Along with some colleagues, I recently lent someone the money to buy a swimming pool. I can’t say precisely how much it will cost (commercial confidentiality, you understand), but suffice it to say they’re not going to be able to make a splash for much less than £6m. The money comes from something called the City’s Cash, and it is the private money of the City of London Corporation. Sort of like our North Sea oil account.
I say private money, but that’s debatable. Some say, myself included, that it’s actually money held in trust for the citizens of all London, starting with those in my ward. Our argument is that the Square Mile is not some independent city state, an offshore drilling platform for international capitalism, but an integral part of the United Kingdom, not to mention the 32 boroughs of our capital city. We should share the spoils.
That’s all very well, say the City Fathers, but the City has patiently built up this pot of money up over many years and doesn’t intend to lose control of it now. It comes from centuries-old taxes on food and fuel, from charitable bequests, from fees for citizenship and income from the enclosure of lands around the City. It’s actually an enormous slush fund, though obviously they don’t refer to it like that.
The City certainly uses it judiciously. It pays for some London parks and for its private schools (and their pools). Also, for lobbying: it is used it to pay a chap called the Remembrancer to promote the financial services in Westminster and to organise banquets in Guildhall and Mansion House for visiting heads of state and captains of industry. That way, we stay close to the levers of power. After all, if it weren’t for the contribution that the financial services make to our GDP we’d all be screwed. Or so the argument goes.
Anyway, this month, we are also using the City’s Cash to ensure that we can pay our lowest-paid workers a living wage – at least, where there is a shortfall in existing contracts. At the same council meeting where the City agreed to help one of its schools retain its aquatic pre-eminence, the leader of the council confirmed that the City of London is seeking accreditation for the City of London Corporation as a living wage employer.
This is good news and marks a milestone along the journey of this nationwide campaign. Only six years ago, the City refused to seek accreditation because of fears that, in doing so, it would lose its “traditional position of independence”. This was how the then chief executive put it in a letter to the local Labour party in 2008. Isn’t it interesting, given the results north of the border, how highly the City values its independence?
But now, as the first-ever Labour member of the Court of Common Council, I received an assurance that “an application to the Living Wage Foundation for accredited Living Wage employer status will be submitted by the end of this month”. And the world hasn’t come to an end.
Not yet, at least. Suddenly, there is renewed interest in the politics of self-determination and the governance of London itself. In a recent poll, we were told that one in five Londoners wants the capital to become “independent”. There is talk of devolving further powers to major British cities as we regenerate our ancient democracy. Maybe it is time to revisit the role of the City of London Corporation within the capital.
Already there is a new campaign group calling for the incorporation of the whole of London as a single united city. Among other things, this group is claiming that the City’s Cash belongs to all Londoners and not just the Square Mile. Codswallop! My colleagues in the City Corporation will certainly suggest they take a running jump. They might even provide a pool for them to do so.
this article first appeared in the Observer on 21 September 2014