Olympics in Greenwich: what a triumph it all was. Oh, hold on a minute…


Back from a week’s break today to enjoy a spot of gloating on Twitter by supporters of holding the Olympic equestrian events in Greenwich Park. According to ITN’s Alastair Stewart and my Telegraph colleague Dan Hodges it was “fantastic,” whatever poor old me may have thought. Another slightly less well-known local media personality, Darryl Chamberlain, proclaimed that “across south-east London, thousands of people felt their hearts swell with pride as our park…took on a new identity, and was showed (sic) off to the world.” How could Darryl know what thousands of people were feeling, I wonder? Did he ask them? How on earth did he find the time?

In the face of this sort of faith-based reporting, I thought it was time for some, well, reporting-based reporting – so this afternoon I did ask dozens of south-east Londoners, specifically the traders of Greenwich, what had been their experience of the Games, and specifically the effects on their businesses. The words “fantastic” and “swelling with pride” didn’t come up much. Here’s what they said:

Phadi Bhattarai, owner, Monsoon Café, Turnpin Lane: “It was bad for us – we are 50 per cent down on a normal summer. It’s been bad the whole summer, not just the Games period, because the park is closed. We had to throw away a lot of food and my business is at risk.”

Malia Nilsson and Holly Gould, Red Door Café, Turnpin Lane: “It’s been quite dead here, to be honest. We’re down about half. The whole summer has been bad due to the park closing. It’s the summer attraction of Greenwich and it’s not here. The council made us take in our outside tables and they even made the house opposite take in its flowerpots.”

Volkan Besler and Helena Bloomer, Bar du Musee, Nelson Road: “It’s affected us really badly. We bought barbecues, extra food, we had to throw a lot of stuff away. [On the barbecue] we made more food for ourselves than we managed to sell. You could see thousands of people marching past, but they herded them straight from the station to the park. There were signs on the approach roads saying ‘Greenwich – avoid area.’”

Angela and David Fireman, owners of Mr Humbug sweetshop, Greenwich Market: “It’s been awful. It’s normally quite busy in the summer, but the families have stayed away. We are edging towards 20 per cent down. Quite a few tourists have been very disgruntled that the park and the observatory are closed. The objectives of the Olympic visitors are completely different – you’re sitting in a stream and they’re not going to stop. I opened longer on Saturday after the end of the modern pentathlon and I took £6 in an hour.”

Morad Benotmane, manager, Nauticalia, Nelson Road: “It’s not been great, to be honest, not what we expected. For the first two weeks we were down by about 40 per cent, but we climbed back a little last week. This is normally our Christmas, this is when we make our money for the year.”

Kane Goddard, co-owner Goddards Pie Shop, King William Walk: “It’s been at least 50 per cent down. I loved the Olympics but it’s had a very big detrimental effect on our business. I have a major issue with the emphasis on keeping people away from London – it’s been too one-sided and it’s really had a dramatic effect. The market is suffering unbelievably.”

Isaac Lilos, co-owner, Arty Globe, Greenwich Market: “Compared to a normal summer we are 30% down. It is heartbreaking – we had thousands of people walking past who couldn’t get to us [because Locog erected barricades to funnel people to the park.] It felt like somebody has organised a party in your house, then locked you in a room. I specifically raised this with Paul Deighton [chief executive of Locog] and I was assured by everybody that it would not happen. They’ve not really given anything back to the community and it’s very annoying.”

In almost 35 interviews, I found only one trader – Julie Bates of Arc Angel – who said that the Olympics had benefited her business, and even then only fractionally. The story everywhere else was the same – non-Olympic tourists and regulars scared away; Olympic visitors either not interested in anything but the sport, or corralled away by barricades from the independent shops into Locog’s corporate bubble. The barricades were slightly relaxed after what one trader described as a “near-riot” by the shopkeepers – but not by nearly enough to rescue their summer.

It isn’t over, either. There’s another six weeks until the town centre returns to normal. And we won’t know the final cost of the Olympics until we know whether we’re getting our precious park back in the same condition we left it. Locog have been doing a lot of extra concrete piling in there to anchor the arena in the wet weather. Let’s hope they can get it all out again, shall we? They’ve promised a complete restoration – but this is an organisation that has broken almost every previous promise to the community that it has ever made.

I’m sure a lot of people will say that none of this matters because we had a great party. We did have a great party. But it does matter. Greenwich Park, and the small shops which give our World Heritage site its character, are of more lasting value to London than the feelgood factor generated by the Olympics. In any case, we could have had just as good a party at Windsor Great Park – if not a better one. As equestrian experts have written, having the cross-country in the cramped confines of Greenwich may have cost us our first gold medal of the Games, in the eventing (which for the benefit of some of my critics is a different discipline from the ones in which we did win gold medals.) There would also have been a rather better TV backdrop – that little shack called Windsor Castle – and a permanent legacy for the sport.

Perhaps the most depressing pop at the Games’ detractors came from Nigel Fletcher, the deputy leader of the opposition on Greenwich council, director of the Centre for Opposition Studies no less, and the local opposition spokesman on the Olympics. He is symbolic of the way that the people supposed to be scrutineers have turned into cheerleaders, and may help explain why the council and Locog were allowed to get away with screwing the local traders so badly.

Mr Fletcher, Alastair Stewart, Dan Hodges, and I may be lucky enough to have secure, well-paid jobs. But my neighbours’ jobs, businesses and livelihoods have been put at risk for something that simply didn’t need to happen in Greenwich. In the end, that too is more important than some nice TV pictures.



London 2012 equestrian: did Greenwich Park cost us Olympic gold?

I was intrigued by what the BBC’s horse sport expert Clare Balding had to say about Britain’s team silver medal in the equestrianism at Greenwich Park today:

“If the cross-country course was as big as a Badminton or Burghley, Britain would have been favourites as they are a better cross-country nation.”

I’ve long opposed holding this event at Greenwich. It’s closed the park for months (and parts of it for years) for a few days of elite sport from which the vast majority of people are excluded. The park will not be fully restored to its pre-Olympic state until 2015. It’s been damaging for the local economy – visitor numbers this summer have fallen because so much of the area is shut. It will leave no legacy whatever, either for the sport or for the area – indeed there is an increasing risk of permanent damage to this priceless park. Because of all the wet weather, they’ve been piling more concrete on what used to be the lawn in front of the Maritime Museum to hold the showjumping arena up. Let’s hope they can get it out again, shall we?

None of that matters, of course, so long as the TV pictures are pretty and there are plenty of junkets for the local councillors. But there were always major concerns in the equestrian world – including by one of the competitors today, Zara Phillips – about the wisdom of fitting a cross-country course into the tight little spaces of an urban park. It was indeed a very challenging course. To be fair, Britain did well in the cross-country – but the medal placings were so tight that it would have helped us to do even better. And if Greenwich has cost us our first gold medal of the Games, maybe that might be enough to puncture the hype around this deeply unwise decision.


Olympics: One London MP's crusade for truth

You’ve heard of tribunes of the people. My local MP, Nick Raynsford, is a from a different breed of politician: tribunes of the developers. Over the last few months, he’s passionately campaigned on behalf of big monied interests who want to spoil the area he represents. In his latest demarche, for the bonkers plan to put the Olympic horseriding events in Greenwich Park, he’s unfortunately got one or two of his facts wrong. Read all about it here.