Could a resurrected Tulip help London bloom again? – Financial News



Wander around the City these days and it is hard to find the “huge numbers” of people that Prime Minister Boris Johnson says have returned to work. Wherever they are, they are not in Leadenhall Market.

The City will gradually fill up again. Yet nobody now believes that there will be as many people coming into the City to work every day as before the pandemic. Will it be 10% fewer? Or 30%? Who knows? But it will certainly make life very difficult for the thousands of businesses that depend on those workers. And it will threaten the vibrancy that is one of the City’s attractions.

That represents a huge challenge to the City of London Corporation, which must do whatever it can to make returning to the office as attractive as possible. This will not be enough, however. The City authorities must also redouble efforts to encourage more visitors and tourists.

Edward Lord, a senior City councillor, says the Corporation will need to think about the City of the future with fewer people coming in to work each day. “We will need to look at the opportunities to keep the City alive by changing the way people work, but also by providing more opportunities for people to socialise and enjoy the cultural amenities of the Square Mile.”

In the past, some grumpy old City folk have been rather sniffy about the Corporation’s talk of turning the area into a round-the-clock tourist destination. It is a financial centre not a theme park, they grumbled. But now these Grinches should be grateful. The City’s strategy looks remarkably prescient for the post-pandemic world.

It will not be easy though. The City’s grand plan for ts Culture Mile, which includes moving the Museum of London to Smithfield and building a new concert hall on the site, was already financially ambitious, even for the deep-pocketed Corporation.

It may now be too ambitious given the likely pressure on its revenues, including from its commercial property portfolio.

The prospects for the concert hall were looking very wobbly even before the pandemic. Some still hope of finding a benefactor willing to put in about £150m in return for naming rights.

However, the list of politically acceptable potential donors does not seem to extend much beyond Michael Bloomberg. As for the Museum, there is much more confidence that the move will go ahead though there is talk of a significant delay.

What the City could really do with is an exciting new privately-funded project that could help bring in visitors. What a boost that would be. If only there were such a plan. Oh. Hang on a minute. There is one right here. Ready to go. The Tulip, a 300m high tourist attraction that would stand next to the Gherkin, fits the bill perfectly.

The tower would be funded by the Gherkin’s owner, J Safra Group, which believes the striking Norman Foster design would enhance the look and value of the Gherkin. With space allocated for educational and cultural use, the Tulip could hardly be a more apt symbol of a new and more diverse future for the City post-Covid.

There is just one snag. Although strongly supported by the Corporation, the plan was vetoed by London mayor Sadiq Khan last year. Yet all is not lost. The decision was appealed and will now be the subject of a public inquiry starting in November.

There must be a good chance that it will be waved through. After all, Khan did not dispute the developers’ claim that the Tulip would bring significant economic benefits for the City and London more broadly. He merely argued that these benefits would not outweigh the damage the building would do to the view of the Tower of London.

Whatever you think of this claim there can be little doubt that the economic case has strengthened. The developers estimated that the Tulip would attract 1.2m visitors a year, injecting more than £2bn into the economy and generating 600 full-time jobs during its first 20 years. How much more valuable would that be now?

It is hard to believe that Downing Street would not want the building to go ahead. A great vote of confidence in London, the Tulip is just the sort of project Boris Johnson likes. So even if the inquiry finds against the scheme, there must be a chance the government would overrule the decision.

Last year, I suggested that the project would be even more compelling if, like Sir Christopher Wren’s Monument to the Great Fire, the Tulip could be used to commemorate a huge event that transformed London. Well, now we have had the event.

How powerful the symmetry would be if this new column could stand as a symbol of the City’s rebirth after the passing of the plague. Though, of course, that might not be quite the vibe the developers are looking for.

To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email David Wighton