Beyond the City limits: The Square Mile's global reach

Mark Boleat is now London Corporation's policy chairman, a role that includes courting big business and dealing with protests. Mark Leftly reports
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The Independent Online

It wasn't exactly the close run thing of Boris Johnson's 3 per cent victory over Ken Livingstone for London mayor, but there was another vitally important election for the capital that took place on Thursday.

Mark Boleat was named the new chairman of the Corporation of London's policy and resources committee – a dull-sounding title at what is simplistically perceived to be a rather obscure, archaic local authority – at a little before 2pm.

Mr Johnson would have to wait nearly another day-and-a-half for his victory to be confirmed, but the City does things in a much more orderly, almost ceremonial fashion. There's no campaigning and the committee's deputy, which was the position that Mr Boleat previously held, is assumed, though not guaranteed, the top job.

The Channel Islander, who flies to Jersey twice a month to visit his nonagenarian parents, was elected unopposed. It is a shame that Mr Boleat's victory was so overshadowed, as his position is a powerful one.

He is effectively the chief executive to Lord Mayor David Wootton's leader of the council, while the Corporation is arguably more relevant than ever. The policy chief has to develop plans that support the financial services industry, as the Corporation looks to maintain London's status as the world's leading commercial centre in the aftermath of the global economic crisis.

This is a shame as the position is a powerful one, effectively the chief executive to Lord Mayor David Wootton's leader of the council, while the Corporation is arguably more relevant than ever. The policy chief has to develop plans that support the financial services industry, as the Corporation looks to maintain London's status as the world's leading commercial centre in the aftermath of the global economic crisis.

"You certainly wouldn't invent it if it didn't exist," says Mr Boleat as he sits in his office in, appropriately, the west wing of the centre of City government, the 701-year-old Guildhall. "This is not like being an elected mayor but we have no difficulty in getting access to the top."

Thought to be at least 1,000 years old, with firm evidence that it existed during Edward the Confessor's reign in the mid-11th century, the Corporation retains its influence as one of the capital's truly historic institutions. Over the centuries the City won a number of concessions from the Crown to run its own affairs, which the Corporation claims helped to establish the Parliamentary system the UK enjoys today.

Until 2006, the body was commonly referred to as the Corporation of London, but the name was formally changed to emphasise its role as the champion of the City. This also avoided any confusion with the capital's new mayoralty and assembly.

Arguably, the Labour government's London devolution made the Corporation seem less important, a small authority in a larger administration. While it is true that it has traditional local council responsibilities, such as keeping the streets clean and housing, it also looks after a strange ragbag of services and assets far beyond its boundaries.

Over the past millennium, the corporation has found itself looking after 10,900 acres of open space from Hampstead Heath in north London to Epping Forest on the Essex border and even the operation of the quarantine station at Heathrow Airport (see box).

But Mr Boleat sees the Corporation's modern responsibility as an international one. "We have a huge number of international businesses in the City and they could be somewhere else. That's partly promotion ... we facilitate a lot, host a large number of lunches, dinners, breakfasts."

Mr Boleat, who succeeds the globetrotting Stuart Fraser as policy chairman, refers often to the three main meals of the day and he has just enough padding to suggest that he enjoys a good luncheon.

Those great meals where politicians and heads of state are wined and dined take place across the Corporation's historic buildings, perhaps the most famous being the annual Lord Mayor's dinner for bankers and merchants at Mansion House. This is when the Chancellor gives the keynote speech detailing Treasury policy and the country's economic fortunes.

The Corporation doesn't just preserve classic architecture, as its role in recent years has been to push through the boom in City skyscrapers, such as Lord Foster's "gherkin" and Gerald Ronson's Heron Tower. "We could have been neanderthal about new buildings, but we've produced quality buildings," argues Mr Boleat.

There was certainly a need to freeup space, as City rents have, at times, been obstructively high. This was a major reason for the success of Canary Wharf; multinationals would rather be in the Square Mile, but the cost of locating a little further east is considerably less.

While other Corporation politicians have, privately at least, been scathing of the Wharf and perceived it as a threat to the City's dominance, Mr Boleat strikes a more conciliatory tone, admitting that "there is no way we could accommodate all what they've got" and so the Wharf helps to meet demand to be in London.

The Corporation's biggest headache of late has been the anti-capitalism Occupy movement, which pitched up next to St Paul's Cathedral for four and a half months. Eventually, the Corporation managed to secure legal approval to evict the protesters, having initially thwarted their attempts to take over Paternoster Square, where the London Stock Exchange is based.

As Mr Boleat was confirmed as the new policy chief on Thursday, climate change activists also took up positions around St Paul's to protest against a nearby energy conference that was due to include the chief executives of E.on UK and EDF. The City is an easy target in a time of high unemployment and virtually no wage growth.

It seems likely that under Mr Boleat's guidance, the Corporation will get tougher on protesters. He says the City "bent over backwards to be reasonable" with the Occupy movement and that Mr Fraser even went to St Paul's to join in debates with its members.

"We are in an era when there is more protest," concedes Mr Boleat, carefully. "But is occupying a great advert for Britain? Not really. Did they contribute to the intellectual debate? Not really."

The City's image is everything at the moment. The forthcoming Queen's Jubilee and London Olympics, if run well, could help entice more major firms to eventually relocate to the Square Mile.

To this end, the Corporation has offered some of its great halls for the use of heads of state who decide to come to London late when their athletes are in with a chance of winning medals.

"One ambassador from eastern Europe said his prime minister will be here, so we've arranged to meet for lunch," smiles Mr Boleat. "Because we want their businesses here."

Not the words of a typical local authority chief.

Not just commerce

Open spaces

The Corporation owns and runs 10,900 acres of parkland and open spaces, much of it far from the City, including Epping Forest, placed in its care in 1878.

Animal reception centre, Heathrow

The City is responsible for imported animals' welfare and preventing any diseases they might carry across Greater London. It operates Heathrow's quarantine centre 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Wholesale food markets

The UK's biggest inland fish market, Billingsgate, comes under City control. It also owns Leadenhall, Smithfield, and Spitalfields.

City academies

The Corporation sponsors three City academies, one of the flagship educational policies of the government of Tony Blair, above, in Islington, Hackney and Southwark.

Central criminal court, Old Bailey

The City built the criminal court in 1907 and it is the oldest of its type in the world. There was previously a prison on the site and executions also took place there, the last in 1902.