There are many questions about the City of London Corporation, the municipal body which governs the oldest part of the capital. When, exactly, this ancient body was founded. Whether it really needs 125 elected officials to oversee a population of less than 10,000. What exactly an “Alderman” does.
Perhaps the most important, though, is why its bar is quite so cheap. Look:
Those are not prices you’re going to find anywhere else in the City of London, are they? They’re not prices you’re likely to find in the dirtiest dive bar in zone 6, come to that. £1.25 for a glass of wine? Just 60p for a shot of gin? Really? Okay, there’s no beer on tap, but at these prices we’ll live.
Where can you find such cheap, boozy joy, you ask? In the Guildhall, effectively the City’s town hall. It’s a bit like the staff canteen, except instead of curling sandwiches and lukewarm chips what is on offer is cognac at £1.20 a go.
Alas, you can’t just wander in off the streets: it’s only for members and their guests. How does one become a member, I asked one insider hopefully? “By being elected,” they told me. “Then you remain one forever.” So there goes that idea.
In other words, in the main offices of what is, at heart, a council, there is a massively subsidised member’s bar, which the likes of us can’t get into. Seems legit.
And make no mistake: the City of London Corporation is a council. It may also bang the drum for the financial services industry. It may take care of a few green spaces like Hampstead Heath and Epping Forest. It may even sponsor a few academy schools (something which councils are specifically meant not to do).
But its main role is as a municipal government – very probably the oldest municipal government in the world, in fact. The bar in the Guildhall Club is not just a member’s club: it’s a council facility.
So again I find myself asking: who is subsidising those drinks?
The Corporation, ever a lover of transparency, actually has three sets of financial statements. The “City Fund” covers the cities activity “as a local authority, police authority, and port health authority”. That seems to be the council budget sort of bit.
Then there’s the Bridge House Estates, a registered charity. This started out life as a way of collecting taxes from the bridges to pay for the upkeep of London Bridge, but it’s grown over the years: now it maintains five bridges, and helps other charitable causes through the “City Bridge Trust”. Apparently it can do this because “the funds have been managed effectively over the centuries”, which just goes to show that hard work pays off.
Last but not least there’s the “City’s Cash”, a
a fund of the City of London Corporation that can be traced back to the 15th century and has built up from a combination of properties, land, bequests and transfers under statute since that time.
In other words, a sovereign wealth fund. As of 31 March 2016, it had net assets of £2.3bn.
Which of these is subsidising the drinks in the Guildhall bar, I asked the press office? City’s cash, they told me: in other words, the bar tab may be subsidised, but it’s subsidised by the Corporation’s own money, not by stuff drawn directly from the public funds. Fair enough.
But this feels to me like a distinction so fine it’s basically non-existant. For all its special privileges, the City of London Corporation is, primarily, a municipal government: whichever pot of money it’s using to subsidise its members’ bar, it’s still in effect public money.
The fact the City’s Cash fund is the result of centuries of investments, rather than a grant from Philip Hammond, doesn’t change the fact that it is still money that could be used to make the lives of Londoners better, which is instead being used to subsidise drinks for a few old duffers who used to be aldermen. “Consider the counter factual,” my insider told me. “What would Sadiq do with that money?” Quite.