Campaigners protesting against the closure of the Accord Centre in 2012. Margaret Jaconelli holds the sign that reads, "GCG stole my home".
This July, the Commonwealth Games are coming to Glasgow. The event may be essentially a knockdown Olympics only open to countries that were lucky enough to be colonised by Britain in their recent history, but for whatever reason, they’re still a pretty big deal. Glasgow’s deprived East End will host this summer’s Games, as the area’s shiny new venues come alive with thousands of tourists, bussed-in volunteers and some of the world’s best athletes.
If all goes to plan, the image they’ll take away from their visit will be of an aspiring and confident city. They’ll see a Glasgow that’s been transformed from the Glasgow that exists in the public imagination – the Glasgow of poverty and drug use. Britain's sickest city, where the life expectancy in some areas has been compared unfavourably to Iraq. They'll find instead a burgeoning capital of consumerism and culture, capable of pulling off prestige events like the Games and November’s MTV EMAs with aplomb.
This is at least what the city’s politicians and marketing bosses are hoping for, as they aim to consolidate a decades-long project to rebrand the face of Glasgow (efforts kick-started by Mr Happy in 1983). Local officials have been yammering on about "legacy" and Glasgow 2014’s potential for “creating jobs and changing people’s lives” for so long that the athletics themselves seem like something of an afterthought.
Protesters outside condemned shops in 2012
On the ground in Dalmarnock, the part of Glasgow’s East End where much of the event will be held, people's lives have changed, but not necessarily for the better. Hundreds showed up at a tense meeting recently to berate and heckle officials about the disruption they have faced, but were only promised more of it, with weeks of perimeter fences and security lockdown laying ahead. Locals recently started a petition demanding the council pay more attention to their community’s needs, rather than those of the visitors and athletes who’ll fleetingly arrive next month. The petition gained hundreds of signatures in just a few days.
Grace Harrigan is an East End resident for whom the Games have not been a blessing. In early 2011, she learnt that the Accord – a day centre used by her son and 120 other adults with learning disabilities – was to be demolished. It was, to quote a clinical letter from a council official, “located in the area designated for the Games”, with their plot lined up to become a coach park. Unsurprisingly, knocking down a disability centre for the sake of a temporary parking facility, for an 11-day event, proved controversial. Carers at the centre found themselves thrown into a high profile campaign and even Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, mindful of an approaching election, waded in to remind Glasgow’s Council not to risk jeopardising the “reputation and integrity” of the Games.
For Grace, the promises of a worthwhile legacy are empty. “We’ve not just been let down, we’re disgusted with how things have gone,” she says. “There was money there to replace the Accord from the beginning, which was promised by Glasgow City Council.” But both that, and later assurances about a replacement facility within another building, have yet to materialise. “It’s as if they were intentionally stringing very vulnerable people along… Alex Salmond came down and said that no one should feel dispossessed because of the Commonwealth Games. But 120 people have been left dispossessed and no one’s batted an eyelid.”
Just a couple of streets away from the Accord, another battle was shaping up between the Games organisers and a local grandmother determined not to be flattened by the Commonwealth juggernaut. To make way for what’s now the Athletes’ Village and adjacent Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome, entire blocks of rundown tenements had to be demolished, along with a row of shops. Margaret Jaconelli, the last remaining occupant in a row of houses cleared to make way for the Games, was hit with a Compulsory Purchase Order and, in March 2011, was evicted by a team of 60 police officers.
Her family’s resilience meant they were eventually given £90,000 for their home of 34 years. This was triple the council’s original offer but with no access to legal aid, much of this has been spent on their ongoing fight. Margaret is unrelenting: “I decided to barricade myself in to show what they’re doing to people. I wouldn’t have got what I did without it.”
The Jaconellis barricade their home in 2011
While there was one rule for Margaret and the “wee ordinary people” of the East End, it was a different story for the millionaire businessmen who owned much larger plots of land required for Games-linked developments. A Mayfair property speculator who bought up sections of the East End prior to the Games bid managed to double his money, pocketing an extra £9 million for doing little more than sit on some wasteland for a few years. Other developers proved similarly lucky in their negotiations with the council, with allegations of corruption eventually leading to a police investigation, although no evidence of criminality was found.
“They had the power to CPO [Compulsory Purchase Order] the developers but they didn’t do it.” Margaret explains, pointing out the stark contrast with her own situation. “They gave them extortionate pay-outs while the likes of me and the shopkeepers were left without anything… Where’s the justice?”
Margaret and other residents have little use for a world-class velodrome and sports arena. People are complaining of being priced out, and it’s easy to understand why when it costs up to £40 to hire a five-a-side pitch. The much-vaunted Athletes’ Village will become a mix of social and private housing – but mostly the latter. Glasgow Games Monitor, an activist group who’ve set out to counter the event’s hype machine, are sceptical about the housing legacy claims, telling me that original promises of 1,400 homes have been “reduced to 800”, and of this “only 300 are for social rent”.
Glasgow's New East End
One standout positive is that a new community hub will open next year, although “only because they fought for it”, reckons Margaret. But the area has also been scythed in two by a huge new road designed to lure business investment. Meanwhile, the local shops were flattened years ago without replacement. The closest thing to a shop – an ice-cream van – will be excluded from the area for much of the summer, thanks to the security fences that went up last week, making residents feel that they've been "barricaded" into their homes. “It’s just been one thing after another. A tsunami has hit Dalmarnock and we’ve lost everything,” Margaret says.
The changes are being pitched in slick estate-agent-speak – hyped up as part of the creation of a "New East End", promising "affordable luxury in a unique setting". Even though the plan was dropped, the live demolition of Glasgow's Red Road flats – high rise blocks of council homes – as part of the opening ceremony, has done nothing to allay fears that this is an exercise in the kind of regeneration that solves the problem of poverty by moving poor people somewhere else.
Harry, a researcher with the Games Monitor group, is scathing. “When regeneration does finally come along, the very same people who’ve lived through decades of sub-standard conditions are often excluded from any benefits, through rising land and house prices and a change of culture in the area. It’s gentrification, in short. No one in the area ever asked for a Games event. It’s always imposed from above.”
The city’s political class have leapt at the opportunity of using the Games to revitalise Glasgow's East End, but even in an area with some of the worst levels of multiple deprivation anywhere in the UK – a place crying out for investment – they've failed to convince many of the residents that their experience of the Games legacy will be a positive one.
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