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Preparing London for the Corporate Games: the Docklands Planning Model

Corporate Games graphicfrom Corporate Watch

Ian Blunt explains how legislation and 'democratic' processes were adapted to enable London to fit into the IOC's global game and how London’s history of questionable planning made the city an ideal location for the Olympics.

Given the sums of money involved, it is not surprising to find that considerable planning and manoeuvering went into London’s successful bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games. The simple sequence of events - the British Olympic Committee decided on a London bid, the Mayor of London supported it, then the Government supported it and then the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded it - is by no means the whole story. Certain key planning mechanisms, essential to the hosting of the Games, had already been put in place by the time the IOC announced, in Singapore on 6 July 2005, that London’s bid had been successful.

Whatever you may think of London hosting the Games - a glorious celebration of athletic excellence that will bring regeneration to a sadly neglected area of East London or a huge, vastly expensive, corporate media event that is trampling over a traditional working-class London community - the planning mechanisms used to build the infrastructure for the Games tell us a considerable amount about the state of local and national democracy in Britain today.

The key piece of legislation that underpins the London 2012 Olympics is the Local Government, Planning and Land Act of 1980.[1] This was the law that empowered Michael Heseltine, then Secretary of State for the Environment in the new Conservative government, to set up the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC). This Act is often glossed over as the Act that set up the LDDC, which underestimates its powers, which were more widespread. It allowed the Secretary of State to establish Urban Development Corporations pretty much anywhere, subject to ratification by Parliament. These corporations would take over the planning powers of local authorities and act as the planning authority for the areas designated.

In addition to considerably changing powers at the local level, this changed the nature of the planning debate at parliamentary level. Parliamentary approval became a rubber stamp for decisions taken by the Secretary over the future of a specific area. Parliament became open to accusations of obstructing local development if it opposed the minister’s use of the powers granted to him or her. This severely skews any debate about whether the powers granted to the minister are, in any particular instance, appropriate to democratic local planning. It also means that proposals to create Urban Development Corporations do not have to go through the normal legislative process of committee stages and three readings in the House of Commons, then further scrutiny in the House of Lords. The corporations are set up by Statutory Instrument, which just need one sitting of each of the House of Commons and the House of Lords to approve them.

When the Act is applied, using a Statutory Instrument, to a specific area (which need not coincide with local authority boundaries), the change in power at local level is dramatic. Planning approval for all but the tiniest alterations is removed from elected local councillors and placed in the hands of a planning committee appointed by the Secretary of State. This becomes the Development Corporation’s own planning committee, its members answerable to no electorate and its decisions subject to appeal only to the Minister who set up the committee in the first place.

In the case of the London Docklands in the 1980s, the LDDC, not without belated protest, took over planning powers from the London boroughs of Newham, Tower Hamlets and Southwark. Many people argue that the Canary Wharf development - a skyscraper city designed as London’s financial centre for the 21st century - could not have happened without the changes in planning powers, and that the damage to local democracy was a good exchange for the architectural extravaganza and vibrant 'community' that resulted from it. Others see a bleak, windswept landscape of soulless steel and glass tower blocks, planted on the area for the benefit of the bankers who work there and the property tycoons who developed it.

Canary Wharf has since gone through a process of ‘dedesignation’, whereby the planning powers over the area have been handed back to the relevant local authorities. But the powers by which the development corporation was set up still remain with a Secretary of State. The ability of immediate local authorities to keep hold of the planning powers had also been dealt a further blow by the Town and Country Planning Act of 1990. This Act mainly kept planning powers in line with a local government reorganisation that was taking place at the time, but it also allowed for joint planning authorities - planning committees drawn from members of different local authorities - to be established in order to implement special projects.

An Olympic co-incidence in London

A variety of planning factors came into play before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had even approved London’s bid for the Games. The British Olympic Association (BOA), which is the National Olympic Committee (NOC) for Great Britain and Northern Ireland and selects Team GB, already knew that any British bid had to be London-based.[2] It was also aware that, particularly after the Montreal Olympics of 1976, the IOC did not wish the Olympic Games to earn a reputation for leaving in its wake a trail of municipal bankruptcy and empty useless buildings.

The Government finally decided, after much wavering, to support London’s Olympic bid in May 2003 and all that entailed, including limitless financial liability as outlined in the Host City Contract (see below), the agreement between the IOC and the local organising committee.[3][4] For the 2012 Games, this is the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG). Its chairman is Sebastian Coe and its chief executive is Paul Deighton. Part of the agreement with the IOC is a statement that the Olympic organisers can guarantee government support for the building planning needed for the Games.

It was therefore a very convenient coincidence for the Olympic bid, and its organisers, to find that, on 6 May 2004, Statutory Instrument 2004, No 1642 had been signed off by Keith Hill, Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, bringing into being the Thames London Gateway Development Corporation.[5][6] This covered a large area of Thames-side London from the city’s eastern border at Thurrock in Essex, up to the Lea Valley on the borders of Newham and Hackney.

