Opinion
5 Dec 2017 10:36am

Tales from the frontline: Charles Bowman

Charles Bowman, PwC senior partner and the new lord mayor of London, has ambitious plans to move a role long associated with tradition and ceremony into a more modern and practical one

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I was seven years old when my father brought me to the City to watch the Lord Mayor’s Show one cold November day. I was entranced. I have never forgotten the image of the spectacle, the colour and pageantry. Later, as a future architecture student, I spent time in the City sketching Wren churches to part finance my gap-year trip round North America, and developed a passion for the place. But it wasn’t until much later that I actively became involved in City civic life.

I have had several mentors in my life, one of whom was former Lord Mayor John Stuttard. He was among the first Coopers partners I met after the merger with Price Waterhouse in 1998. He was just about to embark on his own civic career and he encouraged me to think about following suit.
It was the wrong time for me: I was working long hours and had a young family. So he said he would remind me later. That annual tap on the shoulder became a thud, a thump, a push, a shove. Some 10 years on, when I had just handed over an intense leadership role in the top tier practice, he said why not now? By May 2013 I had become an alderman of the ward of Lime Street. I became a sheriff in 2015 and Lord Mayor last month.

My year kicked off with the largely ceremonial Lord Mayor’s weekend. It started on Friday with the Silent Ceremony when I was formally installed at Guildhall. This involves swapping hats with the outgoing Lord Mayor and swearing an oath – the only sound to break the silence. Saturday was the Lord Mayor’s Show, the biggest unrehearsed parade anywhere in the world – 7,000 people, 200 horses, 70-plus floats, military bands, cadet forces and schools. It dates back to just before Magna Carta when the City negotiated with King John for the right to appoint a mayor. The quid pro quo was
that the city had to parade its new mayor through the streets of London to present him to the citizens. I like to think of it as the very first public form of transparency and accountability.

Sunday was a service at St Paul’s Cathedral and the laying of wreaths in front of the Royal Exchange, and Monday was the Lord Mayor’s Banquet. This is a thank you to the outgoing Lord Mayor but also allows the new one to set out his manifesto.

Possibly as a result of this weekend, the public tends to think of the Lord Mayor as a caricature wearing tights and frills and sitting in a gold coach. But ceremonial events take up less than 5% of my time. My real role is to act as spokesperson and principal ambassador for the City and UK professional and financial services. The industry employs 2.2 million people across the country, 400,000 of them in the Square Mile, accounts for 12.5% of GDP and contributes £72bn to the annual tax take. So with life after Brexit in mind, I will be spending some 100 days of my year travelling to 27 countries selling financial services.

Another objective is rebuilding trust in business. Sceptics will say they’ve heard it all before but I am a passionate believer that there is a job to be done. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed the largest ever drop in trust in government, business and media. I see a paradigm shift taking place that started around the time of the global financial crisis and is evident in recent events – the US and UK elections, Catalonia, Brexit. It’s partly technology driven: access to data and the ability to transmit judgements based on that data have changed the dynamic beyond recognition over the last 20 years.

So we have consulted citizen’s juries, distilled our existing codes and come up with five civic principles and five asks aimed at financial services businesses which we launched last month. What’s extraordinary is that they almost replicate each other.

My third objective is the Lord Mayor’s appeal, which my likely successors and I have reshaped from a year-long charitable project into something more long-term. We have chosen three charities and challenged them to develop ground-breaking projects over three years that will make the City fairer, inclusive, skilled and healthier. The Samaritans are, for example, working with PwC on developing an awareness training package relating to mental health and suicide risk. It is currently being piloted.

A key theme of my mayoral year is continuum. The pop-up Lord Mayor is long gone. My projects are all long-term and if I leave a legacy at all it will be that I have played a part in helping to create a better City for all.
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