Members of the Counter Olympics Network (CON) have recently been working with local residents around Fish Island and the Lea canal barge community in East London who are concerned with the legitimacy of the removal of trees along a stretch of the Hackney branch of the canal situated in the shadow of the Olympic stadium. Environmental destruction and enclosure seem to have become synonymous with the Olympic Games as London lurches towards 2012.
Members of the canal boat community moored up on the Old Ford lock awoke on the morning of 10 January to the buzz of chainsaws, as contractors, apparently acting on behalf of British Waterways, removed all the trees and bushes from the eastern shore of the canal. A large section of the tow path north of the lock, which is normally open to the public, had been blocked off with no notice and a machine could be seen depositing wood chippings into a barge half filled with landfill (itself an environmentally dubious action). Locals quickly sprang into action; sensitive to the environmental impact of indiscriminate tree felling and enclosure on what is a public right of way. Aware of the problematic practices common to companies connected with the Olympics as well as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) itself, such as violating safety regulations on the site whilst being confrontational with union representatives, holding so-called ‘consultations’ with local residents and attempting to change common land law in order to build the ‘temporary’ Olympics police base on Wanstead Flats, they confronted the workers and demanded immediate answers about the planning status of the works.
When inquiries met with an evasive and aggressive response from the gang foreman, this, coupled with the absence of any visible planning application signs, led locals to believe that the works being carried out were in fact illegal. When it was mentioned that a local newspaper had been contacted the contractors quickly left the site. The only information that could be gleaned was that the trees were being removed in order to increase the visibility of the banks for security cameras placed at a distance of every twenty yards or so along the stadium perimeter fence. Concerns at the unannounced closure of a supposedly public footpath and the possibility of trees being cut down in a preservation area without planning permission led some of the barge residents to contact local CON members.
The next morning anti-Olympics activists were invited down to Old Ford Lock and arrived armed with a video camera to canvass the views of the local community. Outside of the sanitised corporate narrative constructed through official propaganda, a genuinely spontaneous and highly critical discourse on the Olympics was put forward by those interviewed. Alongside the more high profile issues of funding and gentrification, opinion was unanimous that the low level monitoring and disruption of day-to day life within working class communities affected by the Olympics is a serious and under-investigated issue. Seemingly, as if to reinforce this notion (and highlight the role of private security companies in the Olympic surveillance network), locals and activists alike were subject to the scrutiny of the G4S patrol boat as it passed by on one of its regular sweeps of the canal. Once again the workmen left early, this time subjecting the CON camera operator to a torrent of abuse.
However, it was the arrival of five Met police officers which showed that anyone questioning the Olympic hegemony can expect to face disruption no matter how small scale their activities. When unable to offer any legal explanation of why filming and interviewing should not take place, the police attempted to intimidate those present. Not content with the usual canards about potential terrorism they proceeded to claim that a “concerned citizen” had called in with a complaint that activists may have been filming children along the windswept and rain sodden canal.
Whilst this may be an absurd and ineffective accusation (filming continued both on the day and the day after), it does highlight the kind of tactics that will be encountered in the coming year or so if resistance against the effects of the Olympic project becomes more widespread. When acting to shut down dissent on a larger scale, it can be expected that the state and private security companies will employ whatever dirty tricks are necessary in order to neuter opposition. Meanwhile disruption to communities in the name of “security” alongside the casual destruction of the environment will continue both during the Olympics and beyond if not effectively resisted.
Regarding the initial tree felling, uncertainties remain. As the whole Lea river valley and canal is a conservation area it is still unclear at the time of writing whether or not planning permission had been granted. What is clear is that the process is ongoing and more areas of the canal will be blocked off to the public and many more trees destroyed. Rather more certain is the relationship between British Waterways and the Olympic Development Agency that might explain why nurturing and protecting the local environment, a supposed British Waterways mission statement, plays second fiddle to other concerns.
As a public corporation British Waterways relies heavily on government funding to cope with an annual capital outlay of £100 million in infrastructure costs. However, levels of funding have fallen with the current economic crisis, and on 20 December DEFRA announced year on year cuts of 9.6 percent in government subsidy for the period 2010/11. This represents a drop of nearly ten million for an organisation that operates a year-on-year deficit of somewhere between twenty to thirty million pounds a year. This perilous financial state has led to the closure or curtailment of many initiatives outside of London. For example, the British Waterways’ Bingley Five Rise Locks Project (part of the Leeds-Liverpool canal), which failed to secure a £300,000 Heritage Fund Lottery grant (in the face of competition from Olympics related initiatives in the capital), was one such project. Ironically enough, whilst the shadow of the Olympics helped ensure the demise of such alternative forms of funding for the cash-strapped British Waterways nationwide, Olympics money has become the model for funding the regeneration of many parts of the Lea valley network.
The chief executive of British Waterways, Tony Hales, has made no secret of his plans to move the organisation from the realm of the public sector into the ‘third sector’, seeking funding from a range of bodies besides the government. A move into the so-called “big society” perhaps? Although Hales claims this is not privatisation through the back door, a look at the funding for the Bow Back River project, the restoration of the five and a half miles of industrial canals criss-crossing the Olympics site including Old Ford Lock, is enlightening. Whilst “stakeholders” for the project include English Heritage and the Waterways Trust, the £23 million worth of funding includes the Olympic Development Agency as a major contributor. Given the reliance on such money, Hales’ claims about privatization seem to ring hollow and his organisation’s ability to act autonomously of its funders must be under question. This helps to explain why “guardianship” of the canal network can include, when convenient for “Olympic security”, the destruction of the very habitat supposedly guarded.
While the felling of trees along Old Ford lock may seem a relatively small incident compared to the large scale damage already inflicted via the Olympics; such temporary acts of enclosure and the longer term environmental damage associated with them could, if replicated on a large scale, have a hugely negative impact on the quality of life for people within some of the poorest boroughs in London. What they in fact constitute is small but significant acts of class violence. The question that needs to be asked is: whether working class communities within the Olympic boroughs, economically marginalised, disrupted and dispersed by gentrification and already stripped of large areas of parkland, can expect the de-greening and arbitrary closure of some of the few open spaces still accessible to them? CON will be keeping an eye on this and other issues. See the href=”http://counterolympicsnetwork.wordpress.com“>CON website for upcoming events and actions.