Meeting the mayor of London to discuss inward investment is very unlike the interactions fDi magazine tends to have with political leaders. Recognition of the FT Group brand, coupled with a desire to promote their jurisdictions to global investors, makes politicians of all stripes and from all parts of the world more than a little keen to chat.
But Ken Livingstone is not just any politician. Love him or hate him, he is not one for conformity. Cantankerous as he is charming, he is often controversial and rarely contrite. He has a touch for appealing to the proverbial common man and is generally popular, but his relations with the press can be rancorous and his world view does not always sit easily with business. He is, after all, a man who once said that the international financial system kills more people each year than World War Two – an interesting campaign statement from someone seeking to run a city whose economy and workforce rely overwhelmingly on that very system.
Practically since its inception, fDi had been seeking some face time with Mayor Livingstone, to no avail. After years of requests being rejected, we were finally granted a slot during the dead time between Christmas and New Year. A 30-minute limit would be strictly enforced, we were told.
In the long-awaited meeting at London’s City Hall, the first question is put to the mayor’s three-year old son. “What do you think about foreign investment?” the mayor asks his young son, who is sitting in on the interview along with a press officer. “Nothing,” the boy replies, going back to his colouring.
The mayor himself might not have thought much of it at one time either, back when he was a firebrand of the left wing. Five years on since becoming London’s first elected mayor, most of the business community’s worst suspicions have not been realised and the mayor has swapped denouncements of the evils of international finance for promises to help London make the most of the globalised economy. He is undoubtedly passionate about the capital and there seems to be an awareness – an acceptance, even – that if the city is to thrive, and especially if its poorer parts are to develop, international finance and investment are critical means to those ends.
He talks the talk with regards to investment promotion but has an unfortunate habit of shooting off at the mouth and of hot-headed name-calling that is somewhat unbecoming to the senior representative of one of the world’s most important cities.
The list of cringe-inducing quotes is long, and the Anti-Defamation League devotes an entire page on its website to his comments on Jews and Israel. Most recently, the ADL condemned Mr Livingstone’s remark to two Jewish property developers that they should “go back to Iran and try their luck with the ayatollahs” if they didn’t like his planning regime (in fact, the brothers were born in India and are British citizens).
And the mayor’s now-infamous comparison of a Jewish journalist to a Nazi concentration camp guard resulted in an investigation by the Adjudication Panel for England and a one-month suspension from office. (Until he got a stay while the finding is appealed in the High Court, it nearly made him miss the important MIPIM property investment event in Cannes in mid-March.)
In his latest outburst, Mr Livingstone labelled the ambassador from the US – the country that provides the largest chunk of London’s FDI – a “chiselling little crook” in a row over traffic congestion charge payments.
The mayor is much less animated about FDI, but many of his plans are sensible enough. The mayor is rightly concerned about London’s supply of high-skilled workers, which is inadequate to satisfy the demands of employers. “There are skills shortages in virtually every sector of the economy,” he says. He is currently lobbying the government to transfer control of the learning and skills councils, which “woefully underperform” in London, to his office.
“The government’s policy is that everyone in Britain should have access to certain ‘level two’ skills and that’s fine, but in London you need access to level three. And I assume by the time the Olympics comes along, the majority of jobs in London will require level three skills,” he explains. “London needs a quite specific approach to skills training and higher education and further education to create the skilled workforce.”
The ‘East End legacy’ of the failed old industries has left many inhabitants in this area of the city lacking the skills relevant to the jobs now coming to London. “So as well as having this programme to take people to level three skills, you also need to have a ‘second chance programme’ – the sort of thing the US corporations and cities and governments understand – to reach out to the inner city communities that have been left behind and give people the chance to get on the economic ladder,” he says.
The East End, however, is soon to have a new legacy – that of the primary site of the 2012 Olympic Games. After the satisfaction of beating historic rival Paris for the honour of hosting the games faded – with celebrations cut sadly short by terrorist attacks on London transport the day after the announcement – many Londoners soon started grumbling about the potential costs.
Whatever the cost to the rest of the country – and the mayor says these will be minimal – the more downtrodden and underdeveloped areas of London’s East End are sure to benefit.
“The investment that automatically comes with the Olympics starts to open up the Thames Gateway and forces the pace [of redevelopment],” Mr Livingstone says. This redevelopment would or should have occurred with or without the Olympics, he adds. It is crucial to the opening up of the area’s economic potential. “In the same way that Athens took the chance of the Olympics to transform itself from a 19th-century city into a 21st-century city, the East End is going to do the same,” he says.
The national government has promised to spend about £1bn on undergrounding the power lines, decontaminating the soil and reconfiguring the site. “It would have taken many years to prise that money out of the government without the Olympics,” he says, pointing out on a map of the city how the eastward expansion will play out and which parts will be regenerated in what order.
Ahead of the games, Mr Livingstone is forging ties with 2008’s host city. “The biggest thing I’m doing in 2006 is to open the Mayor of London office in Beijing, and eventually one in Shanghai. This is the first time a western city has opened an office anywhere in mainland China. This will be a focus of increasing business links, culture links, student visits and tourism. There’s a real enthusiasm in China for links with London, particularly because there is the formal transfer of the Olympic games from Beijing to London.”
Of course, in the lead-up to the Olympics, as the eyes of the world turn to London, more attention than ever will be focused on its quotable mayor. Whether that is a good or bad thing is entirely a matter of opinion.