Published: 29 April, 2016
by DAN CARRIER
IT was a passionate intervention and the question was telling. The woman stood up in a hall full of people and addressed a panel made up of councillors, campaigners, MP Keir Starmer, the chairwoman of the Hampstead Heath management committee and the City of London’s director of green spaces.
The voice from the floor asked: “Why can’t we just vote them out?”
There was a studied silence for the first time in what had been an angry public meeting to discuss the future of cafés on Hampstead Heath. Then came the reply.
“I’m afraid it doesn’t quite work like that,” said Gospel Oak Labour councillor Sally Gimson.
How it does work is the topic of a chapter in a new edition of the book Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World, by investigative reporter Nicholas Shaxson (pictured, below).
He offers a critique of the authority that is in control of this much-loved common land.
Shaxson describes how the City of London Corporation is a body that manages the Square Mile and promotes UK financial services, and offers interesting insights to how it is run and what its aims are. He starts by explaining how little is actually known about the City.
“The City is surrounded by an ancient silence which almost no one talks about, even today,” he writes. “You could read every page on its website for days and still not find a satisfactory answer to the question ‘What is it?’ except it is the local government for the Square Mile.”
Shaxson makes a crucial point about the body running our Heath concerning its unashamed raison d’être: “It is committed to maintaining and enhancing the status of the City as the world’s leading finance and international business centre,” he says.“This is a municipal authority for fewer than 9,000 souls whose job is officially not only to protect the City’s financial services but also to promote financial freedom and liberalisation around the world.”
He explains that the City’s constitution includes the Court of Common Council. That’s the body which Heath management committee chairwoman Sue Ireland and director of green spaces Virginia Rounding said they would have to refer to if they were going to stop the café chain coming in – a body they said “does not take very kindly to lobbying” when an audience member suggested those against the plans contact them.
Shaxson explains this decision-making group of councillors is elected by the City’s 9,000 residents, who have one vote each, but City businesses have a vote too – and to the extent that they can easily outvote the individuals.
Businesses are accorded voting rights related to how many employees they have – but have no requirement to take into account their views. This means, says Shaxson, the likes of Goldman Sachs, the Bank of China, Moscow’s Narodny Bank and KPMG all have a vote – and therefore could indirectly have a say in how Hampstead Heath is run.
He goes on to explain how the City runs three funds: the City Bridge Trust, which gives money to their pet charities; the City fund, which pays for the day-to-day costs of running the body; and City’s Cash.
Shaxson says City’s Cash is particularly interesting. It pays for, among other things, a number of children to attend City-run private schools, funds the Lord Mayor’s Show, and even picked up a tab for a reception after Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. It has also paid for the Heath, since Mrs Thatcher scrapped the GLC. The City says it spends large figures on the Heath and is keen to find new ways to meet the outlay, such as cutting the budgets for services such as children’s centre the One O’Clock Club, the Golders Hill Zoo, and staffing rotas.
“The City admits the fund exists but will not say how much money is in it,” says Shaxson.
“They say it is a private fund and it earns income from property, supplemented by investments. It has well over £100m available to spend each year, presumably from income on these assets, but its accounts are opaque.”
Ultimately, what Shaxson’s book says is the City should be merged into the London-wide elected authority. Its huge assets could then be democratically controlled. We could vote them out if we didn’t like what they were up to.
“This offshore island floating partly free from Britain’s people and its democratic system must be abolished and submerged into a unified and democratic London,” says Shaxson, whose informative book will leave you wondering whether having them in charge of the Heath is quite the good deal they’d like you to think it is.
• Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole The World. By Nicholas Shaxson, Vintage Books, £8.99