Mike Bear, the new Lord Mayor of London, doesn’t intend to spend his year in office admiring the soft furnishings. He has 700 speeches to deliver, 23 countries to visit, and a plan to restore the City’s status as a world leader in development. And he still hopes to find time to make us learn to love bankers … But before all that, he spoke to Emily Wright
’Living here,” says Alderman Mike Bear, “makes me feel as though I am Alice in Wonderland.” As he speaks, Bear, the new Lord Mayor of London, gazes around his majestic study complete with silk curtains and a colossal, shimmering chandelier - it’s all pretty impressive. Bear only moved into the Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s official residence, four days ago and is still exploring: “I am still discovering new rooms,” he says quietly. “It’s all very exciting.”
Bear speaks earnestly and is refreshingly understated. But don’t let that fool you. He intends to make quite an impact over his 12-month term. As well as representing the City globally, the trained engineer and head of regeneration at Hammerson also wants to use the opportunity to champion development in London - “the city with the best buildings in the world,” he says.
Look who’s talking
The role of the mayor is to be an ambassador for the City, making sure it maintains its reputation as one of the best business centres in the world. This includes delivering 700 speeches - that’s about three a day - visiting 23 countries, spending 90 days out of the UK and hosting a different head of state or prime minister once a month.
The City is our golden goose. We must value it and treasure it
It’s quite a job spec, but Bear is unfazed. “When you put yourself up for election for this sort of role, [after a progression up through the ranks of the City hierarchy, usually starting out at councillor level], there’s a panel of around nine interviewers,” he says. “You have to show you are at the top of your game professionally, that you have a huge knowledge of the City and that you have the gravitas to be the ambassador for London.”
Bear is convinced he can deliver on all of that and bring something different to the position. He will be the first Lord Mayor with a construction background in over two decades. He says that his experience working for firms including Taylor Woodrow, Balfour Beatty and Hammerson, will stand him in great stead: “When I am involved in big infrastructure projects or buildings, we use insurers, we use bankers, we use hedging and swaps. There is not a single instrument of trade and finance that we don’t use. This role has been taken on by supply-siders for a very long time and to have someone now who understands the City but who is an end user is a good thing - especially when we’re under so much scrutiny.”
And that’s where Bear’s main ambition for this year in office lies, to change people’s perception of the City and to prove how vital it is to the UK economy. But before explaining how he plans to pull off that minor miracle, what about the future of construction in the capital?
‘We’re on the up tilt’
“I am very optimistic about London development,” he says. The statement is reassuring but a little surprising considering work is only just getting going after a nigh-on two-year hiatus: “I think we’re on the up tilt of a very dramatic cycle. And I think confidence is coming back.
“We have got three towers looking as though they’re now going to happen and we have some of the most iconic buildings in the world. The Gherkin has almost become shorthand for London. I think we’re brilliant at what we do, have some of the best construction managers in the world - and we have a good procurement system.”
Do we really? “Well, it could do with being improved. There is a lot of waste and it’s a lengthy process.” Any tips on how this could be changed? “My tip is that we need to get away from tips. Too much energy goes into tips and not enough into doing.”
But first and foremost, Bear says, he needs to change people’s perception of the City: “The City raises £60bn a year that goes to the exchequer and that goes towards schools and roads and hospitals, so we’re a huge revenue generator for the country and worth about 10% of GDP. This is our golden goose. We must value it and treasure it.”
He adds that the challenge for the City is to prove it is embracing innovations like the green investment bank and infrastructure investment: “The time is right for the City to lead the way in all of these areas.”
And what about bankers’ bonuses - the albatross around the City’s neck? “I can understand why it gets to people,” says Bear. “I think banks and bankers just need to justify why they get paid huge bonuses - they have to demonstrate that those bonuses are for work that goes to the heart of creating long-term value to the economy and not short-term results.”
The main question here though, is how this is measured and whether there is a suitable checking system: “I think there is - paying bonuses in shares, for example. We’ll see what happens in the next bonus round.”
If Bear succeeds in changing people’s perceptions of the City by then, he really will have earned those silk curtains …
The road to Lord Mayor
Born in Nairobi, Bear only arrived in the UK 32 years ago via Cyprus and South Africa. His road to the role of Lord Mayor began when the Bangladeshi community in Brick Lane, with whom he had worked closely on the redevelopment of Spitalfields market, asked him to be their councillor in the ward of Portsoken. He was elected alderman in 2005 and served as Sheriff of the City between 2007 and 2008.