The rotten borough of the City of London needs to be dragged into the 21st century

The City of London, the rotten borough at the heart of our capital, is not going to reform on its own - we need to make it reform, writes Jenny Jones AM.

By Jenny Jones AM, leader of the Green Party on the London Assembly

As the year 2000 approached, London was worrying about the Y2K bug, looking forward to the fireworks on the Thames, and listening to Westlife’s “I Have a Dream” (that year’s No 1 Christmas single). It was also preparing to once again have a citywide government, the Greater London Authority, after 14 years of being the only major global capital without overall political representatives.

Well, almost citywide. As in previous versions of city government, there was a curious small but very powerful hole in the centre of the metropolis – the City of London.

The Green Party was working to elect representatives on the London Assembly, and it was very aware of this oddity.

Our manifesto said of the City:

“If it fails to democratise itself and share its wealth with the rest of London, it should be abolished as a separate local government unit.”

A dozen years on, a lot has changed in London, and the world. We’ve seen three sets of London elections and next year are heading for our fourth, two different mayors, and we’re now preparing to be Olympic hosts.

Nationally, we’ve seen 13 years of a Labour government, during which inequality in Britain actually increased, under the influence of the attitude of being “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. Now we’re back with a Tory-led government, while more than 50% of the Conservative party’s donations have come from the finance industry.

And it is planning many changes to build on the Labour government’s City welfare policy, from cutting corporation tax from 28 per cent to 23 per cent by 2014 for companies of profits more than £1.5m to reducing the tax rate to 5.75 per cent on the treasury functions of large corporations in tax havens, while opposing a Europe-wide “Robin Hood” financial transaction tax.

All of this after we’ve seen a global economic crash that saw the UK government forced to pledge 101% of GDP to support the banking sector* – more than a year’s national income of corporate welfare.

It would seem that welfare provision for the financial sector has no bounds, and as the OccupyLSX protesters have been highlighting, that privileged place of the Corporation of the City of London, free from many of the controls and democratic norms that apply to the rest of London, and the UK, has a lot to do with that state of affairs.

For the City of London is an oligarchic haven at the heart of the city of London. The Square Mile’s “government” is elected, certainly, but the City’s residents have 9,000 votes (one each), and the mostly financial corporations that have their offices there have 32,0000 (a number raised under Tony Blair).

We can’t know about a lot what the City of London does, for most of its activities are explicitly excluded from Freedom of Information legislation.

And we don’t know, for that reason, exactly how much wealth the City holds in its own right. We do know that there’s a fund called the City Cash, built up over eight centuries, and believed to hold large areas of land in the West End, New York, Sydney and Hong Kong. Conservative estimates put its income at more than £100 million a year.

But we don’t know how it uses that wealth; those Freedom of Information rules again.

What we do know is that beyond that financial muscle the City is also well placed under Britain’s constitution to lobby to maintain its undemocratic position. The prime minister has to meet it within 10 days, if asked. (The Queen only has a week.)

And at the heart of the House of Commons, seated just behind the speaker and roaming the corridors of power as Bills are drawn up and regulations developed, is a special representative of the City of London – the City Remembrancer. The charities who represent the poorest and most vulnerable in our community don’t have anything like this access. The unions, the local councils, the environmental groups don’t have this access.

And the manufacturing industries of Britain, which have suffered so much from government policies over the past dozen years, don’t have this access. Only the financial industries do.

So taking stock after that even dozen years, it is clear that the City of London has done nothing to reform itself, to open its books, to reform its elections or to work for the good of the city of London of which it should be a part. This rotten borough is not going to reform on its own. We need to make it reform.

This is not just, or even mainly, an issue for London. We are never going to rebalance the national economy, or rebalance the payment of welfare away from corporate fat cats to the people who really need the money, until this is sorted out.

See also:

How we sold off the right to protest to the one per centAlex Hern, November 3rd 2011

On the Financial Transaction Tax, why is Osborne on the side of the one per cent?Shamik Das, November 2nd 2011

The movement to evict Occupy London gains paceAlex Hern, October 31st 2011

The privatisation of public space is harming our ability to protestAlex Hern, October 30th 2011

Osborne increasingly isolated on Financial Transactions TaxOwen Tudor, September 19th 2011

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13 Responses to “The rotten borough of the City of London needs to be dragged into the 21st century”

  1. Daniel Elton

    @RupertRead: @GreenJennyJones on @leftfootfwd at bring the city of London under democratic control: #occupylsx

  2. Political Planet

    The rotten borough of the City of London needs to be dragged into the 21st century: The City of London, the rott…

  3. FlashInvader

    The rotten borough of the City of London needs to be dragged into the 21st century: The City of London, the rott…

  4. wyrd sis

    @RupertRead: @GreenJennyJones on @leftfootfwd at bring the city of London under democratic control: #occupylsx

  5. Daniel Elton

    @CarolineLucas @highburyonfoot: @GreenJennyJones on bringing the city under democratic control on @leftfootfwd:

  6. Alex Braithwaite

    RT @leftfootfwd: The rotten borough of the City of London needs to be dragged into the 21st century

  7. Andrew Roche

    Just read: The rotten borough of the City of London needs to be dragged into the 21st century

  8. Michael

    The rotten borough of the City of London needs to be dragged into the 21st century l Left Foot Forward –

  9. Darren Johnson

    The rotten borough of the City of London needs to be dragged into the 21st century @leftfootforward #occupyLSX

  10. Aaaaargh!

    RT @leftfootfwd: The rotten borough of the City of London needs to be dragged into the 21st century @OccupyLSX

  11. Bill Ellson

    The Greater London Authority Act 1999 that established the office of Mayor of London, the London Assembly, Transport for London etc. does not distinguish between the City of London and the rest of Greater London. Indeed the preamble to the Act includes the following line “to make provision in relation to London borough councils and the Common Council of the City of London with respect to matters consequential on the establishment of the Greater London Authority;”.

