New London Architecture

Five Minutes With... Shaun Dawson

Monday 04 September 2023

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Shaun Dawson

Shaun Dawson

Chief Executive
Lee Valley Regional Park Authority

David Taylor catches up with Lee Valley Regional Park Authority chief executive Shaun Dawson on the opening of Waltham Forest’s new, FaulknerBrowns-designed Ice Centre, inspired by the 2012 Olympics experience.

David Taylor  
Hi, Sean. How are you doing? 
 
Shaun Dawson  
Yeah, good morning, David. All very well. Thank you.
 
David Taylor  
Great. Now, the last time we spoke, I was over with you, on site at the Hockey Centre, and we spoke about the construction of the new Ice Centre at Waltham Forest, which was nearing an end – and you've now opened it. Can you describe it and perhaps the effects it has had on the local community so far?
 
Shaun Dawson  
Yes. So: we opened on the 17th of June. Bright sunny day, just like today; a great day, after two years from demolition of the old, much beloved, former Ice Centre, which struggled on, you know, for 34 years. They've done a great job – it's very clearly something bigger, better, and more modern, obviously. So, we opened mid-June. And it was great to open just before the schools broke up for the summer, which meant we could get a lot of school usage in immediately, as soon as we opened – a very important target audience for us. So here we are, just a couple of months on, and we're very pleased with the footfall, with the level of interest, with diversity of use. It's been fantastic, already.

And I mean, just to remind ourselves of where we've come from to where we are, in terms of the offer: we had a much loved, but very basic recreational pad in the old Ice Centre, and that's pretty much it. And we've gone now to two Olympic sized ice rinks, plus, a high-tech gym, dance studio, community meeting rooms, and a very nice cafeteria, as well. So, it's obviously a significantly better offer. And that's on the back of what we saw as a significant demand, not only for ice skating, but the importance of having a community asset in this part of the park and in this part of East London as well.
 
David Taylor  
We should mention that it's been designed by FaulknerBrowns, and LDA Design landscape architects, who have presumably done a pretty good job on the scheme. How has it been received by the public? What's the feedback been like from the users, so far? Do you know?
 
Shaun Dawson  
Yes, and I've been popping down on a regular basis over the past few months to get those soundings myself, not just second hand. But, as you importantly just mentioned, the consultant team – the key consultants were of course the architects FaulknerBrowns, and the landscape architects as well, LDA, and the whole consultant team with Buckingham the builders, did a fabulous job. It was difficult navigating the pandemic, you know; we took the leap of faith, to procure. Towards the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of uncertainty. And that was uncertainty for everybody, not just ourselves; the client, the consultant team, and we worked through that splendid design. It's just a great collaborative effort, so it's important to note the great work of the consultant team. But in terms of feedback to date, I guess you'd expect at the very beginning to be bowled over; they should be about what is a fabulous facility. And then I guess, a couple of months in, you get then, the more, I guess, accurate feedback; the day to day operations. And there are bound to be teething problems. Of course, there are teething problems, but they are minor, I'm pleased to say. So, whether it's the elite skaters in there at the crack of dawn, making use of this vastly superior Olympic rink to train on. Or whether it's the school groups - I remember I was down there about a month ago or so, just before the schools broke up so it would have been towards the end of term. And around lunch time there was a constant procession of schools going in, schools going out, schools going in, schools going out, which was fantastic! It really was fantastic to see that, first hand. And then, of course, you've got the more community use on the rinks as well.

So, the sessions, we have two a day, morning and afternoon. And then it's just wonderful to encapsulate the local community in terms of age, ethnic diversity, gender. Of course, an important thing to note about ice skating is it is very popular with girls and women, in particular, as sport. In the old ice centre, I think something like over 60% of the usage came from girls and women. And so, again, good to see that, and I think it was only yesterday, or a couple of days ago, I wasn't on site, but I've just had some feedback; we had a Muslim women's group-only session on one of the rinks. And we could just make it a very discreet session. So: no men obviously on site, on the rink, but also they couldn't see in. Female instructors on the rink; over 100, just having a great time in a safe space for that community group. And this is what the centre can do. And it will obviously continue to do a lot more over the months and years ahead.

