Dezeen Magazine

Glasgow Commonwealth Games regeneration opinion by Neil Gray

"Regeneration is simply a sugar-coated euphemism for gentrification"

Opinion: Glasgow's Commonwealth Games is the latest major international sports event to be mired in controversy over the relocation of residents to make way for grand urban projects and "regeneration", says Neil Gray.

What unites Manchester's 2002 Commonwealth Games, London's 2012 Olympics and Glasgow's 2014 Commonwealth Games is that they have all been located in run-down areas of long-term disinvestment in their respective East Ends.

Mega-event strategies in each case are also strongly connected with area-based regeneration strategies. Indeed the related Clyde Gateway project in Glasgow is the largest regeneration programme in Scotland. These strategies are legitimised by legacy promises bound up with expensive and competitive bidding processes that are premised on the idea of copious social and economic rewards for host cities.

It is not surprising then that legacy claims have become somewhat hyperbolic. It was initially claimed that the Commonwealth Games would stimulate the building of 1,400 new homes on the site of the Athlete's Village and create 1,000 new jobs. Meanwhile Clyde Gateway claimed that it would create 21,000 new jobs and 10,000 new housing units.

Such regeneration areas are routinely presented as "new urban frontiers" and placebos for social and economic ills. Yet, as the urban geographer Neil Smith argued, regeneration is simply a sugar-coated euphemism for gentrification with all the negative connotations of that term excised. Terms like "blight" and "territorial stigmatisation" operate as neoliberal alibis for frontier talk and the devaluation and disposal of unprofitable land and properties.

The East End was once the industrial base of Glasgow, the second city of the British Empire, yet the forges and iron works finally collapsed in the 1980s after years of disinvestment. A fragmented and toxic landscape was left behind, which was only exacerbated by massive tenement clearance programmes in the 1960s, ravaging Glasgow's urban fabric. The area has long been seen as a rotten borough and Labour heartland. No need then to appease the population with electoral promises of new investment.

The results have been catastrophic: a World Health Organisation report in 2008 stated that the average life expectancy of someone living in Calton was 53, while in Lenzie, an affluent suburb nearby, it was 82. In the ward of Shettleston, where much of the Commonwealth Games activity is taking place, 84 per cent of the population lived within 500 metres of a derelict site in 2006. In areas of the East End over 30 per cent of the population are unemployed.

It might be tempting then to see regeneration as a self-evident response to quasi-natural forces of decline, but as Smith points out there is nothing inevitable about the physical deterioration of inner-city areas; devaluation is a logical and rational outcome of the operation of the land and housing markets. Devaluation of land and property offers the promise of profitable revaluation especially with the financial and political stimulus of a mega-event.

The problem is that the lack of investment in land and buildings has also blighted local people. So what can they expect from the regeneration promised by the Games?

On the ground there has been a marked disjuncture between public benefit claims and reality. The Games Village site has been highly controversial. City Legacy Consortium obtained the site at no cost, entering an undisclosed profit-sharing agreement with the City Council whose terms are not publicly available. Around £30 million of public subsidy was spent on remediating land, demolition of existing housing, and compensation to land owners.

Despite this largesse, the figure of new homes has been reduced from 1,400 to 700 and the designated social rented homes will be offered on a first-come, first-served basis predominantly to working tenants. This makes it highly unlikely that the former resident population – around 3,000 people displaced since 1999 – will be able to access the new homes. Clyde Gateway's early claim of 10,000 new homes, meanwhile, now appears ludicrous. A spokesperson told the Glasgow Games Monitor 2014 (a group I helped set up) that there are no figures for social housing, and, disingenuously, that the figure of 10,000 homes had been "made up" to attract public subsidy. He did say, however, that what was built would be predominantly private. This will clearly not generate much of legacy for a deeply impoverished local population – but then was that ever the point.

A high-profile eviction under compulsory purchase orders (CPO) on the Games Village site has also revealed deeply uneven compensation processes. In 2011, at 4am, the Jaconelli family were evicted by 100 police officers from their home of 35 years after refusing a desultory offer of £30,000 for a house independently valued at £90,000. Yet a string of land developers were simultaneously awarded massive payments. The most controversial deal was with Charles Price, the Mayfair developer, who bought property on the projected Games Village site for around £8 million in 2005-06, then sold it to the City Council for £17 million in 2008. The Jaconelli family have campaigned tirelessly for justice, with wide public support, and have finally obtained more adequate compensation – though the payment, as is typical with CPO cases, has not yet been received.

In Brazil, it took a violent escalation to make the wider world aware of local resistance to World Cup 2014 projects. Unsurprisingly, opposition in Glasgow has been under-reported.

The role of ATOS, the widely despised French IT and Healthcare company responsible for punitive and fatal disability work assessments, as a major sponsors for the Commonwealth Games was met with fierce resistance by disability and welfare activist groups, including an occupation of the Velodrome and the Games HQ.

Above all this, no adequate understanding of what regeneration has meant for the East End of Glasgow can be obtained without experiencing the area first hand. The M74, the most expensive road in the UK, and the East End Regeneration Route (EERR) drive violent wedges into the landscape, creating barriers where tenement communities were once knitted together, despite a city-wide survey in 2001 indicating that 60 per cent of households in Glasgow were without a car.

Malcolm Fraser, one of Scotland's leading architects, meanwhile, bewails the contempt with which housing and planning authorities have treated Glasgow's built fabric. The historic demolition of tenements has been the most pointed expression of this contempt, and Fraser asks why it was not possible to retain the existing tenements (and their tenants) on the Games Village site as an example of Glasgow's classic built form, alongside the best of the new architectural forms. The answer lies in economic imperatives of course. Legacy is the buzzword that legitimises such destructive urbanism, but as a host of commentators have pointed out, legacy frameworks are often little more than chimeras augmented by suspect political agendas and research methodologies. Investigating the lived experience of those subject to "regeneration", and walking in their footsteps, allows for a more measured and critical perspective.

Neil Gray is a Glasgow-based writer and academic, specialising in Human Geography and urbanisation. He is a member of Variant magazine's editorial group and a founding member of the Glasgow Games Monitor 2014.