Like no council canteen you’ve ever seen: on the drinks menu at the City of London’s Guildhall Bar

The Guildhall, town hall of the City of London. Image: Diego Delso/Wikimedia Commons.

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 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.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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