So those first impressions and the initial feedback have been extremely positive, I must say. But we'll keep working hard – we can't just sit back and just think the venue is going to do it all on its own. Working with Waltham Forest and other local authorities, the national governing body, you know, there's a lot of intervention that we need to do. There's a lot of funding we're putting into that intervention with Waltham Forest, in particular, to actually target certain audiences to help enable their use of the centre. And that's really, really important as well. There's a lot of work to do over the next months and years. But a couple of months in? Really, really pleased in terms of the community use dimension, but also the bottom line, which of course is important. We've had to borrow 30 million pounds to build this ice centre. No grants, no assistance other than from Waltham Forest; of course, they contributed a million...
David Taylor  
…No grants? No sports grants?
 
Shaun Dawson  
No, nothing. Absolutely nothing. I think it's fair to say these days, David, that the majority of lottery funding for sport, for example, goes into smaller schemes, multi-sport facility, but nothing of this magnitude anymore. It's unusual for major facilities, even community facilities of this nature, which have such a great impact in east London but don't get the support. So, the business model’s got to stack up. We borrowed the money; we've got to pay that back and the bottom line is to deliver, you know, the profit surplus to pay that back. And so far, it's looking positive.
 
David Taylor  
I mean, that's all the more extraordinary when you look at the fact that Waltham Forest has provided over a million quid in terms of community programs that benefit the community like the targeted crime prevention scheme; there's a mental health and wellbeing programme, and bio diversity awareness, an education programme – all sorts of things – that you would have thought that would have made it eligible for much more public money.
 
Shaun Dawson  
Yes. No, that's true. And I think we were surprised certainly that there wasn't the possibility of any contribution whatsoever. But what it did do, on the other hand, was really sharpen our thinking around the design and business model for the venue. Using space to its optimum. Working, obviously, with the design team, with community groups, coaches; making sure it works for all the different client audiences. So it certainly did that. And I think that helped in terms of the final design and getting that balance between the size of the venue, how different spaces are used alongside the budget, alongside the projected footfall, and surplus we can achieve, again, in the context of it being a community asset in East London. And when it comes to pricing policy, for example, we need to be very sensitive to the market we're serving. So there are lots of elements there to reconcile in order to deliver a viable proposition. The contractor that we've got on board, GLL, bid to operate the venue, and I guess we're confident that this will be the case, but their bid to operate the centre is pretty much what it's going to cost us to pay back the loan. So, in that sense, we're in a secure position but for the contractor, the operators, should I say, so far, so good. So it's delivering for all concerned.
 
David Taylor  
I was writing fairly recently about London's sporting prowess in terms of the facilities and venues it has. And I was struggling to think of many other world cities that can eclipse it really. Is that a belief you share? And also, do you think in that sense, if you do agree with that, that London in a way underplays its sporting excellence?
 
Shaun Dawson  
I think we're certainly right up there. And clearly, 2012 went a long way to provide an impetus; a springboard for that. And I think it's fair to say that the Ice Centre was very much inspired by the lessons we learned from the 2012 experience. We were intimately involved in the design, and business modelling and planning for three legacy venues. And that held us in very good stead when it came to getting the design right and business model right for the Ice Centre, and delivering this exceptional facility. But on the broader question you asked there, I think you've got, when you look at London with its interesting governance structures, in 33 London boroughs, and you've obviously got the GLA, an interesting tiered structure. But within those local authorities, there's a real appetite – not all of them, but a lot of them – a real appetite for delivering sports venues that are of a certain quality and standard for their local communities, and often beyond.

So you do have a lot of energy, a lot of experience. And as I said, a lot of lessons learned from recent major events, which again, helps. It is a real knowledge and skill base I think we've got in this country. And I think, yes, we are in a very strong position in that sense, when it comes to the offer, and being progressive in terms of design, in terms of business modelling, responding to the public funding constraints that there clearly are. And that's clearly driving more innovation, and energy around how you balance off commercial and community use. I mean, our mantra is, and has been for some time, is we're community-focused, but commercially driven. And those two can work hand in hand to deliver viable community-focused assets. That's not just unique to us. I think very much you find that more and more across the piece.

