The City of London is preparing itself for a future with a more diverse make-up than just the financial institutions that have provided its bedrock in recent years.
That was one of the main sentiments to arise from The Square Mile – London’s CBD, a special On Location conference that took place at the Guildhall yesterday morning.
Chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee at the City of London Corporation Mark Boleat said that in order for the Square Mile to continue to flourish it needs the macro economy in the UK and beyond to perform well and for London to be an attractive place to do business. The capital is already a great place in which to live, he said, with its culture, sport, educational facilities and language, but in terms of the financial services the regulatory environment needs to be made more attractive and for visa policy to be reformed. London’s aviation policy, meanwhile said Boleat, was a ‘crushing indictment’ that needs swift answers. But the City was never about banking alone, with other sectors such as insurance and TMT proving to be major players. ‘Diversity in the City is important to us’, said Boleat. ‘It is an undoubtedly more attractive place than it was five years ago.’
Boleat added that planning initiatives had helped to bring in retail in areas like Cheapside, with extensive work on public realm and projects like the Bloomberg development near Cannon Street figuring as huge votes of confidence in London’s appeal to overseas firms.
Indeed, DTZ head of UK research Ben Burston said that the City attracted the highest amount of investment ever from foreign purchasers in 2012 - £5.9bn of the total £7.1bn – driven by its status as an international business centre and safe haven against the backdrop of Eurozone worries.
The City is continually evolving to meet these concerns, said GVA executive chairman Stephen Brown, but the City’s Peter Rees disagreed that it could afford to be less flexible about residential, for example because it lacks the kind of facilities to support new homeowners such as GPs and schools. What the City could do, however, is continue to create an appropriate new, 24 hour mix, said Rees, with nightclubs aiding the life of the City once the office workers go home. ‘It is important for London that the City is different’, said Rees.
British Land director, head of London leasing, Paul Burgess said that, increasingly, the City is an attractive proposition for insurance companies, pulled ever closer to the Lloyds building and surrounding areas. AON’s was another ‘tremendously positive’ move for the Square Mile, after it signed a pre-let at the Leadenhall Building or ‘Cheesegrater’. But the banks will not disappear, said Burgess, predicting that hedge funs and boutique banks might make a return to the City. For Burgess, Crossrail will be the single most important factor behind the City’s continued success, offering fast links to Heathrow for the first time.
The conference also heard about trends in workspace - latterly showing a move toward higher densities, but with some sectors and personnel still reticent about giving up their desks. The TMT sector is another key part of the City’s future, said Knight Frank head of commercial research James Roberts, driven by cheap office supply, improvement in City amenities and ‘a new sense of a cluster, with a growing momentum’. These firms’ priorities are primarily staff-related, but, said Exemplar co-founder Daniel Van Gelder co-founder, people don’t quite comprehend how diverse the TMT sector is – ranging from Shoreditch start-ups to massive multinationals like Nokia. As John Robertson of John Robertson Architects, pointed out, tech has expanded hugely, to the point where the banking sector is valued at £400bn, tech £500bn. ‘That gives you an idea where the current growth is’.
By David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly