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Left Standing at Stratford, BBC cuts evictees from ‘Olympic Dreams’ documentary

The BBC documentary, ‘Last Stand at Stratford’, part of the series ‘Building the Olympic Dream’, shown on BBC 2 on Wednesday 11th March was to have featured those being evicted to make way for the 2012 Olympics over three programmes. However, BBC chiefs decided to cut their participation to one programme. Consequently the Travellers, who were filmed for almost two years, were left out altogether. A number of residents at Clays Lane were included in the filming but in the event I was the only resident featured. Lance Forman of Forman’s Salmon Smokery ended up representing the businesses while the Manor Gardens Allotment holders survived as the only community on show.

The LDA’s strategy of trying to control the filmmakers’ access to the relocation process as much as possible seems to have paid off. The BBC had to negotiate with the LDA’s Press Office every step of the way. The LDA wanted to exclude the documentary team from the Compulsory Purchase Order Inquiry but the Inspector decided they should be allowed to record the proceedings. In the event only one sequence from the Inquiry survived the cutting room. Clays Lane residents were also keen for filmmakers to attend joint meetings of residents and the LDA but the LDA was not prepared to allow this. The BBC managed to gatecrash some of the allotment holders meetings with the LDA.

I did propose an alternative title for the series, ‘Surviving the Olympic Nightmare’. Unsurprisingly this did not find favour. As the actual title, ‘Building the Olympic Dream’ suggests, the series approached the Olympics from the point of view of the authorities. Glossy images promoting the Games were rolled out and politicians and LDA speakers were given several opportunities to declaim on their vision for the East End. By contrast the evictees have their day as obstacles in the way of progress. Little space was given to those being removed to criticise the project and offer an alternative vision even though there was plenty of discussion of this on film.

One evictee, Lance Forman, did get the opportunity to speak out. He pointed out the pre-existing investment programme at Stratford City, the industrial legacy of the Lea Valley, the rising value of the land and the unfairness of the land grab being carried out. But for the most part what the evictees had to say was presented in the context of their eviction, as a hard luck story or an attempt at limiting the damage to their community or business, rather than as part of a discussion of the merits of the 2012 Olympics. Including those being evicted provided the BBC with an opportunity not just to present a human interest story but to take a deeper look at how a compulsory purchase process works, what the authorities are prepared to do and say to get their way and to present objectors’ criticisms of the Olympics project. Sad to say the programme makers missed the opportunity provided by this programme. The rest of the series is just public relations for the ODA.

Both Lance Forman and the Manor Gardens Allotment holders had a coherent presence in the programme, the first as a businessman fighting to keep his company afloat, the second as a group of people struggling to hold together as a community and maintain their lifestyle as tenders and tillers of the earth. The same cannot be said for the representation of Clays Lane. The focus on just one resident produced a distinctly odd impression of the Clays Lane community. The editing focussed on the hopelessness of the residents’ cause, which was reasonable in itself. But the filming of the estate made it appear empty and lifeless and whereas the other evictees were able to retain some sense of resistance and a future the impression created by this absence of a community and any group action was of passivity and fatalism.

In reality, six Clays Lane residents gave evidence as witnesses at the CPO Inquiry, four of them as part of a collective case with a barrister and solicitor in attendance representing about seventy objectors. There was also a round table hearing before the Inspector, before the collective case was organised, at which about ten residents were present, facing a team of witnesses from the LDA, so plenty of opportunities existed to show residents acting in concert.

Film from the Inquiry could also have brought out key issues like the argument over the provision of Legal Aid, which is not usually granted for objectors at compulsory purchase inquiries. On this occasion, after a struggle, for the first time ever for a cpo inquiry as far as I am aware, Clays Lane objectors were granted Legal Aid to be represented at the Inquiry, possibly because the authorities feared a human rights challenge following the success of the MacLibel 2, who won their case at the European Court of Human Rights because they had not been granted Legal Aid.

Residents at the Inquiry also questioned the rationale behind the Olympics, pointing out, among other things, that the budget was plainly inaccurate, that there was already a major regeneration programme in place at Stratford City and that the housing from the Athletes’ Village was being double counted to produce a non-existent Legacy, as the housing was going to be built anyway, a point the ODA has since conceded. Maybe it is not surprising that this programme, a fly-on-the-wall production, should fail to tackle such issues as most of the media took until the autumn of 2006 to get to grips with the budget issue and even now few can distinguish between Stratford (City) 2011 and London 2012 or have noticed the deceit over the Athletes’ Village housing legacy.