On 9 September 2004, the Olympic manouvering took a significant step forward. Planning councillors from four east London boroughs – Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham and Waltham Forest – were called to a meeting at City Hall. There, away from the scrutiny of their own local councils and electorates, the councillors suddenly became the ‘Olympics Joint Planning Authorities Team’ and granted outline planning permission for an Olympic Park on a 500-acre site, and permission to cut down about 50 trees to enable that.[7] This was the only point in the entire Olympic planning process at which democratically elected councillors were a majority in a body taking planning decisions. And, as the House of Commons briefing paper on the Olympics legislation later indicated, this passing of the outline planning permission, could, in case of any future dissent, be interpreted as all four councils giving full consent to all Olympic planning decisions.[8]

On 30 March 2005, the Government published the Thames Gateway Strategy, opening with an overview which set out “how the largest regeneration scheme in Western Europe is benefiting from unprecedented investment - including:
• £1bn for transport;
• £26m for new parks and woodland;
• £60m to improve health services; and
• £850m to improve quality of life, provide 120,000 new homes and create around 180,000 new jobs.”[9]

London’s Olympic bid, which now had to be presented as a Candidate File to the IOC, made great play of the regenerational effects of the Games: “Great Games leave welcome legacies. Consistent with London’s long-term plan, the Games will stimulate vital economic and social regeneration in what is now a disadvantaged area”.[10][11]

The bid document also reported: “Great Games minimise risk. That is why London 2012 has already put structures and plans into place that will allow us to start work immediately if we are granted the privilege of staging the Games. Outline planning permission for the Olympic Park was granted on 9 September 2004; ground preparation for the Aquatics Centre is already underway; detailed work on legislation to support the Games is in progress.”[12]

The passing of outline planning permission had been passed in a way that surprised observers. Instead of using the planning powers of the much-trumpeted Thames Gateway Urban Development Corporation (UDC), the Government, according to a House of Commons Library Research Paper, “decided that the UDC should leave planning powers with the boroughs for the Olympic area.”[13] The significance of this decision became clear later.

The Olympic Games Act 2006 and the Olympic Delivery Authority

Once the IOC had accepted London’s bid in July 2005, the Government then moved quickly ahead with the legislation needed to make the sporting bonanza happen - the London Olympics Bill (which became, to give it its full title, the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006) was introduced into the House of Commons on 14 July 14 2005, published on 15 July, and received its second reading on 19 July.[14] The Act came into effect on 30 March 2006. The key provision of this legislation was to establish the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), answerable to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Responsible for pulling together the facilities of the Olympic Park, it took over all the planning functions for the Olympics. The four local authorities - Hackney, Waltham Forest, Tower Hamlets and Newham - whose assent to the outline planning permission for the Park had been trumpeted six months previously to the IOC, were now reduced, along with a fifth borough, Greenwich, which would also host Olympic events, to having one elected representative each on the ODA’s 11-strong planning committee. The Thames Gateway UDC could merely watch.

The Olympic Act builds on the Host City Contract and sets out various laws relating to the Olympics.[15] It gives the right of forced entry into private property to remove unauthorised advertising or protest banners, extending the right of forced entry outside the police force to staff contracted to the ODA.[16] Security measures for the London Olympics may well include the nationwide use of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, allowing police to stop and search without suspicion. The London Olympics and its security massively contributes to increasing state surveillance, with any extra powers gained by the state over the Olympics period being of serious concern, because they may become accepted and permanent.[17]

The House of Commons’ Library background paper spelt out the massive extent of the ODA’s powers, and the relative absence of any checks and balances to them: “In some ways the ODA will resemble a UDC, but there are also expected to be differences. The ODA will have the objective of delivering the Olympic Games rather than to develop an area. The ODA will have planning and development powers in its area. The advantage of a dedicated body of this type is that it can concentrate upon delivering the Olympics. One possible problem is that there might in theory be a conflict of interest between development that was in the long term interests of the area and development that would support the ODA in its objective of delivering the Games. The ODA model might favour the development that contributed to delivery of the Games, while local authorities might have slightly different priorities. However, the nature of the Games means that conflicts of interest are always likely to be decided in favour of policies to deliver the Games on time.”[18]

If any MPs were worried about a massive concentration of planning power in the hands of an unelected body, they could, however, rest assured. The background paper went on: “the original planning application for the Olympic Park was approved by the four boroughs, rather than by an unelected development corporation. The boroughs would have been able to reflect local interests in their decision at that stage.”[19]


Effectively, from April 2006, the four boroughs, having given planning permission to remove a few trees from the Olympic site, were deemed to have already been consulted about the Games and were now shut out of the Olympic planning process. The last trace of effective democratic input into or control over the process, below the level of the Secretary of State or the Mayor of London, had been removed.

