Sadiq Khan’s controversial cost-cutting plan to move City Hall east to the Royal Docks is running into opposition from a key constituency – the GLA’s London Assembly Members.
Issues raised at the Assembly’s oversight committee meeting yesterday included the layout of City Hall’s proposed new Crystal building home – currently a conference and exhibition centre – its capacity and accessibility, costings, planning risks, the failure to consider alternatives and, not least, the impact on the status of London government of a move from Zone 1.
“There are serious concerns,” Assembly chair Navin Shah told City Hall chief officer Mary Harpley. Conservative Assembly group leader Susan Hall was more forthright: “We are not sure how much it is going to cost, not sure how many people we can get in there, not sure whether we will get planning permission,” she said. “It’s all a bit Heath Robinson,” added her Tory colleague Keith Prince.
But Harpley told the committee that the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic – on City Hall budgets as well as on working life – had ruled out longer consultation and lengthier consideration of alternatives.
With a Christmas Eve deadline for taking advantage of a break clause in the 25-year lease on the Norman Foster-designed City Hall, negotiated by the government in 2001, a September decision was needed to give enough time to secure change-of-use planning permission and adapt the new building, Harpley said.
Triggering the break clause had not been considered earlier – which would have given more time to look for alternative sites – because the “received wisdom up until May was that we were spilling out of City Hall and potentially needing more space not less”, she added. “But now, the world has changed. We can operate on a much smaller footprint than we currently do.”
Harpley said the forecast £490 million of cuts to mayoral budgets this year and next as a result of extra costs due to the pandemic and shortfalls in Council Tax and Business Rate income, meant restricting the authority’s house-hunting to buildings it already owned or leased.
That ruled out a move back to County Hall, the historic home of GLA forerunner the Greater London Council, across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament, as suggested by some AMs: “We just don’t get the scale of savings we need by moving to another building nearby that we pay rent on.”
The net saving from the move was the equivalent of 100 City Hall jobs, while not upping sticks would mean cuts to mayoral programmes and staffing. And bringing the new site into civic use would have regeneration benefits similar to the impact of the original City Hall, she added. “It will do for the docks what City Hall did for the Tower Bridge area 20 years ago,” Harpley said.
Assembly Members seemed unconvinced, however. “The seat of London government should be accessible to all Londoners”, said Ealing & Hillingdon AM Onkar Sahota. The Docklands already has a high profile, with developments well underway, said his Labour colleague Unmesh Desai, whose City & East constituency includes the area. It was “astonishing”, he added, that there had been no assessment of Londoners’ views on the proposed move.
The Crystal would be served by the new Custom House station on the Elizabeth Line, due to open next year, said Rickardo Hyatt, City Hall deputy director of housing – to some scepticism given the uncertainty about completion of the Crossrail proejct.
It was left to Tory member Andrew Boff to find some positives in the proposal. “It is a wonderful place we may be moving to,” he said. “Is it more important to have a view of the past or of the future?”
Will the move actually happen? “Constructive” discussions had been held with City Hall’s landlords, said Harpley, though no revised offer on the rent had been made.
And City Hall itself, if the GLA moves out? The design of the building is striking, but it has been criticised for everything from its energy consumption to the difficulty of cleaning its windows. And it is not a listed building.
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