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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Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.


He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”