Philanthropy in the City: A Lord Mayor’s view


Magazine article
Sir Michael Bear was the 683rd Lord Mayor of London, whose one-year term began on 12 November 2010 and ended 11 November 2011. Here the former Lord Mayor gives his view of the manifold philanthropy of the City of London.

Before Lord Mayor David Wootton took over the baton, as 683rd Lord Mayor I was well aware of the City of London’s long-standing commitment to philanthropy and the positive impact it continues to have on the lives of some of the most disadvantaged people living in and around the City, not to mention those living further afield: across London, the UK and indeed the world.

As plain Michael Bear, businessman and engineer, it was through working on a major regeneration project for Spitalfields in the East of the City that I first became involved in civic life: indeed the nearby Bengali community and others were the electorate that approached me and asked me to be a candidate in City elections.

So just how thriving economic areas share the benefits of their success with their neighbours is not only something I am professionally well-versed in, it is also the reason I got on the road to being Lord Mayor in the first place.

Philanthrophy, of course, is a field that can be drawn very widely. A predecessor of mine, the well-known Lord Mayor Dick Whittington, famously left his estate for good works in the City, and these works included much needed ‘modern’ public toilets – a matter of life and death in the Middle Ages – after previously providing for almshouses, libraries, and a ward for unmarried mothers.

At the other end of history and geography is my own youth in South Africa: giving undercover maths lessons in our family garage to youngsters from the Johannesburg townships.

In between are the many ways of philanthropic or charitable activity that City workers of today are involved in.

However, just as it operates on a personal level, philanthropy is also entwined with the history of government. Many services nowadays provided by the welfare state were formerly gifted by the wealthy or well-established – with Lord Mayor Dick Whittington being just one. The guilds and Livery Companies (see page 21), of course, have a long formed part of this tradition of aid – and today still give annually more than £40m to charitable cause, mainly education.

As a wealth-generating machine over centuries, the City has always provided not only direct employment and direct business taxes, but also allowed individuals to build large personal fortunes which many have directed to philanthropic works.

In ancient times, a sizeable portion of any City merchant’s will would be “to God and the Bridge’’and this legacy, in the form of the City Bridge Trust still maintains the five City bridges at no cost to the tax-payer, and also gives £15m+ a year to London causes. That amounts to £228m of grants over 5,800 separate projects since 1996, each one chosen with care and, uniquely, decided on in public committee.

Other wealth gifted to the City of London Corporation now forms a source of finance which we spend for the public good, most notably in funding the wholesale food markets, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Epping Forest, Hampstead Heath and numerous special green spaces around London, and the work of the Lord Mayor, including work for UKplc abroad.

In that sense we are carrying on the philanthropic impulses of our forebears – and providing some magnificent life-enhancing facilities for Londoners. Take Hampstead Heath, for example, a piece of wilderness inside the Tube Zone 2 that breathes fresh green air into the lives of seven million people a year – at no cost to any user or resident – but as a result of the millions the City spends on it every year.

Today, every Lord Mayor has a charitable appeal which aims to raise money during the mayoral year, and Lord Mayors take part in numerous fundraisers and events promoting charity. And the current Lord Mayor David Wootton (pictured) is striding ahead with an imaginative appeal called Fit for the Future.

My experience is historic but, I hope, helpful. I believe that education and opportunity are the keys to success, and my appeal reflects this. Bear Necessities – Building Better Lives aims to generate significant funds to enable the vulnerable in our communities who, if given the chance could go on to find stability and lead independent lives.

The appeal unites Coram, the UK's first ever children’s charity to offer better chances in life to children and young people particularly in London and across the country; and RedR, a charity that trains and provides engineers and other relief workers to respond to worldwide emergencies.

This chimes well with the City Corporation’s tradition of being a very early donor to major disaster relief campaigns, enabling the Red Cross to move to quick action following disasters throughout the world. These sums are often highly-prized as they unlock resources, quickly, enabling, relief planners, for example, to book airplanes and order supplies. Recent significant donations during my time as Lord Mayor have included £25,000 to the East Africa Food Crisis and £50,000 to Japan following the recent tsunami.

Sometimes, of course, a gift needs to be greater than money. When, one year after 9/11, the City needed to show its ever-lasting solidarity with New York, a predecessor Lord Mayor, Sir Michael Oliver, arranged for a 650-pound full-sized Bell of Hope to be cast and sent to Ground Zero’s St Paul’s Chapel.

Inscribed with the message: “To the greater glory of God and in recognition of the enduring links between the City of London and the city of New York. Forged in adversity - September 11, 2001” that imaginative gift now rings out every time a global tragedy of any kind touches the hearts of New Yorkers.

The sound of that bell sums up the spirit of philanthropy. As John Donne, a former Dean of the City of London’s St Paul’s once pointed out, human beings are defined by their connection to one another. Philanthropy is a vital expression of that connection:

never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee’’

This line is, I believe, deeply positive, because the connectivity of which is speaks helps us unlock the very best essence of our own selves.