads were closed and priority roads created for games traffic. Locals, even those from the poor and in some cases destitute areas of Hackney, Newham and Waltham Forest were at liberty to enter the Olympic park during the games, but only those who had a ticket to an event, or had purchased a £10 day pass which sold out months before the show. The critical mass bike riders who, no doubt themselves inspired by the inclusive spirit of the games, decided to route past the opening ceremony were arrested en masse.

What lessons can we draw from the Olympic debacle? That there could be a code of consultation and yet no part of local citizens in the decision making process attests to the cynicism of what some call the Public Relation state, the very purpose of which is to take the ‘risk’ out of democracy. This sophisticated machine of well-rehearsed speech acts, perfected by Tony Blair, is occasionally jolted only thanks to the efforts of angry residents, activists, non-embedded journalists, and the availability of the internet as more useful conduit for democratic aspirations, albeit one increasingly endangered by UK legislators.

On a mass scale the 2012 London Olympics has been an example of what people experience from town planners and councils whenever they have used the small institutional openings of consultation processes to be heard, those three precious minutes at the planning office, to prevent unsustainable and toxic developments in their neighbourhoods, propose alternative plans, and express their real needs and desires for their environment. Whenever they do so, they are met with scorn, defiance, ostracism, bullying and manipulation. Such has been the experience of movements against ‘clone towns’ across Britain such as Lancaster, Bury St Edmunds, Hay on Wye, Shirley, just to name a few.(10) Residents fight demolition of characteristic spaces and their encirclement by chain stores and hypermarkets. Time and again these movements are defeated, despite the so-called democratic consultation procedures in place. Tottenham is another example of where substantial development and regeneration funds were wasted on a retail park full of branded shops local people couldn't even get jobs in let alone buy from, and another set of barcode tower blocks for students forcibly convinced of the need for a university education before they were told they would have to pay so much for it.

Tottenham, the epicentre of the 2011 London riots, is another useful reference point for a discussion on participation. In large part the people involved in the mayhem were those who use the streets to socialise, who actually use public spaces for more than passing through, perhaps for the most part because private spaces are not accessible to them. These people are harassed on a daily basis by public order officials emboldened by new anti-social behaviour and anti-terrorism laws. They are stopped and searched, baited and teased, dispersed, shoved away, made invisible. So, what does it mean to participate? Did over three thousand people participate in something last August? Aren’t half of them behind bars now?

We can only speak of a decline in political engagement if we keep thinking that political institutions are the place of politics. But in fact the last place where politics can take place seems to be in government. From the off the Olympic development was the ultimate fantasy of an administration that, through fear of losing its grip on the public, could engage in mass social engineering on an unprecedented scale, the very condition of which would have to entail the suspension of any meaningful engagement with the views of the population. From a purely logistical point of view, the creation of a massive construction site where only contractors might tread makes all the sense in the world. But if the ultimate goal of regeneration was sustainable communities, can we really imagine that this is something that can be done by excluding those same people from the process. If London 2012 had not kowtowed to the corporate fantasies of the International Olympic Committee they would not have won the bid. That they did however, and that at every point they illustrated their readiness to suspend due democratic process in order to fulfil them, shows the extent of the chasm between political institutions and political participation. Beyond dissent, what can be done with political institutions or about them? Indeed why is the fact that people don’t vote equated with political apathy? How is this refusal not political?

Perhaps civic participation is taking place elsewhere and in other forms. People carve their space where they can make a difference and invest their intelligence and energies where their political life can amount to more than mere protest and dissent. And perhaps public administrators know this more than anyone, believing that as long as they put on a good show, other failures might pass unnoticed. For in truth, the Olympics were a genuine opportunity to explore a different manner of political participation, to use new media as a way of at least gauging popular opinion if not actually using it to begin to learn how to accommodate different needs and aspirations in decision making processes.

London is the richest part of Britain with the highest rates of poverty and inequality. If the poorest subsist in one of the most expensive capitals in Europe it is only thanks to their intelligence and participation in their economy, their participation in their polis. Often the only point of contact with the government and its formal structures are the police and the welfare institutions that intervene in this informal economy to manage, obstruct or penalise it. A cause for optimism is that this vast machinery of the state that is currently in such a negative relation with some of society’s most excluded, could, with a shift in objectives, use its extraordinary powers and resources to help people find secure economic foundations that could be the basis on which they could be in a position to begin having a stake in their society.

The London Olympics illustrates a problem at the heart of the democratic malaise. The perception in Whitehall is that public initiatives must find private partners. Government alone would mercilessly suffocate itself in red tape and be efficiently sucked dry by the unions, whilst big businesses jealously eyed the taxpayer’s pie. Thus the burden of democratic responsibility can be shared, or sometimes simply lost somewhere in between. However, the more the public is taken into account, the more it tends to put the brakes on development. This conundrum currently resolves into a paradox where the more people are ostensibly listened to, the less they are actually heard.

Representative democracy is currently used as a way of creating barriers to safeguard institutions from the conflicts that these power relations create. So long as there are such sharp inequalities and economic disparities, those who are structurally disadvantaged are kept from having any decision making power to redress the imbalance, and increasingly criminalised in the public spaces left available to them. For politics to become democratic, public institutions need to direct themselves to at first acknowledging and secondly addressing these underlying social inequalities, only then will people begin to likewise invest in them as a means of participating in social change.

Arianna Bove and Erik Empson

This article is a contribution to the debate on democracy and sustainability hosted by London Remade





(4) ‘Public authorities have a general duty to promote race equality. To support this duty, the LDA and ODA intend to promote good relations between persons of different racial groups. The population in the five Host Boroughs is one of the most diverse in the UK. Forty-two percent of the population of the five Host Boroughs is from non-white ethnic groups, compared to 29% of London’s population and 8% of the UK population as a whole. A fifth of the population of the Five Boroughs is Muslim, significantly higher than the proportion of the UK and London populations. Only half of the population in the five Host Boroughs identifies as Christian, compared to over two thirds in the UK.20 Furthermore, while there are a high number of non-white communities in the host boroughs, there are many minority groups who are white (Turkish, Kurdish, Orthodox Jewish, East European) and some of these are seldom heard’ (p. 19).

(5) Dirk Matten and Andrew Crane ‘What is stakeholder democracy? Perspectives and issues’. Business Ethics. A European review (2005)14:1.

(6) ‘The Olympic struggle of the London 2012 resisters. East London activists write on their seven years of campaigning over the 2012 Olympics development’

(7) Ian Blunt ‘Preparing London for the Corporate Games: the Docklands Planning Model’

(8) For instance, boroughs allowed people within 2 miles of the park to comment on ready-made parking plans.

(9) ‘Brand protection’ London 2012’s UK statutory marketing rights

(10) See the struggles of

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