Sep 27, 2020

London’s burning. Who will douse the flames?

written by Lisa Eason

Who will save our beloved London? The great city has been laid low by Covid-19 and lockdown, and needs a hero to rescue it from devastation. Closed shops, desolate Tube stations, abandoned restaurants, empty theatres, deserted offices: a stroll across the capital can be a depressing experience. The energy, the activity, the purpose — all seems threatened. Those who come here to work, to love, to study, to discover art, history and culture, to make friends, to pursue their grand ambitions, to be entertained — their hopes and dreams lie in tatters at present.

Leadership is desperately needed to revive this vital engine of commerce and creativity, but it is sorely lacking. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is a man wholly unfit for high office even during normal times. Given the current crisis, his occupancy of City Hall is a travesty. He appears to be calling for more lockdowns, which devastate everything from our hospitals to our education.

London is being battered by an absence of tourists, an exodus of office workers, a flood of bankruptcies for retailers and hospitality operators, sharply rising unemployment — and Khan seems to be thinking mainly about the woke agenda. He and local councils are busy virtue signalling by introducing cycle lanes, while the city they are meant to be governing is metaphorically on fire.

If London is a ghost town, the City is facing oblivion. It is primarily composed of offices, which are under threat from the working-from-home movement. The commute into this tightly-packed area is miserable for many, so it’s not surprising that lots of employees of banks, brokers, fund managers, law firms, accountants, insurers and other companies are keen for their head offices to close. If this was to happen on a large scale, the Square Mile would die.

You would assume that this very serious problem would be exercising civic leaders. If it is, there is no sign of it. The area is ruled by the City of London Corporation, an archaic form of local government that has historically done an adequate job. In some form, this municipal authority has been going since the 12th century, and has generally been a champion of the financial services industry and the district. Yet since the coronavirus arrived and lockdown happened in March, there has been a deathly silence from the lord mayor, William Russell, and his endless aldermen, councilmen, sheriffs and their committees. I wonder if these somewhat obscure figures are even aware of the disaster impacting the City.

These grandees should be promoting the physical importance of the Square Mile and arguing against the mass WFH movement. They should be ensuring their staff are all back in their offices, setting an example to other City employers. Perhaps they don’t really care about the place they were appointed to represent. Possibly they are enjoying WFH in their comfortable suburban houses and gardens. Meanwhile, the place they run is experiencing a life-or-death struggle.

This matters economically and culturally. For banking, foreign exchange, broking, insurance, asset management, shipping and many professional services, the City remains one of two worldwide headquarters. If its attractiveness as a place to work diminishes — if its facilities and infrastructure wither from neglect — the country as a whole will suffer greatly. If a critical mass of key City workers stays put in the leafy outskirts of London, probably the international firms that employ them will realise that their offices could be based in other, lower-cost locations instead.

My workplace hasn’t been in the Square Mile for more than 30 years. I have no businesses that operate there, nor do I own any of its buildings. In that sense, I don’t have a dog in the fight. But British taxpayers in general do. London’s 87,000 highest-paid earners mostly work in the City and pay more than £20bn a year in income tax. London generates as much tax as the next 37 largest cities combined.

If the Square Mile withers, the damage to the country’s finances will be devastating. Long term, killing the City would do the opposite of protecting the NHS — it would starve it of funding. London is the economic engine that drives our way of life, and the City’s success lies at the heart of that.

The City works because it has a mix of offices, shops, eating places, cultural venues, educational establishments, transport hubs and the like. This ecosystem will rise or fall as one. The Corporation of London must fight for its future — or face accusations of a severe dereliction of duty.