So I think that we do have a lot to be proud of. And perhaps we do hide our light under a bushel a bit sometimes. But I think, you know, it's us with the ice centre - there will be another organization with another great venue coming down the track. But yes, I think we've got plenty to celebrate.
 
David Taylor  
A couple more questions, because we're running up to time. First: have you skated on the ice in the centre yourself?
 
Shaun Dawson  
I haven't, I must be honest, I haven't. I can skate. I did with my young daughters 10 years ago. I'm a regular visitor to the old ice centre. And so, it's great for them to come back to the ice centre. But I will do. I will do. 

And actually, something I must mention is obviously the environmental story around the Ice Centre, if I may, briefly. So, 5% of the capital budget was spent on landscaping. And that's clearly in our DNA; landscape, biodiversity is what we do. But Waltham Forest again, were naturally very keen for a focus to be there and through the planning process. And it's just fabulous to see 35% biodiversity net gain on the back of this project. Now, bearing in mind regulations coming in later this year will stipulate 10% as a result of any development, you know, we've really knocked it out of the park. And just one thing: when I ask people who have visited the Ice Centre, 'What's your first impression?' Nine times out of 10 they mention the landscaping, not the building. Not the rinks themselves. It's that first impression; the landscape is really very, very impressive-looking. But more importantly, in terms of diversity of plant species, the number of trees, etc, it's delivering seriously in terms of the net gain. So I should have mentioned that earlier, but it’s important to do so.
 
David Taylor  
Brilliant.  So finally, just looking forward, what are your hopes for the World Championships in canoe and slalom, which I think are starting in a couple of weeks. What are your hopes for that?
 
Shaun Dawson  
Yes, I mean this is the 20th major international event we will have hosted across our three venues since the Games. So it's continuing in that vein; that, you know, these venues are world class and they continue to deliver, post Olympics.  So: 200 athletes, 30 nations; it'll be a fantastic outdoor event. It's one of the best man-made, white water venues in the world. And that's the International Federation saying that, not me, but very happy to echo that! And there'll be a great sort of jamboree of sport over that week, 19th to 24th of September. New disciplines coming on board with the kayak cross. If you can imagine BMX - there'll be four canoes lining up and going into the water from an elevated ramp, and then battling down the course. I mean, that's going to be really exciting. And an additional discipline as well. And there are plenty of tickets. So yeah, I'd encourage anybody from London, the Home Counties, to pop along. It'll be a fantastic week, it really will. And it just reminds us of what great sport – back to your earlier question – events are taking place in London on a regular basis.
 
David Taylor  
How many people go to these events? What's the capacity?
 
Shaun Dawson  
Well for the canoe slalom it'll be a few 1000 a day. That's the nature of the event, I guess, and the sport. But the great thing is, because it's a big site, you can walk around and there'll be various other activities, no doubt that will be put on by the event promoters. So it's just a great family event. This is just the nature of it – it's outdoors, and as I say it's a huge site, so there's lots that can be put on, and you can come along and we're offering tickets where you can pitch a tent and get your ticket as well. So, if people want to stay for a couple of days because it is on for six days, there's that opportunity as well. So no, really, really looking forward to it. It'll be a fabulous event. And of course, we've got great medal hopes. It is a sport we've done very well in over the last 20 or so years. So, yes, very excited, David.
 
David Taylor  
Excellent. Well, congratulations on both the water and the ice! And I hope I hope both things continue to make a big impact – more than just sport, I suppose. It is a much more community thing, isn't it, all of that?
 
Shaun Dawson  
No doubt about it. It's almost as if the sport is the catalyst for so, so much more? 
 
David Taylor  
Yeah, brilliant. Thanks for your time, Sean.
 
Shaun Dawson  
Thanks, David. All the best!
 
David Taylor  
Cheers! 


David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Shaun Dawson

Shaun Dawson

Chief Executive
Lee Valley Regional Park Authority



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