London's political centre is moving east, as the Mayor and Assembly shift to the Royal Docks.
Welcome to the newly minted Kamal Chunchie Way. Named after a local race relations campaigner, the short road has only one inhabitant, but it's an important one. This is the new home of City Hall, the centre of London governance, and the office of the Mayor of London. After two months of delay, it's (just about) ready to roll.
The Mayor of London and the London Assembly (collectively the Greater London Authority, or GLA) are shifting downriver to the Royal Docks. They've looked out on the Thames and Tower Bridge for more than 20 years, from the distinctive Norman Foster-designed building — the one that looks like a fencing helmet or, in Ken Livingstone's opinion, a "glass testicle". No more.
Where is this new home?
In a dramatic shift east, City Hall is decamping to the Royal Docks, Newham. Specifically, it's moving in to The Crystal, a striking angular building that was formerly an exhibition centre for Siemens, and was later acquired by the GLA. If you've ever taken a ride on the cable car, then you will have seen it.
Why the move?
The shift to the Royal Docks was mooted in June 2020 and approved a few months later. It is, first and foremost, a cost-saving measure. The old building was under lease from the owners of the More London development. With its dream views of Tower Bridge and first-rate transport connections, City Hall One* was truly prime real estate. In other words, epic rent.
The Crystal, by contrast, is a lot less central. As it's already owned by the GLA, those rental costs immediately vanish. City Hall says it'll save £61 million over five years, which would help plug lost income over the pandemic period.
The move also has wider aspirations. The economic regeneration of the Royal Docks has been creaking along for years, with stops and starts but no convincing momentum. The presence of the Mayor, and the coming of Crossrail to Custom House, may help convince investors.
The new City Hall is also built to an award-winning environmental spec. That means running costs should be lower, but also gives the Mayor credibility when it comes to pushing green issues.
The move was partly triggered by the pandemic, but the timing also makes sense from a contractual point of view. The original lease on City Hall One was for 25 years, with a break clause at 20 years. That clause came into effect in December 2021. The stars aligned; the Crystal beckoned.
Was everyone happy?
While there is merit in the move, many voices of objection have also been raised. Not least at the cost. Shifting the machinery of administration downriver has swallowed an estimated £13.6 million, eating in to those short-term savings. The Crystal is also much smaller than City Hall One. It will mean more home working for many staff — but then the pandemic has shown that this can be manageable, and (for some) even desirable.
One other bone of contention is access to the site. City Hall One had a mainline train station and two tube lines on its doorstep, not to mention dozens of bus routes. Its successor has the cable car and a branch line of the DLR. The arrival of Crossrail should help in this respect. It's also a bit of a nightmare to cycle to, as highlighted in this Twitter thread started by Assembly Member Caroline Russell.
How'd the move go?
Decamping the entire local government in just 12 months, and during a pandemic, is pretty impressive. Still, the Crystal is not without flaws. The opening date was originally announced for November 2021, later revised to "early December" and then "before Christmas". Assembly Members who toured the Crystal in October described it as "like a building site". Which was fair, because it was, in fact, a building site.
Needless to say, the big day slipped into January. Staff have been working from home or offices on Union Street, Southwark during the office interregnum. Now, however, the doors are at least partly open, with staff coming and going. The Crystal still looks a bit Homebase, with protective tape on the windows, but that will soon change.
Is it just a fancy office building or is there anything for us Londoners there?
As with City Hall One, members of the public will be allowed to visit the building and watch the London Assembly in session. It's also likely that the building will put on small exhibitions and events, as in the past.
The wider area currently has much less going for it that the environs of City Hall One. Technically, the many restaurants, bars and cafes of North Greenwich and the O2 are just a few minutes away, but those minutes require a hop onto the cable car. Lovely though the trip can be, it's also pricey and often involves a bit of a queue.
Dining options closer to City Hall are relatively limited, and there's not even a Starbucks or Costa within easy reach. On the other hand, one can go cold water swimming in the dock, follow The Line art trail and have a bit of a punch up at Peacock's gym (who also do cheap coffee).
What'll happen to the old City Hall?
The building remains in the ownership of the Kuwaiti-owned St Martin's company, which presides over the whole More London development. The former City Hall is just one of many buildings in its portfolio.
No new occupant has yet been announced. Turning it into regular office space might be a little challenging. Much of the building is taken up by a purpose-built council chamber. Perhaps a tenant can be found that would need a large auditorium beside office desks but, if not, then some pretty serious interior renovations will be needed.
Either way, it's a landmark building in a landmark location, so it should find interest sooner rather than later. We hope they take the opportunity to update the grubby cladding, which has long detracted from the building.
*This isn't official nomenclature. I'm using it here just to make things super-clear. By the time I got to writing this footnote, I was already finding it a bit grating myself.