City of London leader asks world what to build

Copyright David Lawson– first appeared Architects Journal Feb 1999

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A pre-emptive strike by the millennium bug has crashed the room-booking computer and mangled  the order for tea and biscuits. But the  wait provides  time  to contemplate a fine crop of tower cranes from Judith Mayhew's office, high over London's famous Old Bailey.

  They march across the skyline, raising multiple fingers to those who  predict the death of the City as a world financial centre as Britain remains outside European Monetary Union.

 But Mayhew, head of the City Corporation, is not complacent. She will be in Cannes again this month energetically selling the City to bankers and investors at MIPIM, the annual bash for the international property industry.

  Sales pitches are  not what you might expect from the head of a venerable institution that boasts a longer history  than Parliament and is indelibly linked in outsiders' minds to  Dick Whittington. She is no nursery-rhyme mayor, however. Like any local authority, the Lord Mayor wears the funny robes and the council leader does the business.

  And there is a lot of business. The City Corporation pulls in 400m pounds of rates a year and controls the most valuable square mile  in the world. It owns a good slice as well as controlling development.

 Mayhew has been in charge for a couple of years. 'I'm only just getting my feet under the table,' she says. Not that she has much time to sit at a table. Eighteen hour days are normal when she also has to also hold down a senior post  at solicitors Wilde Sapte.

  Much of that time is spent talking to the occupiers and developers generating those tower cranes. The Corporation has learned a lot since the last boom, when it leaned heavily towards conservation. It gained a reputation as anti-business, anti-development and antediluvian.

 Today, the pendulum has swung so far that Mayhew will be consulting at MIPIM  on the pending City development plan with  companies that are not yet in the UK, let alone London. 'We will be the first city to consult with the rest of the world about our future,' she says.

   Some critics point out that such eagerness is  a response to Canary Wharf sucking jobs out to Docklands. Mayhew dismisses this as yesterday's news. The high-profile battle between neighbours is over. 'They will provide the cheaper back-office space that we cannot,' she says.

  It helps, of course, that Lord Levine, former head of Canary Wharf, is the current City Lord Mayor, and is anything but a passive ceremonial figure.

 The ban on towers to rival the Docklands giant, intimated by the City's refusal to sanction  the planned Millennium Tower, is also inaccurate. 'The tower was out of scale and unsuitable in that location,' she says. 'But there might be others.'

  She repeats 'might'. It is not worth stirring up false  hope - or potential criticism. Building high is a problem in the web of sightlines protecting views of St Paul's. But it may not be impossible.

  This does not seem to have held back new building, however. Almost a million square feet was pre-let  in the first half of last year, a vital driver when speculative development is no longer viable. This move to pre-letting has immeasurably improved the quality of buildings, she says. Occupiers get involved early and specify much higher standards.

 Wilde Sapte's own building, a tribute to Stanhope's Stuart Lipton in his pomp, is a classic example of efficiency linked to good design.  'It's my favourite City building,' she says.

 This is why  Mayhew spends so much time talking to occupiers about what they want. The planning committee makes individual decisions but a lot of advance work is done  before plans ever reach this level.

 'There is no longer a typical  City building. Lawyers want something different from bankers,' she says.

    The rise in quality strengthens the City's hand in the real battle to attract business. The main threats come not from  Docklands but rival financial centres like New York and Tokyo. Frankfurt is also coming up on the rails to challenge as capital of Euroland. Mayhew is also a member of the London Development Partnership, which will become  a regional development body when the new mayor and assembly are formed.

 But this does not mean the   Corporation is being pushed into the background. Under Old Labour, its future looked bleak. Only 5000 people live in the City, and most votes are cast under ancient rights by partners in City firms. Everything could have disappeared through merger with a neighbouring borough under a new Greater London Authority and a mayor with draconian planning powers over  any building over 200 sq metres.

  Instead, the government has swung in the other direction, backing a private Bill to  extend business votes to companies. This  will turn all those foreign banks which have colonised the City into Mayhew's constituents, so the MIPIM consultations may not be as strange as they first seem. The London mayor's powers have also been whittled away.

   Cities have similar business districts in New Zealand, where she was born and educated, and Australia. Mayhew sees it as a vital  weapon  over rivals like New York, which is suffering because Manhattan has to compete with the overpowering demands of the rest of the metropolis.

  In the meantime, she remains confident  about raising a new crop of tower cranes. But she cannot relax. Transport is a vital factor influencing footloose financial giants, so the City continues to fight for Crossrail.

 'It is not as bad as some make out, though,' she says. 'Have you ever tried to get into New York from the airport?'