From the balcony at the top of City Hall, looking in the direction of Canary Wharf, it’s impossible to visualise the urban decay that once blighted miles of the River Thames. When the last of the docks closed in 1980, enormous swathes of derelict land stretched right into the heart of London, including where City Hall stands. Catch footage of Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965, and you’ll see the long-gone cranes that once lined the wharves on this bit of the riverfront bowing in respect as the coffin passed on the Thames.
Fast forward to the present and the City Hall is at the heart of a mix-use modern development known as More London that has transformed the stretch between Tower Bridge and London Bridge. But with the move of the Greater London Authority (GLA) to a new location in the Royal Docks now underway, it’s also the end of an important chapter for the city’s government.
The Norman Foster-designed building that has housed the Mayor and the London Assembly for two decades has gained several nicknames over the years – the glass testicle, glass gonad, car headlamp. The list goes on. Some say it is an iconic building, but they are usually people who haven’t worked in it.
It was trumpeted as a state-of-the-art building when it opened. But an advanced climate-monitoring system designed to be environmentally friendly never properly worked – it was either too hot inside or too cold and only just right for about one week a year. Any environmental benefit was easily outweighed by the electric fans used in the summer when it became unbearably hot. Air vents in the floor provided a perfect rodent superhighway – mice scuttling through meetings, including sittings in the Chamber, was a common sight. On one occasion a dead mouse was found in a drawer under someone’s desk.
Politicians at the time thought limiting the size of the building would constrain the size and power of the mayoralty: much was made of the GLA being a slim, strategic body compared to its behemoth of a predecessor, the Greater London Council. But the GLA grew quickly in size, fuelled by additional responsibilities devolved to the city. Way more people ended up being squashed into the building than it was designed to accommodate, putting pressure on facilities with toilets struggling to cope and the wait for lifts at the busiest times becoming ridiculous. Additional office space ended up being rented in other locations across the city to cope with the increased headcount.
It always felt as if the design and aesthetics trumped the practical functioning of the building. Positioning the front doors at the lowest point on More London saw the entrance awash with water when there was heavy rain. A third of the building’s floorspace was lost to a spiral staircase, which mimicked Norman Foster’s work at the Reichstag. But the stairs were rarely used because the noise echoed down into the chamber below, interrupting the Assembly’s proceedings.
Cleaning the windows of such an oddly shaped building became a monumental task, so they were invariably filthy and often leaked. The GLA had to use the biggest cherry picker in the western world to wash them.
More London is not a public space but privately owned by the Kuwaiti Sovereign Wealth Fund. It is policed pretty fiercely by private security and such were the rules that even the Mayor wasn’t able to do media interviews on the space immediately outside City Hall without being interrogated about his intentions. Those wishing to protest – a key plank of any democracy – also encountered obstacles.
Looking back, it was a major error that the Labour government of the time didn’t give the Mayor and Assembly a permanent home. Not many Londoners realise the GLA only rented City Hall and the 25-year lease was hardly a vote of confidence in its longevity. A few years back I was on a panel with Nick Raynsford, the now former Labour MP and minister for London who oversaw much of the legislation that created the mayoralty. I raised the issue of the institution not being gifted a permanent home when it was founded, but he was unapologetic.
There is a bit of me that is sad the institution is moving. A summer’s evening on the balcony around the top floor – the London Living Room space – is truly breathtaking. Plenty of dignitaries passing through the Mayor’s office have been wowed by the stunning backdrop of Tower Bridge.
But just as the old City Hall played a key regeneration role 20 years ago, the new one could do the same for the Royal Docks. Few Londoners know where the new location is and even fewer have been there. But in the years to come, assisted by the astonishing scale of development planned for the area, it will become a destination.
When the Elizabeth Line finally opens the mental geography of London will alter dramatically. The Royal Docks will be a matter of minutes from the City and the West End. And just as Whitehall uses moving officials out of London as a tool for levelling up different parts of the country, the relocation of City Hall could be key to London’s challenge of levelling up areas in the east of the city.
What will become of the old City Hall is still unknown. There have been moves to get it listed, but it will be hard to find a willing tenant without considerable work being done to the interior and maybe it will be pulled down. But demolition wouldn’t be up for discussion at all if, two decades ago, the city’s new layer of government had been given home to always call its own.
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