Only a few days prior to the shocking murder of a middle-aged Westfield Stratford City shopper by teenagers from neighbouring Ilford last week, University Square Stratford had hosted a conference nearby which highlighted the hopes invested in universities for the transformation of opportunities locally, and in perceptions of the Stratford area more widely.
Paul Brickell – formerly a professor of molecular hematology at UCL and now Executive Director of Regeneration and Community Partnerships for the LLDC – stressed that Stratford is ‘not just cheap land’, and outlined a structured vision of local job creation which dates back 20 years, starting with entry-level retail jobs and progressing to high-skill jobs in engineering and technology in which university relocations to the area have a large part to play.
He described how the construction of new bus and train stations as part of HS1 (Channel Tunnel Rail Link) provided the initial impetus for the Stratford City mixed-use development concept. The idea of hosting the Olympics on the site was floated at the end of the 1990s with a view to putting Stratford on an international map and ‘getting young people and businesses excited about change’, he said. The development now includes the International Quarter, still under development, and containing not only the Stratford City shopping centre, office and hotel space, but also new residential development (East Village – 16,400 new homes) converted from the former Olympic athletes’ village, a school, Chobham Academy, and community facilities.
The opening of Westfield shopping centre in 2011, a year in advance of the Olympics, was vital to the creation of ‘first entry jobs’ in retail, Brickell explained, following on from the new construction jobs generated by development both on Stratford City and the Olympic park – of which he maintained a minimum of 35% had been filled by local people, rising at times to 60%. ‘We’ve relentlessly focused on getting young people into jobs’, he stated, working closely with contractors to recruit local apprentices and promote construction as an industry, especially in the context of Stratford where ‘making and designing things’ is integral to local history, and, he said, ‘coming back here’.
The arrival of University of East London and Birkbeck College in 2013, as the innovative University Square Stratford partnership, represented a significant initiative towards widening access to higher education – and by implication higher-skilled jobs – in the area. USS specialises in providing flexible part- and full-time courses that run in the evenings as well as day-time, in order to accommodate adult learners who need to organise their time around other commitments. Their intervention has been followed by Loughborough University’s opening of courses in design, enterprise and entrepreneurship, digital technologies, sport business, diplomacy and international governance, at the new ‘innovation quarter’ centered on HereEast, the Olympic park’s former media and press centre neighbouring Hackney Wick to the north-west. Early next year Hackney Community College will join the complex, along with UCL Bartlett’s Institute of Robotics, promoting jobs in technology and the translation of Stratford’s artisan and manufacturing past into a knowledge economy-led future.
By 2019 UCL East is set to bring new research and teaching in engineering, urbanism, and other areas, to the southern end of the park close to Stratford High Street, while the opening of new facilities for the London College of Fashion on Stratford Waterfront, as part of a ‘major new destination in arts and culture’, as well as a new bioscience technology park at Pudding Mill to the south-west, would, said Brickell, crystallise the area’s image as world-leading on the academic side, with potential to spin-off world-leading business ventures – and high-skill job opportunities – from that.
In light of these developments, Brickell described himself as ‘confident that young people in [local] schools have the idea that the future brings opportunities and jobs’. But subsequent speakers suggested there is no guarantee that local people will be able to access those jobs, since current developments in the housing market are leading to the removal of many of Stratford’s existing families away from the area and the replacement of what Phil Cohen (UEL) described as ‘the precariat by the salariat’.
Even though the new East Village development has provided 50% affordable homes (approx £1600 pcm in rent), ‘better than anywhere else in London [at 30%]’, according to Brickell (with six of its own designated community engagement officers to mediate social relationships among tenants on different tenures), Paul Watt (Birkbeck) emphasised that 80% of market rent still represents between 52% and 41% of median wages across the boroughs Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets. He also accused Newham of intent to bulldoze its council estates and turn them into brownfield sites for development (by institutions such as UCL), while 40% of ‘right-to-buy’ properties have ended up in the hands of private landlords. He explained that Newham prioritises housing allocation to those in the armed forces, in employment on low incomes, and those who make a contribution to the local community, following guidance provided by the Localism Act, and in line with their own ‘resilience’, or ‘Quid pro quo’ approach, but argued that this effectively reinstates a Victorian concept of the ‘undeserving poor’, especially the stigmatisation of lone parents as ‘unproductive and unworthy of state support’ because they cannot work.
This in turn has generated ‘processes of expulsion’ from the borough (Newham has the highest rate of repossessions in the whole country) and ‘fantastic instability’, said Watt, in schools, due to the disruption in children’s housing circumstances. In such circumstances, many local children’s educational opportunities and ideas of the future will be permanently blighted. In which case, the solution surely cannot be simply to ship them out to another borough to deal with (as indeed some of London’s richer boroughs are said to be doing to Newham).
Perhaps then universities framed as agents of economic regeneration need to be looking for ways to address the fundamental question of local housing stability as well, in order to give any guarantee to young people that the jobs and opportunities they bring will indeed be available to them as local citizens in the future.
‘London’s Turning‘ was a symposium organised by LivingMaps at USS on Saturday 24th October 2015.