The new lord of London

Civil servant, banker and the man who saved Canary Wharf, Lord Levene now faces the challenge of standing up for the Square Mile

HE HAS been a highly successful businessman, banker and civil servant. Yet Lord Levene of Portsoken, who last week was appointed chairman of Bankers Trust International, says that if he had to live his life again, he would probably opt for a career in the military.

"It's so professional, so tremendously efficient," he says.

Lord Levene, ne Peter Levene, Lord Mayor in waiting, might have made a very good soldier. Although he comes across as warm and down-to-earth, he is also extremely businesslike and you get the impression he doesn't suffer fools gladly. Turning chaos into order has been the hallmark of most of a varied career that has swung from defence to property to banking.

For those who didn't know or have forgotten, Lord Levene was the man who turned around the fortunes of Canary Wharf in the early Nineties. At that time, the infant development was being savaged by the economic slump and poor transport links and was beginning to look like the biggest white elephant the country had ever known.

He was also the defence contractor who, in his words, turned "from poacher to gamekeeper" when the then Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Heseltine, called him in to become the Government's chief arms procurer in 1985. During the six years he was there, he turned the department round so that it was no longer seen as a "soft touch" for British arms contractors like British Aerospace who suddenly found themselves having to compete fiercely for tenders.

After an election that is essentially a formality, Lord Levene will become Lord Mayor at the end of the month. He will take over the post at an interesting time. It will be the last year before London elects a mayor to run the capital.

"Whoever gets the job will have a lot of other things to worry about, apart from the City, and not least transport. I would be surprised if whoever gets the job as mayor of London doesn't take the view towards the City that: `If it ain't broke don't fix it.' I just don't see a problem."

He says he wants to change the image of the Lord Mayor "as just a ceremonial figure riding around in his gold carriage at the Lord Mayor's show".

"Whilst the pomp and ceremony plays a role, it is really just the top dressing, like the State opening of Parliament. It is a serious job - to promote the financial services industry in this country around the world," he says.

His appointment as chairman of Bankers Trust, with responsibility for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, should help him keep his finger firmly on the pulse as well as giving him something to fall back on after his stint as Lord Mayor, which carries no remuneration. "In fact it will cost me quite a lot," he says.

It will also probably entail a lot of hard work. 1998 will be the most important year since the Big Bang for the City as the rest of continental Europe locks itself into the single currency. "It's very important to let the world know that even though Britain will not be a member, London remains the biggest international financial centre," he says.

The job at Bankers Trust, based in Broadgate, means Lord Levene will have to leave his current post as senior advisor at Merrill Lynch in Canary Wharf.

The City suspects the combination of new job and new post means he will promote the Square Mile at the expense of the new financial centre at Canary Wharf, which has landed most of the new headquarter construction projects for big banks like HSBC and Citibank.

Lord Levene dismisses the notion of any rivalry. "Of course the financial centre has always been the City and always will be. But if you didn't have all this new space available, what would happen? It's a question of supply and demand - the price of property would go up and up in the City until it reached such a level that international banks would start to question whether it was worth making their international headquarters here - in that sense Canary Wharf is a relief valve."

In fact, Lord Levene is one of the best friends Canary Wharf ever had. He joined the property company that runs it, Canary Wharf Ltd, after a stint as chairman of the Docklands Light Railway. At that time no one wanted to come to the almost empty tower on the little-known Isle of Dogs.

"The stories of company chairmen of large companies coming down to have a look and getting stuck in traffic and after an hour saying, `to hell with this - I never want to see the place again,' were absolutely true," says Lord Levene.

He managed to fill the empty office space, as one former aide put it, "by getting people to come and at least see the place".

Lord Levene is more modest. "By the time I came to Canary Wharf, the DLR was running and the Limehouse Link [an underground road to Canary Wharf] was built. The trouble was one of perception at that time. I came down to see what was wrong with it and decided nothing was."

He is equally enthusiastic about the development that is taking place around the Millennium Dome in Greenwich. Despite being head of defence procurement in Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government, and an advisor on efficiency and effectiveness to John Major, he says he was quite chuffed when the current Labour Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, asked him to become an advisor on transport links to the Dome, in particular the London Underground's Jubilee Line extension. Indeed he is careful to avoid having "a party label attached" and sits on the cross-party bench in the House of Lords.

Lord Levene has nevertheless come up against controversy in his time. When, aged 43, he left United Scientific - the publicly floated defence manufacturer he had headed since the age of 26 - to join the MoD, there were accusations (later judged unfounded by the Commons Defence Committee) of impropriety. His pounds 95,000 salary at the time caused resentment among other civil servants. "It was more than a Cabinet minister, but a lot less than the private sector," he says.

The Westland helicopter scandal - which led to Heseltine's resignation from Thatcher's government - blew up when Lord Levene was at the MoD. It was due more to "bureaucratic bungling" than anything else, he says.

For two years Lord Levene chaired the Nato committee of international arms procurers. "It was a very good lesson in international diplomacy."

Unlike many of his predecessors as Lord Mayor, Lord Levene is a Londoner. He was born in Pinner and grew up in Hendon before moving to his present home in Regent's Park.

He was educated at the City of London School at Blackfriars and used to take the Tube every day as a schoolboy. Apart from French, he also speaks Italian, German and some Hebrew and has a house on Sea Island off the coast of Georgia, in the US. Residents there will be sending a float to November's Lord Mayor's Show.

He recently became a grandfather for the first time. The proud father, his eldest son, works for Goldman Sachs in New York; his daughter, Nicole, is head of public relations for EuroDisney. His youngest son, Tim, 25, is showing entrepreneurial aspirations and plans to open a US-style juice bar business in Britain. "He wanted to start immediately with a chain but I advised him to start with one first." And where will that be? "Beneath the DLR station at Canary Wharf."

Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
peopleReports that Brand could stand for Mayor on an 'anti-politics' ticket
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
Voluminous silk drawers were worn by Queen Victoria
newsThe silk underwear is part of a growing trade in celebrity smalls
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
Candidates with surnames that start with an A have an electoral advantage
newsVoters are biased towards names with letters near start of alphabet
Arts and Entertainment
Isis with Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Compensation and Benefits Manager - Brentwood - Circa £60,000

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Compensation and Benefits Manager - Compensat...

Data Analyst/Planning and Performance – Surrey – Up to £35k

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

IT Systems Business Analyst - Watford - £28k + bonus + benefits

£24000 - £28000 per annum + bonus & benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Business Syste...

Markit EDM (CADIS) Developer

£50000 - £90000 per annum + benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Markit EDM (CA...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?