“The challenge of a generation” – Interview with Catherine McGuinness, City of London Corporation

26 Apr 2021

For the second edition of the London Property Alliance monthly Politics and Planning newsletter, Catherine McGuinness, Policy Chair of the City of London Corporation, spoke to us about how the capital’s oldest municipal authority is adapting to a new era.

“I’ve always been a City person,” said Catherine early on in our discussion, but she needn’t have. A financial services solicitor by trade, she has been an elected member of the City of London Corporation representing Castle Baynard since 1997 and Chair of its Policy and Resources Committee since 2017.

While speaking with authority and precision about the City’s crucial role as a global centre of finance and innovation, Catherine’s passion for the City as a place is most evident when discussing its schools and cultural heritage: reminiscing about more than two decades’ service to the Square Mile, she spoke with animation about her work on the City’s academies programme and the Boards of the Barbican Centre and the Guildhall School – and in more recent years, the wider Culture Mile programme. She was keen to underline that the City is more than just a marketplace. Under her watch, the City Corporation has not only spoken for its enterprises, but continued its work encouraging social mobility and especially helping “push the dial” for disadvantaged young people in its care.

Yet, not one to sugar coat things, she acknowledges that Brexit and the pandemic represent “the challenge of a generation.” For many years, London’s Central Activities Zone (CAZ) has been phenomenally successful as an economic engine, but now faces a test “the likes of which it hasn’t seen” in living memory. And while “there is no denying that there’s going to be an economic fallout,” Catherine is confident – and optimistic.

She is encouraged at how Central London’s authorities have cooperated, particularly via the London Recovery Board and Central London Forward, where they have collaborated to assess the damage to the inextricably linked office, retail, culture, tourism and hospitality sectors – and how they are starting their work on recovery, including collaboration with businesses to help “get people back in” and “get out a message of confidence, of justified confidence.” She has welcomed the gradual return of life in the City, especially in the hospitality and retail sectors which have been hardest hit – those SMEs that she terms the City’s ‘street-level support businesses,’ an unsung part of the Square Mile’s ecosystem.

She is also bullish about the City’s ability to lead on the green agenda, especially in the lead up to COP26: “some of the first green bonds were listed in the City” and the Square Mile is already a “green finance capital of the world.” The Corporation’s own sustainability policies are very ambitious and include a Climate Strategy committed to impressive net zero targets for its built environment and operations.

Here, she recognises that the pandemic has “increased our focus, which was already there, on ensuring that we have greener buildings and that we make more of our outdoor space.” One particular success story has been the Clothworkers’ Company’s plans for 50 Fenchurch Street, designed by Eric Parry Architects and approved by the Planning and Transportation Committee in May 2020. It will have a public roof terrace “which gives much more free-to use open space for the public to use in the City” and which “contributes towards our wider sustainability goals.”

Despite the impact of lockdown on commercial centres, the approval of planning applications for new office space in the City has soared, which Catherine believes is testament to both the work of the City Corporation’s planning team as well as the “tremendous confidence” and “continued interest in central office space” by investors and developers, despite what some headlines would have us believe. She is also proud of the calibre of the City Corporation’s policy work, which will determine the future of the area’s built environment, highlighting its new Transport Strategy and draft City Plan 2036, along with its Climate Strategy which she envisages will continue to evolve as the City continues to invest heavily in driving sustainability.

Catherine is also buoyed by the progress of major schemes directly promoted by the City Corporation itself within and beyond the Square Mile, most notably its plans for a new combined courts and police HQ on Fleet Street, which were granted planning permission last week. It also secured outline approval for the consolidation of the City’s historic wholesale food markets on a single site in Barking & Dagenham. “It will not only be a great new home for the markets, but it will also be a contribution to a part of London which has great plans for its regeneration and its future, and we are pleased to be part of that,” she stated.

Her five year tenure as Chair of the Policy & Resources Committee comes to an end next March, although she hopes to continue to play an active role as an elected ward Member beyond that. She also urged businesses entitled to vote in the City’s next ward elections in March 2022 to ensure they have registered for a ballot and made a plea for all eligible candidates, young and old, to consider running for election themselves.

Looking ahead, Catherine’s vision is of a Square Mile which is undoubtedly different – but also more attractive and accommodating. To support its transition she is keen to use her final year for the implementation of new recovery plans and consolidation of its organisational transformation, which has seen a raft of high level appointments in April.

Catherine recognises “there will be more flexible working, more permeability and better access to the outdoor.” And she hopes employers and landowners “will be building on lessons learned, to allow people to adapt their work patterns, coming into the office more varied hours and maybe not for every day of the week.” Asked whether this is a threat to office development, she said “I don’t think it’s a challenge” as a successful adaptation to new working patterns means “we may be able to attract a wider array of people.”

Rounding off, Catherine was eager to ensure that her faith in the City and its potential had come through, underlining that  “everything we hear from businesses – and we spend a lot of time talking to people about our recovery planning – means that we are very confident in the city centre.” She expressed a hope that “others will share that confidence and will work with us on creating the type of spaces that people want for the future.”