Managing open spaces

Thursday 7 May 2020

Colin Buttery, Director of Open Spaces at the City of London Corporation, shares how his department responded to COVID-19 within the initial period of lockdown.

Surprisingly, the City of London Corporation looks after 11,000 acres of land. For a local authority (unlike no other) famous for its jurisdiction over the square mile, that’s a lot of green space.

Colin Buttery has responsibility for public spaces that include Hampstead Heath, Epping Forest and Burnham Beeches, as well as Kent and Surrey commons, West Ham Park and small open spaces within the square mile.

“It is a huge portfolio, mainly acquired through acts of Parliament in the 1870s and 1880s. Most spaces outside the City are managed by charities, which we oversee. Like all land and property owners, the COVID-19 lockdown has presented some challenging situations.

We have had to close all our public activities, like open water swimming at Hampstead Heath and the running track at Parliament Hill Fields. Park cafes, and all our sports activities, including formal team sports and tennis are shut.

Sadly, closures also include playgrounds, which we fought to keep open, but it was too difficult to ensure social distancing.

Along with the government, we have encouraged people not to spread the virus and stay at home, but access to outside space is important for mental and physical health.

Everyone needs to get out, especially those with no access to outside space. About 10,000 people live in the square mile. It is strangely quiet now and they must feel isolated. There are small open spaces they can go to and we know how valuable they are for residents, but they are pressured.

Managing sites

We have to ensure ongoing critical work at all our sites, to keep them clean, tidy and safe, while protecting staff.

Critical inspections like boiler safety, and fire and security alarms continue, plus security for buildings that contain valuable assets. We also continue to carry out normal work, like tree maintenance and public health & safety work.

We have mothballed sites as safely as possible. Non-critical inspections have stopped for closed facilities, but we have revised staff rotas to keep these sites safe. Inspections will become more important now we have moved into an extended lockdown.

Generally, the public is getting used to the restrictions. It’s a challenging time for everyone, including our employees. Our role is to engage with the public and explain the restrictions. Any further enforcement has to be done by the police. Sometimes just a uniformed presence makes people move on.

Ways of working

As a department we have changed our way of working dramatically.

We managed to get 50% of staff working from home a week before the lockdown started.

Employees are isolated at home working remotely and need support. Our team is geographically spread so we were already using video conferencing to stay in touch. We have seen the benefits of Microsoft Teams, Skype and Zoom.

Team meetings are the first thing that happen every day. The team daily briefing is well received, with some departments having 50 people online. It doesn’t allow a two-way conversation however, so we have smaller meetings of eight to ten people. These experiences will change future working.

Employees are only going to sites for critical work. Shift patterns are now staggered, and we avoid busy commuter times. Social distancing is important. We have split into two teams so only half the people are on duty at one time. We have closed mess rooms or arranged timed use or use of larger spaces. People are encouraged to have breaks on their own. We are conscious of the safety of staff doing work on the ground like litter picking and engaging with the public.

The City of London Corporation has decided not to furlough any directly employed staff. We are making use of this resource in a different way. We have identified project work and other services for people to work on. There’s a lot of administration. For instance, someone’s role may have been invoicing, now they are updating the website or printing signage.

We have asked people to volunteer within the City or with other London local authorities. If there is not enough to keep them busy for a week at a time they can transfer and volunteer within other areas of the work of the City of London, or other organisations.

Most employees have had sufficient work but as we move into the phase of doing critical work only, they may have time to do other things. We have established a hierarchy that starts with helping colleagues, then moving to other roles within the City of London Corporation, then to volunteer with partner organisations.”

Colin Buttery, Director of Open Spaces, City of London Corporation (            

This content reflects pandemic response before Simon Clarke MP’s letter to councils in England on 23 April, which recommends keeping open parks and other public spaces.

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