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A decade on, the legacy of the London Olympic Games proves what levelling up can achieve in left behind areas of the country

4 min read

More than 50 years of coordinated and collaborative regeneration has transformed the slice of south east England, known as the Lee Valley, from a contaminated wasteland into one of the United Kingdom’s green lungs and a zone of sporting excellence, a perfect case study for what the government wants to achieve through its levelling up agenda.

Whoever the next prime minister is, no doubt levelling up will remain a key policy.

The good news is that the perfect case study for regeneration-led levelling up exists and it’s a story the departing prime minister knows well. After all he was mayor of London as it reached its peak.

It is the story of the Lee Valley’s transformation from a derelict unloved corridor, scarred by war and heavy industrial use, into award-winning open spaces, world-class sports venues, a place of opportunity and wellbeing and of course the host of the glorious London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, exactly a decade ago.

As we mark 10 years since the Games, I am also marking my 25th year as chief executive of Lee Valley Regional Park Authority. I was there before, during and after the bid and can say with confidence that transformational, positive change is not just about money or political will – though both are needed – but about loyalty to a truly long-term vision and genuine collaboration.

A place cannot be levelled up just once, it is an ongoing process

The astonishing legacy of London 2012 in transforming a swathe of south-east England would not have been possible without the shared vision and cooperation of the London, Hertfordshire and Essex councils involved, the government, the mayoralty and Lee Valley Regional Park Authority as landowner and client. This type of cross-party alliance and long-term thinking is crucial if levelling up is to actually deliver change.

So is a clarity of vision, not just for levelling up as a whole but for each place that is to be levelled up individually. In the Lower Lee Valley we had a firm foundation of sporting excellence and, through the Park Authority, the experience of how to turn sport and leisure into a tool of inclusion and wellbeing.

With every pound of investment into the built environment we could ensure that the communities – existing and new – would see the benefit. In other words, we could ensure that the money spent on iconic architecture, new homes and spaces would level up the communities around them. And because legacy and social value was the clear vision right from the start – community access and grassroots sports development was baked into every venue’s business model – it worked.

More than 11 million people have visited our three Olympic venues – Lee Valley VeloPark, Lee Valley White Water Centre and Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre – since they opened to the public. Ten years on, we are able to reaffirm their place as drivers of enormous social and economic value. Lives are genuinely and positively impacted by their community access programmes, the health and wellbeing benefits that access to sport brings and the sense of social cohesion and belonging that they inspire by being centers of civic pride and participation.

In the next 10 years, more than 150,000 new homes are planned in the Lower Lea Valley and the Park Authority, along with the boroughs will evolve to reflect the changing and growing world around us. Which is to say that a place cannot be levelled up just once, it is an ongoing process – places and spaces must be malleable and sustainable to thrive in the long term.

In 2022, we will build on the success of our Olympic venues with new visitor destinations – like our brand new Olympic-level Lee Valley Ice Centre opening later this year. The Wave London, the first inland surf destination in a capital which will shortly go through planning, and bringing a 200-acre site into public use as a new piece of Lee Valley Regional Park with a country park and leisure attractions

Not every place can be a zone of sporting excellence but the lessons for the levelling up agenda are clear – every place should have its own clear vision, based on its character and culture,  and this should be a vision that we can all unite behind and that has growth, change and clear accountability for creating and maintaining long-term social value factored in from the start.

Now that’s an Olympic legacy that we can all be truly proud of.


Shaun Dawson is chief executive of Lee Valley Regional Park Authority*.


* Lee Valley Regional Park Authority manages 10,000-acres over 26 miles across London’s North and East, Essex and Hertfordshire. It owns and oversees world-class sporting facilities including Lee Valley VeloPark, Lee Valley White Water Centre, Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre and the forthcoming Lee Valley Ice Centre, as well as maintaining large areas of biodiverse green and water spaces

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