Above and beyond the greed of the IOC, the other agenda at play is that, once a city has embarked on the path to host the Games, the IOC sets the agenda for the next seven years, whereby virtually everything done in the host city is done for the profits of the IOC and for those driving the local organising committee. Dave Zirin, an American political sports writer, summarised the situation as: “Only those who want to see their hometowns bankrupted, militarised and flattened should pine for the Olympic Games.”[20] Once the Host City Contract is signed, money paid and work started, the IOC is in a comfortable position at the point of no return. City authorities play the IOC’s game to enhance their prestige and to be able to carry out schemes that otherwise would never be approved, using compulsory purchase orders and other tools that the Olympics legitimises and enables.

The Host City Contract

The Host City Contract is the non-negotiable contract document prepared by the IOC to be signed by the successful candidate city seven years before the Games. The contract represents the formal right to host the Games and involves the host city promising to undertake specific measures to ensure the smooth delivery of the Games. It has never been made widely available in the UK, but was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from the Government's Department of Culture, Media and Sport by the research group Games Monitor.[21]

Reading the contract helps to explain many of the things that have been happening around the Games, such as changes to bye-laws, VIP Olympic lanes, opportunities for corporations to develop on particular areas of land and exclusive advertising rights, because it outlines that many of these decisions were made very much in advance of the bidding process and signed off as being a ‘given’ in terms of the development process. This is essentially how control of the Olympics brand is maintained by the IOC.

Some key sections of the contract relate to the press and the right to protest. The section ‘Promoting Olympism and the Games; Press Releases’ states that “All press releases issued by the City, the NOC or the OCOG which quote or refer to the IOC President, members of the IOC or the IOC administration shall be submitted to the IOC for its prior written approval.”[22] Journalists also have difficulty covering the Games critically. For example, sports journalist Andrew Jennings has exposed corruption in the IOC, the Olympic Journalists’ Association and FIFA, and has been struggling with legal battles as a result.[23][24]

A section entitled ‘No Inconsistent Commitments or Activities’ outlines how no other events are allowed: “no major public or private event, conference, or other meeting which could have an impact on the successful organisation and staging of the Games or their public and media exposure, shall take place in the City itself, or its neighbourhood or in the other competition sites, during the Games or during the preceding or following week, without the prior written approval of the IOC”. Indeed, in the summer of 2011 community groups in Hackney were told they had to notify the council of any events they were planning during this period, in an attempt to gauge whether or not the events would be problematic for the smooth running of the Games.

Ambush marketing, in other words advertising anything other than the official brands, which includes other brands as well as anything critical of the Games, is not allowed. Unauthorised use of the official branding is also not allowed.[25] For example, on the Brighton stretch of the torch relay, local people were told that they were not allowed to use any of the official branding designs to decorate their homes on the torch route.

[1], accessed 27 June 2012
[2], accessed 15 May 2012
[3] Ibid.
[4] A blank copy of the IOC’s 2012 Host City Contract and also the mass of Technical Manuals attached to the HCC can be found via
[7] BBC News website
[8] House of Commons Research Paper 05/55 14 July 2005
[9] House of Commons Library Research Paper 05/55, 14 July 2005, quoting ODPM Press Notice 090, £6bn action plan transforming Thames Gateway, 31 March 2005.
[10] (This is the most recent sighting of the Candidate File, which seems to move elusively around the London2012 site. This link to finding it derives from looking at the Sitemap, Publications and then finding the Candidate File in the drop down search.
[11] Ibid. Candidate File, Introduction
[12] This document is Waltham Forest’s minute of the passing of this planning permission, by a body called the Joint Planning Authorities Team. This body was pulled together out of the four borough’s planning committees and was convened at the Mayor of London’s City Hall. During its brief existence, this body had a website, . This website still existed on 27 August, 2010, and was then hosting discussions about the merits of dressing up as Cleopatra at fancy-dress parties and about keeping alloy wheels in tip-top condition. Possibly the first example of post London 2012 Olympic debris.
[13] House of Commons Library Research Paper 05/55, 14 July 2005, quoting ODPM, Sustainable Communities: An Urban Development Corporation for the London Thames Gateway Decision Document, May 2004
[14] This British Library page traces the passage of the Bill and contains audio links to some of the debates, and links to Hansard records of the debates.
[17] For example,, accessed 20 July 2012
[18] House of Commons Library Research Paper 05/55, 14 July 2005, p25
[19] Ibid, my italics.
[20] Dave Zirzin, Welcome to the Terrordome: the Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2007)
[21] A blank copy of the IOC’s 2012 Host City Contract and also the mass of Technical Manuals attached to the HCC can be found via
[22] Ibid.
[23], accessed 15 May 2012
[24], accessed 15 May 2012
[25], accessed 15 May 2012

First published July 27, 2012 in Corporate Games, illustration by Edd Baldry

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