All organisations need someone to run their buildings for them. Even the people whose job it is to run entire cities need someone to run their own offices. That’s why, while Boris Johnson manages London, Simon Grinter, head of facilities management for the Greater London Authority, manages City Hall. He talks to Charlie Kortens about his experiences.
Grinter took up his role in March 2000, two months before Ken Livingstone was elected London’s first Mayor. The Greater London Authority (GLA) was barely in its infancy and among Grinter’s first duties was managing the move into the new, purpose-built City Hall. Now over a decade old the building sits opposite the Tower of London, looking more than a little like a giant alien head abandoned next to the Thames.
With the GLA still not fully functional, The Government Office for London was the project sponsor, and Foster and Partners the architects, of a plan that has seen Tooley Street regenerated from a no-go zone to one of London’s busier business districts in a little over a decade.
In June 2002 staff were moved into the new building, which is held on a 25- year lease, unlike the devolved government offices in Scotland and Wales, which are owned outright. Grinter personally designed the FM structure, deciding how services would be provided, using a mixed model of in-house services and outsourced packages. In 2009 he took over responsibility for Parliament and Trafalgar squares in addition to City Hall.
Much of Grinter’s role would be familiar to every FM. But there are areas that are unique to City Hall…
Every four years London goes to the polls to elect a new Mayor and Assembly, and in the process, turns Grinter’s world upside down. In the pre-election period the policy-making aspects of the GLA take a back seat but activity is ramped up for those involved in organising the elections.
The vote takes place on a Thursday and the winner is announced on Friday night, with the FM team ensuring that everything runs smoothly. City Hall is closed to the public and all non-essential staff. The right people have to be brought on stage at the right time so the returning officer can announce the results that have come in from three count centres across London. Speeches are made, with everyone from the British National Party, UK Independence Party and Green Party to the Liberal Democrats, Labour, Conservatives and independents having their say. Tensions can sometimes run high, especially from disappointed candidates and their staff, and everyone has to be kept warm, safe and fed. All this can take until 1am and then Grinter and his team grab what sleep they can before being back in the office by 8.30am to welcome the new mayor to City Hall. Even getting him into the building can be a diplomatic tightrope. In the wake of his election in 2008 Boris Johnson was being welcomed into the building as previous incumbent Ken Livingstone was assisted out.
If a new Mayor takes the helm, then they will naturally have ideas on how they want things done, how they want the building to operate and a whole host of other what nots and this and thats. It’s the FM team which has to make the necessary changes as soon as possible.
All of this adds up to a pretty hectic week, but it does roll around only once every four years. Grinter has to deal with his public squares all year round. Under the GLA act the mayor has a duty to cleanse, maintain and light the squares as well as enabling public access and allowing people to express their views. In practice these last two can involve any number of things, from GLA run events such as Chinese New Year or St. Patrick’s Day, to commercial events including fashion, film shoots and political rallies and demonstrations.
Many marches and protests are moved into Trafalgar Square by the police because of traffic issues, and many smaller, political protests take place in Parliament Square so those involved can be in sight of the seat of Government.
One of the biggest challenges Grinter and his team have faced since taking over responsibility for the squares has been dealing with the protestors camping in Parliament Square. The space is intended to be public, available to everyone for enjoyment or demonstration. What was actually happening was that the area was continually occupied by the same protest groups who pitched tents. With no sanitation available, the area became hazardous, rodents also presented an issue and the tents and associated waste were a fire hazard. Unsurprisingly this was frightening away many people from a national square adjacent to one of the world’s most famous heritage sights.
“Obviously this situation being allowed to continue was inconceivable and so, with political support we set about removing these protest camps, believing that it would be a quick and easy task to accomplish,” he explains. “It would end up taking over six months and ten high court cases.”
“I had to appear before the Master of Rolls twice and spent several days in the witness box, this was my first ever appearance in a courtroom,” says Grinter. Victory was finally achieved when a clause was included in the Police and Social Reform Act 2011 prohibiting camping with tents on Parliament Square. City Hall’s will to enforce this was tested several times early on, but after tents were seized from would-be campers by the FM team’s heritage wardens there has been little attempt to camp on the square.