John Griffiths: The City of London can help tackle the capital’s great social challenges
A new influx of councilors has energized the ancient institution in its first 100 days in office
On 1 July 100 days had passed since the election in March of the new 125-strong Court of Common Council, the principal governing body of the City of London. Ever since former US President Franklin Roosevelt coined the term “the first hundred days” commentators and politicians (particularly progressive ones) have used this milestone as an opportunity to reflect on the extent to which an incoming administration, looking to break with the past, has managed to set out a “new deal”.
As a newly-elected Councilor to the City of London you are quickly struck by the dichotomy between continuity and change – how countervailing forces of conservatism and reform imbue the governance and politics of the Square Mile. That creative tension is reflected in the makeup of the Court. More than a third of its members are new. Younger and from more diverse backgrounds than many of their incumbent colleagues, the 2022 intake seems impatient for change.
They may have to wait. The City of London’s reputation for guarding tradition, the continuity of power and its symbiotic relationship with the Crown was proudly on display at the National Service of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. There followed a grand reception at Guildhall, the seat of the Council since its establishment to 1384, hosted by the current Lord Mayor of London who is the 693rd to hold the office.
Yet it is also almost 400 years since a former Dean of St Paul’s, the poet John Donne, penned the line which should be a constant reminder to the City of its responsibility to look and work beyond itself: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” And the last 100 days have provided several indications of the City’s intention to make fuller use of its assets – its convening power, its commercial expertise and unique heritage – to tackle the most pressing socio-economic challenges of today:
- The City’s Climate Action Strategy is an ambitious manifestation of the maxim “think global act local” combining international calls for action (this month sees the City harness its financial sector expertise in the interests of long-term social and environmental impact) whilst investing in practical measures which are essential if the Square Mile is to achieve net zero by 2040.
- The Square Mile is now home to five Business Improvement Districts. In April Fleet Street Quarter and the Eastern City BID joined already-established BIDs in Cheapside and Aldgate. With plans for a Culture Mile BID also in train, the City Corporation, a late adopter of the BID model, now sponsors the highest concentration of BIDs in the country. If we are to make the most of these place-based “public private partnerships”, the City must be sure of their accountability and of our “ask” of the business community, including its support for local charities and wider civil society to which some London BIDs pay only lip service.
- The publication in May of the 2022 Rich List, teasingly entitled Who’s Cleaning Up?, was a further reminder of the City’s global and local responsibilities, as well as of the power of business both to enhance and tarnish its reputation. With the cost of living crisis worsening London’s already-Victorian levels of inequality, it seems timely to reflect on the potential of civic philanthropy. Back in 2016, the London Fairness Commission called for “an exemplary social philanthropic effort at a city level to focus on the challenges facing London’s poorest citizens.” Six years on, and as we try to recover from the biggest disruption to civil society since World War II, the time is now for London’s leaders – in Town Halls, Guildhall and City Hall – to crystallize that “Peabody moment.”
- The City can be an example and the catalyst of more strategic civic philanthropy. As the sole trustee of Bridge House Estates (estd. 1097) whose funding arm, City Bridge Trust, is the capital’s largest charitable grant maker, the City of London Corporation is uniquely positioned to influence place-based giving. The Trust is considering to have had a good pandemic, co-designing and delivering the £50m London Community Response Fund. Its challenge now is to harness these experiences and sustain the required level of collaboration with other trust, statutory and private funders, in the interests of the capital’s long-term, post-pandemic recovery.
Returning to Roosevelt, his first 100 days marked the start of an unprecedented raft of public-policy interventions aimed at rebuilding depression-hit America. Ninety years on, we may not have hit quite such a low ebb here yet, but it is politicians like FDR, harnessing the values of tradition whilst embracing the necessity for change, who will succeed in enhancing the City’s place and role as a force for good.
John Griffiths is founder director of Rocket Science and a Councilor for the City Corporation’s Castle Baynard ward. Photographer from Guildhall London Twitter profile.
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