“When Britain built something big” is the sub-title to Dave Hill’s book Olympic Park, which tells the story of how an Olympic park was created in London’s Lower Lea Valley in time for London 2012. It is a detailed factual account, not just of the politics, planning, infrastructure engineering and deal-making that led up to that event, but of its implications in terms of urban regeneration and legacy.
I’m interviewing Dave about the book and its themes at 6 pm on Tuesday 30 August 2022 on the audio social-media app Clubhouse, and you’re welcome to listen in here and indeed we’d love to here your own accounts.
A number of things are striking to me, looking back.
The first is that huge things can be achieved if individuals and institutions collectively grasp a vision and secure the necessary buy-in. At a time when this country had perhaps lost its self-belief in being able to deliver a project successfully and on time, here we were setting ourselves up to fail – but we didn’t. By luck there was a new system of London regional government in place to facilitate London’s bid for the games (Ken Livingstone as mayor, not a sports fan at all but persuaded as to the regeneration potential of a London Games) with the full support (not easily secured by the indefatigable Tessa Jowell) of the Blair government, and with the individual host boroughs, with capable leaders, willing to come together as a Joint Planning Applications Team to determine massively complex planning applications within tight timescales.
The second is that there are inevitable trade-offs if a project such as the transformation of this huge area of east London was to be achieved by what was an immovable deadline. When London secured the Games, the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 gave significant powers to unelected bodies, which has continued with the creation of the London Legacy Development Corporation in 2012. Many people’s homes and businesses were the subject of a compulsory purchase order, which was confirmed after a 41 day inquiry and which survived at least three legal challenges in the High Court. Should we have done it? Or should we have let community politics take their course?
The third is that whilst it is important to have the necessary statutory processes and a strategy, so much comes down to problem-solving, creativity and negotiation. Whilst the right calls may have been made in the negotiations necessary with the Stratford City development partners (at times a fragile partnership due to the takeover of Chelsfield during the process), was money wasted in deciding to proceed with a stadium design that did not easily allow for West Ham’s subsequent use – and just how good was West Ham’s eventual deal?
The fourth is that engineering constraints and their lead-in periods can cause headaches – for example the huge commercial, logistical and regulatory challenge of undergrounding electricity lines and removing pylons – achievements which we then utterly take for granted.
The fifth is the need for cross-party consensus – long-term projects can’t be the punchbag of short-term party politics. So there was the unholy alliance between Livingstone, expelled from the Labour party, and the New Labour government, both then replaced before the Games themselves by Johnson and the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition and now the approach to various legacy aspects being the domain of Sadiq Khan.
The sixth is that surely we need to learn from what went well and what perhaps didn’t, and to apply it to the immediate challenges around us: climate change, including renewables and making existing buildings more energy-efficient; and indeed the challenge of delivering a new generation of affordable homes. What more broadly should we learn about how our planning system needs to adapt?
There is so much more to talk about. Do join us, or read the book, or both.
Then do join us again a couple of weeks later for another book club special! At 6 pm on Monday 12 September 2022, we have barrister and broadcaster Hashi Mohamed, to talk about his book, A home of one’s own – his very personal take on the housing crisis, its causes and some possible solutions. Invitation here.
You can RSVP for the events on the clubhouse app via the links so as to be reminded when the event is starting, or just log in when the time comes
Simon Ricketts, 27 August 2022
Personal views, et cetera