City & Business: Lacking personnel

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I HAVE only once had dealings with a personnel director and have to confess to knowing little about what they do, so the following remarks perhaps deserve to be taken with a large pinch of salt. Most personnel directors, I'm sure, are nice, well-meaning, decent sorts, fulfilling a useful, possibly vital, corporate function. The popular image of them as petty empire builders interested only in regimenting the workforce and stifling initiative, flair and ability is presumably wholly unfair. But they have little if anything of value to say about the future of the City, judging by the 100 or so pages of self-serving management gobbledegook a group of them have just produced on the subject.

Entitled Winning People, this product of the strangely named London Human Resource Group is a litany of dire warnings: unless swift and radical action is taken - most of which seems to revolve around expanding the remit and powers of the City's personnel managers - London as a financial centre is doomed, destined to go the same way as British manufacturing. Hard decisions are necessary to weather 'the gathering storm'.

The City is already under siege and the Europeans on our shores, it goes on. London is only belatedly waking up to the fact that Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Milan and Madrid are mounting formidable challenges in financial services. With its competitive edge diminished, the City could drop within five years from being the premier centre to 'first among equals. After that, who knows?'. Who indeed? But certainly not this lot, who advance no plausible case for their doom-laden prophesies.

Of course the City shouldn't be complacent, but the only real believers in Paris and Frankfurt as serious contenders to be Europe's leading financial centre are their own publicity machines. Doomsters have been warning since time immemorial that London is about to lose its pre-eminent status, but it has always defied them.

One of the most remarkable things about the City over the past 15 years is that despite the globalisation of trading and the power of technology to switch business between centres - factors that would tend to diminish the City's importance - London has largely maintained if not improved its share of world markets. Investment bankers, continental as well as American, set up shop in the City because it has an infrastructure and critical mass far in advance of anything rival European cities can offer. Much as the French and Germans would love it to be otherwise, the language of securities and foreign exchange trading is English. The tax regime is also relatively benign and, last but not least, the British share with the Americans an affinity with markets that few on the Continent possess or understand.

But even if the rest of us don't go along with the personnel managers, there's one eminent City figure who apparently does: Lord Alexander of Weedon, chairman of National Westminster Bank. 'This report's recommendations deserve to be studied at the highest level in every institution,' he opines in a foreword to the book. Perhaps Lord Alexander's finely tuned legal mind has spotted something amid all the platitudes and business-school speak that the rest of us have missed. I wonder if he might let us in on the secret.