Interview: Howard Dawber, London’s new Deputy Mayor for Business

Interview: Howard Dawber, London’s new Deputy Mayor for Business

Howard Dawber has been in his job for only nine weeks, but his feet seem to be firmly under his desk. As an ex-strategy chief at Canary Wharf and erstwhile parliamentary candidate for a London seat, his working life has long been connected to activities at City Hall. Even so, becoming Deputy Mayor for Business is a culture change – one he appears to be enjoying. “I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by just what a good working relationship the Mayor’s office has got with the business community,” he says. “We are very much hand in hand.”

Dawber was up for interview first and foremost to highlight an assessment of the London Anchor Institutions’ Network (LAIN), a group of some of the capital’s largest public sector bodies, business groups, community organisations and trade unions originally brought together by Sadiq Khan and the cross-party London Councils during the pandemic on the London Recovery Board (since evolved into the London Partnership Board).

The board was what Dawber calls “effectively a pandemic emergency task force”. Its members joined forces to address problems they had in common, such as circulating information and preparing for employees’ return to places of work. Emerging from this, the LAIN, founded in 2021, seeks to continue pooling knowledge and collaborating, collectively focusing on getting underrepresented Londoners into good jobs, improving childcare provision, decarbonisation, buying goods and services from smaller London businesses and more.

“Regardless of politics, regardless of public or private sector, the big organisations in London are facing common challenges,” Dawber says. “We are working together on common goals. It’s become quite a powerful network.”

London organisations, of course, do business with others all over the country – Transport for London’s supply chains famously reach far and wide. Some types of supplier barely exist within even the M25, especially if the types of land they need can be used or sold more profitably than being, say, a yard for storing cranes. And public sector bodies have a legal obligation to get “best value” for public money, which means LAIN members can’t always favour London businesses.

But Dawber’s job is to help London so his remit includes helping smaller London firms get into shape to win contracts with larger organisations, from bigger businesses to boroughs. In his words, “I want to make sure they are capable of supplying members of the network, and that we give them the best possible chance to do so. That means actually sitting down with them and helping them to fill in all the documents. It can be very daunting to go into a public procurement process for the first time if you’re a small or medium-sized enterprise”.

For LAIN members, there are various advantages from making common cause. “Let’s say you’re a local council and want to do apprenticeships in financial administration. If you set up a programme yourself, you’re going to run maybe five or six people through it. But if you set it up jointly with four or five other councils or the NHS you can run 50 people through it, it’s a much bigger operation, you can advertise it better and get a better deal with the college to provide it”.

He takes pride that at the recent LAIN summit it was revealed that a five-year target of spending over £1 billion of procurement from local small and micros businesses being hit and far exceeded in just two years, reaching £1.75 billion. He adds to the list 4,000 apprenticeships and 2.1 million tonnes of carbon saved: “People are saving money and they’re achieving things together.” Processes have been streamlined and other efforts made to help small businesses pitch for orders with the Met or the Fire Brigade. “We think we can go a lot further,” he says. “Actually, we’re in the foothills of this.”

Dawber, 53, is the successor to Rajesh Agrawal, the India-born self-made businessman who had been in the job since Khan was first elected in 2016 and left in November to become Labour’s candidate for the Leicester East parliamentary seat. Manchester-born, but a student at King’s College, Dawber worked in public relations and as a policy adviser before joining the Canary Wharf Group in 2004.

He describes himself as a “serial social entrepreneur, normally by accident” as, intriguingly, “afflicted by historic motorboats” and as “interested in making things happen and often angry about injustice, incompetence and stupidity”. He contested the safe Conservative seat of Bexleyheath & Crayford for Labour in the 2010 general election, losing to David Evennett.

Dawber’s party affiliation has not changed and neither is it hidden when we speak. Part of a growing chorus warning against complacency – Labour London Assembly group leader Len Duvall is the latest to join it, with an article for LabourList – he remarks that “the Conservatives have given themselves every opportunity to win this by changing the electoral system, increasing spending limits, and bringing in Voter ID”.

He sees the feverish media focus on the next general election, thought likely to be later than the mayoral vote, as a further danger, increasing the likelihood of London voters not being even aware of the contest for City Hall. He doesn’t doubt that Conservative candidate Susan Hall he will get the core London Tory vote out, “So we need to get more out”.

Unsurprisingly, he praises Khan’s priorities for the capital’s economy: “The Mayor has a very clear double agenda. First, to make London very successful, the capital city of Planet Earth. At the same time, that’s hollow if we don’t bring everybody with us and make sure that everyone in our city has the chance to access economic opportunity, get a good job, get training and do well in life.”

Dawber the newcomer has been nothing if not out and about, attending a roundtable with the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association alongside Khan, visiting the Earl’s Court Development Company to hear about its masterplan for the area – the previous one, from a different developer, was strongly criticised by Candidate Khan in 2016 – and meeting, among others, Diana Beech, chief executive of London Higher, Ruth Duston, founder and chief executive of Primera, a key force behind London’s business improvement districts, and Geoff Symonds from Uber Boat by Thames Clippers.

It’s a busy job. He’ll hope to still have it after 2 May.

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