When the Chief Whip comments that to make an omelette, you need to crack a few eggs, it’s not terribly heartening when you are the one about to be cracked and beaten.
Almost 14 years ago, having just spent two years building and relocating to a new smoked salmon factory, we were told by the authorities that we would have to move yet again, as our new premises was located smack-bang in the middle of where they wanted to build London’s Olympic stadium.
The irony was that we had just received a little grant funding, from Ken Livingstone’s London Development Agency (the LDA) to build our new home, only to be told by that very same body that we would have to move.
The official account of the London Olympics is that this was all about the regeneration of a derelict and urban wasteland in London’s East End. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth.
This was the greatest concentration of manufacturing land in the whole of London – 350 businesses employing 12,000 people – being wiped out for three weeks of sport.
The London government had to claim it was a regeneration project though, as they didn’t have legal powers to acquire land under a compulsory purchase order (CPO) to host a sporting event, even if it was to become the largest peacetime event the world had known.
What are compulsory purchase orders
A compulsory purchase order gives the holder ‘compulsory purchase powers’, which ‘are provided to enable acquiring authorities to compulsorily purchase land to carry out a function which Parliament has decided is in the public interest’.
It’s generally used by local councils and bodies such as Transport for London to acquire privately owned land.
Those whose land is acquired will generally be entitled to compensation, although this is not always offered at the current market rate.
More details can be found on the gov.uk website.
It was also in their commercial interest to do so as they were going to have to pay for it, so there was no point in talking up the price.
If they could buy land at an industrial price, which was around £1m per acre at the time, have the Olympics, and then sell it at a residential price of £8m per acre, this would be a coup worthy of even the most avaricious property developer.
Finding myself in this somewhat tricky situation and spending an inordinate amount of time studying the ins and outs of compulsory purchase law, at the expense of focusing on the day-to-day demands of my business, it became clear to me that even winning a legal battle yielded a bad result as the law itself is unfair and not fit for purpose in the 21st century.
So instead of hiring real estate lawyers and surveyors, I hired a media lawyer and thought I’d try my luck in the court of public opinion.
It was difficult at first, as Livingstone and his cronies had painted me and fellow local businesses as being anti-Olympics, and thus unpatriotic, which wasn’t the case. But once London had won the bid, the media were in a safer position to assist.
Our battle came to a head when I was due to appear in court to cross-examine Lord Coe on the question of regeneration.
If I could demonstrate that this CPO was not really about regeneration and instead about the sporting circus that was to ensue, then the Olympics might not have been able to happen, at least in this location, and we could stay put and carry on smoking.
Just a few days before my court appearance, an official at the LDA contacted me and said that if I withdrew my cross-examination, they will do a deal with me.
I don’t wish to reveal all at this juncture as I wrote a book about our battle – Forman’s Games – and the court scene with Seb Coe is my favourite chapter.
However, to this day, I am not sure whether the LDA’s fear of my appearance in court was that they might lose this argument, or that I would whistle-blow on a shady deal I was being offered via an intermediary, who had deep contacts with the government, military and the world of espionage.
For a fish smoker, in London’s East End, my life felt like it had become a cross between the Da Vinci code and Enemy Of The State.
Having written Forman’s Games, I now receive calls from random readers across the country threatened with CPOs, asking for advice, and I’ve been very happy to offer it.
CPO is nasty – it’s legalised robbery by the state – and the law needs to change to even up the balance of power.
One such reader was the head of CPOs at Transport for London, who I believe acquire more land under CPO than any other body.
He wrote to me acknowledging that the process was ‘unfair’ in his words, and therefore unnecessarily controversial. We have since met, where I put forward my thoughts on how the law could be made more equitable.
For those interested in learning more about what happened to all the businesses forced out to make way for the Olympic Park, a new book is being launched at Forman’s Fish Island in early October called Dispersal. Picturing Urban Change In East London.
Photographers for the book, Marion Davies and Debra Rapp, and I first met in 2006 when they toured the industrial heartland, just before it was to be torn down.
Inspired by our own tale of woe, they went on a journey from business to business; galvanizers, printers, meat packers, cabinet makers, stained glass window fabricators, belt-manufacturers, glass benders, wig makers and so on, to ensure that none would be forgotten.
I later introduced Marion and Debra to Dr Juliet Davis, a Fellow at the London School of Economics. She had also become interested in the effect the Olympic demolitions were having on the local business community and would go on to write the book.
Published by Historic England, it presents a truly vivid photographic record of the hugely diverse range of businesses successfully operating, and creating wealth and employment, in what the politicians called a ‘wasteland’.
While about 150 of the businesses weren’t able to relocate, as late as 2015, she found that about 30% of those who did never survived the relocation, and another 10% simply couldn’t be traced.
So bear in mind, when you hear the Olympic Legacy people talk now about the 8,000 jobs being created in the park, this only goes some way to replace the 12,000 that were there before-hand.
I don’t believe the London Olympics was ever truly about regeneration.
If £12 billion was being spent on the regeneration alone, without the sport, positive change could have happened much sooner and with the retention of a thriving manufacturing sector close to London.
My business, H. Forman & Son, did relocate and was one of the few that managed to stay in the area.
I often joke that it took us five years to move 100 metres while Usain Bolt does it in under 10 seconds.
We consider ourselves one of the lucky ones. For the rest, while their land was being poached, some scrambled and the others were simply fried.