The inauguration of the Lord Mayor of London can rarely be said to have an impact on the world of civil engineering, aside perhaps from organising the logistics of the Lord Mayor’s show.
A different kind of Mayor
But this year is different – in Alderman Michael Bear, the City of London does not only have its 683rd Lord Mayor, but the first since 1992 to be a chartered civil engineer.
And Bear is determined to prove that a civil engineering Lord Mayor is a different kind of Lord Mayor. He is set on expanding his chief duty of acting as ambassador of the City of London, taking the traditional stance of promoting the City as a world leader in international finance and business services and expanding it to incorporate the role played by engineering and construction firms and selling UK firms as a team able to finance, manage, design, build and maintain major infrastructure across the globe.
“As engineers we are about solutions. London [and the financial services industry] is the engine of the UK economy, but where does the added value that keeps us ahead come from? We are the lifecycle people,” he explains. “When we go overseas our expertise is about providing lifecycle solutions.”
Bear says taking UK plc abroad is more critical than ever. “The global economy was worth £20 trillion in 2000 and this is estimated to grow to £91 trillion by 2030, but what can we offer?” he asks.
“Commodities we don’t have. Surplus cash we don’t have. But creativity we have in spades”
“I always talk about the three ‘C’s – commodities, cash and creativity. Commodities we don’t have. Surplus cash we don’t have. But creativity we have in spades. We are great inventors here, and that’s my background. It’s always been my belief that reward follows quality and we have lost sight of that in the City.
“Our big export is in procuring big infrastructure projects, and particularly by public private partnerships (PPP). We’ve led the world on this and have a huge amount of experience,” he says. “And it all stems from our innovation and creativity.”
But looking internationally is a skillset that Bear accepts has waned in the UK over the last decade or so, when contractors in particular refocused their efforts on the lucrative UK market and backed away from riskier foreign work.
Born in Kenya in the 1950s, educated in South Africa in the 1970s, and with a career that includes a spell at Balfour Beatty as international business development manager in the 1980s before taking charge of the massive Spitalfields regeneration in east London in the 1990s, Bear is well placed to comment.
He accepts that gone are the days of the 1980s, when UK contractors worked across the globe. “We don’t have the international contractors that we used to. On major dam projects back in the 1980s it was often the UK versus the Rest of the World. That doesn’t happen anymore. The successful consortia are multi-national.
“Now, you’ve got to look at the full bandwidth of the services we now offer,” he says. “We are very good at the cerebral side of procurement and are getting better at some of the more innovative contract systems. I’m trying to make sure that when we go overseas its not just the front-end financing that we offer, but also what we offer in contract management and long- term maintenance. Putting that all together introduces a new dimension to what the City and UK plc can offer.”
Bear’s role is not just about pushing UK businesses overseas; equally, he is charged with attracting global businesses to London and the rest of the country. And here his engineering hat is also called into action.
“In the austerity age we have to focus. We have got to be counter-cyclical. Now is absolutely the time to put in the investment.”
“If I speak to any business about why they should come to London, infrastructure is one of five reasons I give,” he says. “I have a particular interest in making sure we are ahead of the game in putting up the best buildings and infrastructure.”
“I used the first speech I made to make the point that infrastructure pays for itself you just have to pump-prime it. Crossrail and the Tube upgrade are becoming part of the solution to the economic downturn,” he says.
And Bear is convinced that the recent publication of the National Infrastructure Plan, along with the commitment for a Green Infrastructure Bank, is a clear indication of the government’s intent.
“I believe it is real now. In the austerity age we have to focus on what programmes [of work] are important and, critically, we have got to be counter-cyclical. Now is absolutely the time to put in the investment.”
For the last 20 years Bear’s career has been built on demonstrating the value of and then delivering infrastructure investment in the capital. The success of the Spitalfields redevelopment in East London – particularly with the local Bangladeshi community around Brick Lane – was the launch pad for his civic career back in 2003.
Then, he was approached by the Bangladeshi community to stand as one of their representatives on the Court of Common Council, the City Corporation’s main decision-making body.
Encouraged by the fact that the role was entirely non-party political, and as such he would be free to make decisions based on solid engineering judgement, he stood for election.
A stellar rise then followed to see him voted in as Lord Mayor fewer than seven years later.
“It is all because of the ‘can-do’ philosophy of my background,” he says.
Hopefully, that can-do approach will yield results for engineering firms in London and beyond.