‘Supporting local communities’ was one of the slogans trumpeted by the LDA in its evidence to the CPO Inquiry. The representatives from the LDA were allowed to present themselves in the programme as being very concerned at the fate of residents. Film from the Inquiry would have shown Jason Prior, one of the LDA’s witnesses who expressed his sympathy for the evictees, trying to explain why the LDA had not fulfilled one of its own conditions for locating the Athletes’ Village at Clays Lane, namely that they should take the disruption to residents into account when making this decision. He was asked to provide some evidence of this and was unable to produce even one document to show it had been done.

In fact, Jason Prior had nothing to do with residents nor, as far as I am aware, with the other evictees. Mr Prior also declared to the camera that he recognised that Clays Lane was a good place to live. Once again film of the Inquiry would have shown him saying we were a community 'isolated' by the green space at the Eastway Cycle Track and the LDA's other witnesses rubbishing our amenities and housing. No space was given to residents, or the one resident featured, to describe the LDA’s ditching of the first crucial survey, which included questions about preserving our community and only a short comment was included on the failure to act on promises dating back to 2003 to enable residents to move in groups.

I invited another Olympic representative, Lord Sir Sebastian Coe, on the day I cross-examined him at the Inquiry, to visit Clays Lane and he said he would. In the event he didn’t make an appearance. On another occasion he was described by a BBC Radio 4 You and Yours presenter as being at the ‘sharp end’ of dealing with evictees, when they were all visiting the estate to view the demolition of the two tower blocks at Park Village, after residents had been removed. In fact he had nothing to do with us. He did not correct the presenter’s misleading description and expressed his concern for those being displaced!

The BBC documentary does not differ from most of the media coverage of Clays Lane. For the most part the media was only interested in residents as a human interest story. Attempts to get to grips with more substantial questions were nearly always edited out. Somehow we could only be understood as victims of the process but even then the discussion petered out once we started to tackle specific failures. Towards the end of the relocation process we were approached by some journalists interested in the possibility that there might be a sit-in, but their attention wandered once it became clear this was unlikely to happen.

More4 News got closest to actually examining issues of public policy when they covered contamination at the Eastway. Indeed this was about the only issue that really attracted attention where Clays Lane was concerned. Inside Housing, which, as its title suggests, is a magazine about housing covered the issue of contamination but not those of relocation, the housing Legacy or the merits of the Olympic project. Of course, the main attraction was the discovery of thorium on the Cycle Track land and that was enough to set any number of journalistic pulses racing.

The local media showed patchy interest. The East London Advertiser actually refused to cover the contamination issue, claiming the Eastway was outside their area, even though they carried articles about the Eastway cyclists. With the exception of the Evening Standard, no major daily covered Clays Lane, although strangely Guardian Weekly showed an interest after we had moved! London radio and tv news made a few brief visits of limited significance, despite attempts by residents to discuss broader issues. The allotments and the businesses, particularly Lance Forman, could claim greater success as the businesses did get some substantial news coverage and were featured on programmes like the Politics Show, while several national papers ran articles on the allotments.

The documentary ended showing Lance Forman preparing for a settled and hopefully prosperous future but leaving the allotment holders and residents strangely suspended in time. Several greenhouses were shown being smashed to pieces and there was a brief shot of a home being demolished. The allotment holders were shown rebuilding their community but the film failed to show the shambles created at the new allotments, which would have been easy to include. Following the relocation of their sole representative Clays Lane completely disappeared and no attempt was made to follow up residents and deal with their greatly increased housing costs and their other less tangible loss, the destruction of their community and social networks.

The BBC documentary was a fly-on-the-wall production and as such might not be expected to provide an in-depth analysis of the 2012 Olympics and it does include interesting insights, particularly regarding the internal struggles of the allotments community as it faced the stresses of the demolition programme, and amusing episodes, notably Lance Forman speculating on the possibility that Gareth Blacker of the LDA had asked for permission to personally knock down his factory! However, it is sad that a lack of ambition in the series format and a lack of determination on the part of BBC management to combat the obstruction and media management of the LDA should so limit this production.

The decision to cut back the participation of those on the receiving end of the 2012 Games meant there was no way the programme could get to grips with the impact of the evictions on both individuals and communities or examine wider issues of public policy and accountability. Some, like the Travellers, simply didn’t feature at all. The LDA and ODA now present themselves as victims of unfair reporting. The truth is they had an incredibly easy ride for three years with almost no critical analysis from the time the bid was announced in mid 2003 until the budget fiasco in the autumn of 2006. Even today the media still has difficulty examining the claims of the Olympic promoters tending to fall back on easy clichés about the wasteland that is the Lea Valley and glib assertions of the lack of alternatives, opportunities and development in the East End. As with so much of the coverage of the Olympics this programme failed to dig below the surface of the smooth presentation of the 2012 project by the LDA and ODA.

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