    Furthermore as a member of the London Assembly for over eleven years, surely Ms Jones has noticed that members ask questions and get answers in respect of matters relating to the City in the same way as anywhere else in London. The concerns raised by Ms Jones’s fellow Green Party London Assembly member
    Darren Johnson regarding the so-called London River Park are a good example of this in practice.

    In the light of the above Ms Jones cannot possibly honestly believe that what she says about “…a curious small but very powerful hole…” has any factual basis.

    Turning to the manifesto quote, it has to be remembered that the City Corporation is not a local authority, but a unique body that has been given, by Parliament, local authority powers and responsibilities. If City residents were unhappy with such arrangements then they would probably be changed.

    In the next four paragraphs Ms Jones clumsily tries to conflate the the City, as in the place and the Corporation that administers it, with City, as in journalistic shorthand for UK financial industries.

    Ms Jones then asserts that the City is “free from many of the controls.. ..that apply to the rest of London”, but fails to give any examples. The reason why she fails to give a single example is because her assertion is simply untrue.

    In the next paragraph Ms Jones claims that corporations have 32,0000(sic). I presume she means 32,000. A couple of minutes on Google would have led Ms Jones to the City’s business voting FAQs where it is clear that businesses (including pubs, sweetshops, hospitals and churches etc.) can appoint voters, none of whom can cast more than one vote. Voting is by secret ballot, the same as anywhere else. So yet again Ms Jones is simply wrong. The City of London (Ward Elections) Act 2002 was enacted when Tony Blair was prime minister, but the inference of the prime minister of the day choosing which local and private acts Parliament passes is absurd. There were only two petitions against the Bill and the report of the select committee that considered it, and the Corporation’s draft guidance for selecting business voters can be found here Again, if City residents were unhappy with such arrangements then they would probably be changed.

    There are no exemptions from Freedom of Information legislation for the City. In common with the Sub-Treasurer of the Inner Temple and the Under-Treasurer of the Middle Temple Freedom of Information legislation only applies in regard of their ‘public authority’ functions. Anybody who regularly makes
    information requests knows that the City Corporation is one of a tiny handful of organisations that comply with the statutory requirement to respond ‘promptly’ to such requests.

    In regard to the City Cash, why should we know how much wealth the City has anymore than we should know how much Ms Jones has in her bank account. At the heart of this issue is a fundamental mis-understanding of what sort of body the City Corporation is. It is part private, part charity but mainly simply the Corporation. The City Cash is its private funds and as such benefits from the right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights the same as any natural person or corporation. (Companies with shareholders or guarantors have to publish accounts as a means of protecting said shareholders etc.)

    As to the City’s land ownership, an unforeseen effect of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 was that the land registry had to allow the general public to conduct Index of Proprietor’s Names searches on Corporations from the middle of 2005. (Such searches could previously only be conducted by police, insolvency practitioners or tax inspectors etc.) Anybody can fill out a Form PN1 and send it with a cheque for £12 and within a couple of days have a list of the title numbers of every property owned by the City Corporation. Entering the title number into the Land Registry’s online Find-a-Property database then gives you the postal address of the property. Not such a big secret.

    Ms Jones asserts that the prime minister and the Queen have to meet the city within ten and seven days respectively, if requested. This assertion appears on Green Party websites the length and breadth of the country, but nowhere is it supported by even the slimmest shred of evidence. Does Ms Jones have any
    evidence to support what she claims?

    Ms Jones then claims that the City Rememberencer has a seat in the House of Commons. The rememberencer no more ‘sits’ in the House of Commons than newspaper sketch writers or members of the public who queue up ‘sit’ in the Commons. The Child Poverty Action Group , unions such as UNISON , the Local Government Association and environmental groups such as Greenpeace all take pride in their lobbying and it is insulting of Ms Jones to imply that they do not bother.

    As for rebalancing the economy Ms Jones and I both took part in the Examination in Public of the London Plan back in 2003. It was, as she ought to recall, not the Government, the Conservative Party or the City Corporation of London, but Ken Livingstone and his planners who insisted that financial industries were the only show in time.

    Taking stock, either Jenny Jones has completely lost the plot or she has allowed a sloppy piece of writing by an enthusiastic, but not particularly bright, party worker to go into the public domain with her name on it.

  12. Sam

    This article talking of ‘hidden cash’ and lack of FoI abililty is inaccurate.
    It fails to mention that the City works in a number of roles – all seprerate. Two of these are as a local authority, which is answerable to FoIs just like any other authority and the City of London CORPORATION. Exactly what it says on the tin – a CORPORATION, not answerable to FoIs.

  13. Bill Ellson

    City of London: @GreenJennyJones completely loses the plot Do scroll down and read my comments.

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