I have worked in the City of London for nearly a quarter of a century and if you walk round the Square Mile on any day of the working week you will find it teeming with life and bustling with activity. Office workers and traders, builders and merchants, stall holders and shop keepers, tourists and those passing through on their way to somewhere else. Here too you can find vibrant religious and artistic activities, cultural centres. The livery companies are great hubs of charitable activity. The Inns of Court and the Old Bailey reminds you that the City is the nation’s legal centre. The newspapers of Fleet Street have long gone. The Tower of London, containing as it does the soon to be used Crown Jewels, asserts this place to be the heart of the kingdom.
At weekends, when you would think the place would be shut down, there are a surprising number of visitors and activity. Next weekend, for example, is the annual Lord Mayors Show – always a spectacular sight. Amidst all this there is the resident community, those who live in the City and who call it home. Ever since Roman times the vibrancy of the City has been a bell-weather for the health of the economy and a good barometer writ large of what is happening to our towns and cities.
Not all is as well as it seems though. The streets are not as bustling as they were. The churches are not as well attended. There are more “to let” signs hanging over vacant office and shop space. For many the working week has changed from five days in the office to two or three. The story in the City is similar to the one in towns and cities up and down the country. The pandemic did not cause this trend but it has speeded it up. Well before the virus struck Canary Wharf was sucking business out to the east, and the hedge and private equity funds had moved over to the West End. Brexit has done its bit to weaken the City’s place as a good place to do business and the “levelling up agenda” means politicians look more favourably on businesses who move staff out of Town.
In the midst of all this the Corporation of London, the Square Mile’s governing body, has responded in two ways. Firstly, it has given approval to a whole series of skyline altering skyscrapers, adding tens of thousands of metres of empty office space as well as spoiling the sense of the City as an intimate and human place to be. Secondly, it has resolutely insisted on the City as a place to work at the expense of being a place to live. Like Canute trying to turn the tide back, the City grandees who run the place are trying to resist an inevitable turn of history’s wheel. Until quite recent times the City was a popular place to live as well as to work. A healthy and vibrant future for the Square Mile means it would be better if the authorities embraced that fact sooner rather than later, rather than just sticking their heads in the sand. It’s a similar story up the river in Westminster.
In 10 days time, Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, will present his Autumn Statement. He must do enough to reassure the markets but not so much that he causes unnecessary hardship. The economy has yet to adjust to the post-Brexit world and it is still reeling from the aftershocks of the pandemic. Political rhetoric and thinking at Westminster has yet to catch up with the real economy. The Chancellor will do what he judges necessary to pacify the people who work in the trading floors of the City but it is the effect it will have on its residents, and their families and friends up and down the country, who will determine the future of the Chancellor.