The City of London Corporation, governing the Square Mile, needs radical and urgent reform, according to a review by former Clerk to the House of Commons Robert Rogers, now Lord Lisvane.
The hard-hitting report, commissioned by the Corporation at the end of last year, concludes that concerns about slow decision-making in the Guildhall, poor accountability, ineffective political co-operation, secrecy and lack of diversity “have real force”.
The historic institution, with a Charter granted by William the Conqueror in 1067 and a recognisable structure. comprising Mayor, council and aldermen, in place since 1346, is lacking both in clear strategies – particularly in its role as “advocate and enabler” for the Square Mile – and in “corporate endeavour”, the report says.
Pressure on the administration from the Covid-19 pandemic, coupled with the onset of Brexit and wider global uncertainties affecting the City, are making the need for change urgent, the review goes on. Meanwhile, there has been no let up in periodic calls to abolish a body which functions as the area’s local authority yet, uniquely, allows Square Mile businesses as well a residents to vote in elections and puts private funds and Lord Mayoral pageantry at the service of the financial district.
And the Guildhall, now the hub for services and facilities extending beyond the Square Mile to include Hampstead Heath, Epping Forest, five Thames bridges and a dozen sponsored or co-sponsored schools, is in danger of being its own worst enemy, the report suggests.
“The Corporation’s aspiration of pursuing excellence in so many fields needs to be matched by its standards of governance,” Lord Lisvane writes. “If it can be portrayed as inefficient, lacking diversity, transparency, and good modern governance, then it is already on the back foot, and potentially vulnerable.”
The report recommends taking the axe to a wide swathe of Guildhall committees and updating its recruitment processes. It describes Corporation decision-making as complex, slow and “sclerotic”, with some 130 committees, sub-committees and working parties, and “opaque” allocation of committee places.
The Corporation’s policy and resources committee, already seen as in effect a cabinet under chair Catherine McGuiness – who is now a prominent figure across London governance as a whole – should be streamlined and take a clearer leadership role, the report recommends, while a new “Competitiveness Committee” should spearhead support for the City as a global financial centre.
The report also takes a swipe at the Corporation’s arrangements for overseeing members’ conduct, recommending a fully independent complaints process, and highlights councillors’ lack of diversity. It has just 26% female and 7% black and minority ethnic members, compared to 34% and 28% respectively in the Square Mile community.
More independence is also recommended for the governing bodies of the Barbican arts centre, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the private City of London boys and girls schools and the City of London Freeman’s school, all owned by the Corporation.
But, in what he recognises “may be a disappointment to some”, Lord Lisvane holds back from recommending changes to the voting arrangements in the Square Mile, whereby businesses appoint electors in proportion to their number of employees. This results in an electorate of some 20,000, comprising one third residents and two thirds business voters.
A hundred councillors and 25 Aldermen are elected in 25 wards, running predominantly as “independents”, with the 7,400 residents of the City concentrated in just four wards: Portsoken, Queenhithe, Aldersgate and Cripplegate. Ward electorates range from 237 voters to 3,031. In the most recent elections, held in 2017, 144 candidates contested the 100 seats, with 26 candidates returned unopposed.
Although Lord Lisvane recognises criticisms of the system, ranging from “in principle” objections to businesses appointing voters to “old boy network” concerns, he shies away from a recommendation that would require Parliamentary approval, while noting that his proposals for axing Guildhall committees could lead to “significantly fewer” councillors.
The Corporation is now considering an autumn timetable for discussing the report. “Lord Lisvane’s independent report is detailed and contains more than 90 specific recommendations, together with wider commentary and analysis,” a spokesperson said. “These recommendations are far-reaching and wide-ranging. It is now for elected Members to consider how far they are appropriate and which should be taken forward.”
Next year’s Corporation elections are set to be postponed to March 2022, amid concerns about businesses’ preparedness for the ballot. The Corporation had agreed targets for 30% of candidates to be women and 15% from an ethnic minority, and the elections are also likely to see a further weakening of the tradition of candidates standing as independents.
Labour began running candidates in 2009 and now holds six seats. Doing away with the Corporation was a staple of Labour manifestos before 1997, and as recently as 2016 Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell urged Sadiq Khan as mayoral candidate to back abolition.
Khan’s response – that the Corporation was “London’s bedrock” and any suggestion it should be abolished was “ridiculous and clearly not in the interests of London” – set a different tone. However, Lord Lisvane concludes that reform, if only to stave off “legislative yearnings” and outside urges to “do something about the City”, is long overdue.
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