More important than the aesthetic shortcomings of London’s planned spherical venue is the failure of democracy that is allowing it to be built, writes Anna Minton.
A decade on from London 2012, a gigantic sphere as tall as Big Ben and as wide as the London Eye looks set to be the latest piece of the Olympic legacy. Known as the MSG Sphere, it will be identical to a venue under construction in Las Vegas and will mirror the “Las Vegas-ification” of Stratford in east London.
Local MP Lyn Brown described the structure as a “monstrosity” and while it is not to my taste, the red flags raised by the MSG Sphere relate not to aesthetics but to democratic failure.
The extensive objections claim that the sphere will blight the lives of residents
Despite a vocal campaign, the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) approved the giant glowing structure, which will loom over Stratford, in March. It has now been referred to the mayor of London to give final approval.
The long list of opposition groups and elected representatives unhappy with the decision included 852 objections, a 2,000 strong petition, Newham and Hackney councils and West Ham MP Brown who said that “Stratford does not want to be Las Vegas” and claimed that “the LLDC’s version of the Olympic legacy has become a tyranny”.
The extensive objections claim that the sphere will blight the lives of residents as it will be surrounded by dense residential housing on all sides, blocking natural light and pouring electronic light pollution into the east London night sky, not to mention noise.
The plans aim to bring up to 60,000 people daily to Stratford for a minimum of 300 days a year which campaigners fear will place unbearable strain on Stratford Station, which is already subject to overcrowding. And then there are the obvious aesthetic arguments.
There is no doubt that there are two sides to this argument
I agree that the objections seem compelling, but that said, supporters also put forward numerous counter arguments; MSG say the sphere will bring thousands of jobs to the area, which they’ve pledged to pay at the London Living Wage with 35 per cent recruited locally during the three-year construction phase, going up to 50 per cent once the sphere is open.
The venue, which has capacity for 21,500 people, will provide a state-of-the-art immersive experience for music and award ceremonies, corporate events and product launches.
There is no doubt that there are two sides to this argument, as there generally are with all contentious development struggles. But that is to miss the point, which relates to democratic representation and accountability.
The decision was opposed by local elected representatives at Newham and Hackney councils, parliamentary representatives and on the development corporation’s board – where it was opposed by four elected members of the largely non-elected board.
Equally concerning is the revolving door between the Development Corporation and MSG, with Jayne McGivern, who was previously an LLDC Board member between 2012-2016, going on to work for MSG and lead the sphere project until last year.
Development Corporations are not democratically accountable and for that reason attract critique
According to a Freedom of Information request submitted by campaigners, between 2017 and 2019 there were 79 meetings and 33 unminuted meetings between MSG’s team and the LLDC.
Emails obtained reveal that the Corporation and MSG discussed strategies for how to deal with “local resistance” with LLDC suggesting “wordings” for emails to local schools where complimentary tickets for baseball games and visits from coaches and players would be offered.
The corporation’s unelected and unaccountable nature and the failure to listen to local opposition echoes the activities of the London Docklands Development Corporation a generation earlier.
At that time, plans for the development of Canary Wharf and surrounding areas were pushed through in the face of stiff opposition from local authorities, MPs and the local community who feared they would be displaced, well-founded fears as it turned out, as the demographic of the area changed beyond all recognition.
Council employees and elected representatives regularly move to work for developers
Development corporations are not democratically accountable and for that reason attract critique, while advocates claim they get things done. Local authorities on the other hand are accountable, but the same issues with the revolving door and the failure to listen to communities occur, again and again, revealing that democratic failure is increasingly the norm, regardless of the institutional structure.
Council employees and elected representatives regularly move to work for developers and lobbying firms involved in the regeneration of places.
In Southwark, the council’s project manager and the communications manager both went on to work for Lendlease, the developer behind the controversial regeneration of Elephant & Castle and it was revealed that just under 20 per cent of Southwark’s 63 councillors worked as lobbyists.
It may not be a planning consideration, but the other red flag is MSG itself, and the well-documented links between executive chairman Dolan and Trump. Dolan is not the only influential Trump supporter transforming UK real estate, with Blackstone, the giant US private equity firm also exponentially growing its presence in Britain.
It is worth paying attention to the growing influence of investment from less than palatable sources from other parts of the world
Blackstone, whose CEO Stephen Schwarzman, was not only a Trump donor but close advisor, recently completed what was reported to be the largest ever property deal in the UK, buying student accommodation firm iQ for £4.7 billion.
While the role of Russian oligarchs in UK real estate has been painfully highlighted it was not only entirely overlooked but much encouraged until Putin’s war in Ukraine so perhaps it is worth paying attention to the growing influence of investment from less than palatable sources from other parts of the world.
If issues around democratic failure seem to define the progress of the sphere’s application, it is not yet a done deal as it has now been referred to the mayor. Another highly contentious decision to approve the Hondo Tower, a 20 storey tower in Brixton in south London, was also referred to Sadiq Khan who has decided to hold a public hearing on the matter. The same may yet happen to the sphere.
Anna Minton is the author of Big Capital: Who is London For? (Penguin 2017) and is a reader in architecture at the University of East London.
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