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Selling the City: Michael Mainelli, the new Lord Mayor of London

Michael Mainelli after being sworn in as the 695th Lord Mayor of the City of London during the Silent Ceremony (Alamy Stock Photo)

7 min read

Michael Mainelli, the new Lord Mayor of London, tells Sophie Church the City needs to improve its ‘customer experience’ but is well-placed to be the ‘world’s coffee house’

While commemorators and protesters flocked to Westminster on 11 November, in the east a gathering of quite a different kind was taking place in the historic City of London.

The Lord Mayor’s Show, an event dating back to the early 13th century, saw people come out in their thousands to celebrate the newly elected 695th Lord Mayor of London, Michael Mainelli. 

It was a day of London quirks. The Lord Mayor, carried in a golden coach commissioned in 1757. A pageantmaster, directing the show from what the Lord Mayor’s website dubs "the ceremonial Land Rover". Gog and Magog, two wicker giants who ceremonially guard the City of London, carried near the front of the procession. 

“Britons aren’t smarter or dumber than anybody else but we are on average much better connected than most places in the world”

Though Mainelli, 64, is Irish Italian-American by birth, he is no stranger to London’s proclivity for the peculiar, having been an Alderman for the Broad Street Ward since 2013 and Sheriff for the City of London from 2019 to 2021. He is also an Honorary Liveryman, Honorary Freeman and Craft-Owning Freeman.

Mainelli’s career began, however, in computer science. He created the world’s first digital map after moving to the United Kingdom in 1979. Seeing how finance was being computerised – “me being me” – he qualified as a securities trader and accountant. He now has 46 letters after his name. 

“I’m good at taking tests,” he laughs. “I’m not very good at other things, but tests I adore.”

In 1994, Mainelli co-founded financial services think tank Z/Yen. While there, he launched the Global Financial Centres Index, a ranking of competitiveness among the world’s financial powerhouses. 

In the latest rankings, London places second behind New York, with Frankfurt, the first financial centre in the ranking from the European Union, in 14th position. These figures imply London has a clean bill of health post-Brexit. Is that Mainelli’s assessment? 

“It depends on what you’re measuring about Brexit,” he says. “From a City point of view, it has not significantly damaged the City.” While jobs have been lost in London, he says attributing these to Brexit is redundant: “Brexit is now seven years ago… A lot of these job losses would have occurred elsewhere.”

Now, he says it is essential that London – which has recently pivoted from “buying mode” to “selling mode” – dresses up its shop window to pull in new businesses, pointing to the City’s previous success in attracting banking giants JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. 

“The point was, we grabbed them early on, when they were going into their international expansion, got them here, and they’ve grown here,” he says. “So we’ve got to grab the new businesses of the future.”

This means making sure London is managed effectively. “I’m quite focused on what I call the customer experience,” he explains, “and the customer experience begins with things that government can do a lot about, just through proper management, not necessarily expenditure.”

So, we should be asking: what is it like to be greeted for a visa at a British embassy abroad? How easy is it to get into the country? Why does it take so long to set up a bank account? Does wi-fi work on the tube? 

“Britain’s not quaint,” he says emphatically, “it’s a functioning economy that needs to put its best foot forward, and I do think a little bit more on the management would do. It’s not just government, it’s businesses as well.”

On the economy, Mainelli disagrees with those who think we are relentlessly and excessively reducing inflation at the expense of growth. “My personal view is no, we’re not overly focused on it… It’s [just] that regularity of the inflationary rates I believe you’ve got to get under control early.”

He is, however, a longstanding proponent of government-issued sustainability-linked bonds – designed to hold government to climate targets. With such a bond, an investor would receive an excess return if the UK’s emissions pass beyond the government’s agreed target. Last year, two countries – Chile and Uruguay – implemented such a bond.

“Those are countries where I know that their policies are holding,” he says, adding that “if Westminster wants to stick to long-term policies, and they want people to invest for 25 years, they’re going to need to find ways of proving to the investors in the British case that it’s investable.”

Investors would welcome such a bond, says Mainelli. He recounts being at a meeting at the Cabinet Office with a minister and the chief information officer (CIO) of a large pension fund, where the minister asked whether Britain would be taking a political risk in changing policy. 

Mainelli said yes, but the biggest test would be if anyone would invest in such a bond. The CIO turned, and said: “Minister, if you issued that tomorrow we would buy as much as we possibly could.”

Under his Lord Mayor’s theme, ‘Connect to Prosper’, Mainelli wants to rebrand the City of London as the “world’s coffee house”. 

Though the City of London is perceived as a financial centre, he says insurance and banking jobs only account for a sixth of its working population. The Square Mile has at least as many scientists, engineers and technicians, with “8,000 of the 24,000 businesses in the City science, engineering and professional businesses.”

“Britons aren’t smarter or dumber than anybody else,” he explains, “but we are on average much better connected than most places in the world. And I want to celebrate those connections and how they create global prosperity by solving problems… I want us to be seen as a solution centre.”

On whether the City is destined to become a home for tech, Mainelli says – “we already are”. And on artificial intelligence (AI) – “well, we are already again… UCL actually opened its AI labs and robotics labs… [just outside of] the City in Holborn about four years ago. So it’s been going on, it’s just the public’s noticed – the PM has noticed.”

He believes AI is “an area in a lot of areas where we in Britain could play smart,” saying, “if we can get the regulation of the sector running, we could do well.”

Compared to the EU, which he says is regulating AI by conflating it with complex computer systems – “they’re almost out to regulate all of computing” – and the United States, which has taken its usual approach of “see you in court, and we’ll litigate our way through this”, Mainelli says the British are creating international standards, and an accreditation and certification system. 

“I think where we’ll succeed is in organisational process standards, like ISO 9,000 for quality, or like ISO 14,000 for the environment, where we could have our ISO standard, applying the standard to an organisation and having the organisation certified as somebody who actually responsibly produces AI,” he says. “That’s a positive free trade approach to life, not a restricted regulatory approach… It’s very much a third way, which is a very traditional British one.”

Protecting the City of London’s physical heritage, however, has proved contentious, as sleek glass developments – such as those planned for Liverpool Street Station – gobble up the cobbles. 

But Mainelli says the City is embracing novelty, while preserving balance: “If you look at some of the newer developments – 100 Bishopsgate, 22 Bishopsgate – you can see where we’ve now got permeability through the buildings. So that’s bringing back the old style culture of the alleys and the streets where people meet each other,” he says. 

“That’s the big thing about the connections: we have to find ways to make the physical experience so valuable, that people want to be in the City.”

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