Crisis, what crisis? The Square Mile fights back

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The City has survived far worse setbacks than this economic malaise and is poised for recovery, according to Peter Rees, its head of planning.

While Britain and much of the world remains in the grips of the worst financial crisis in memory, the City is in fine fettle and up for a fight with its critics and would-be rivals. So says Peter Rees, who is a proud resident of the world-famous Square Mile and the man in charge of its planning.

One of its strongest selling points, according to the Welshman, is the contrast between old and new: the preservation of Victorian banking halls, Wren churches and 17th century watering holes alongside 21st century skyscrapers that are dramatically changing the capital’s skyline.

On a walking tour of the City, Rees, joined by the City’s policy chairman, Mark Boleat, explains it has survived much worse than the financial crisis which began five years ago, and will be poised when recovery comes.

“The best place to carry on business is somewhere that has gone through many crises in the past, as the City has… the Blitz, the Fire of London… and it’s come out the other side always stronger than it was before.”

Both Rees and Boleat are keen to shed the City’s image as merely a banking centre.

“People assumed that because the banks were going through problems that everything was going to stop, but the City isn’t just about banking and people have now realised that. There is other business that has to carry on and is carrying on,” says Rees.

On a bright December day, the tour takes in the Guildhall, St Paul’s Cathedral, Cheapside, Bow Lane and Water Street, Mansion House, the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange, Leadenhall Market, and the fast-growing insurance district, which boasts the likes of the Gherkin.

The much-loved landmark will soon be joined by the Cheese Grater and the Walkie Talkie, buildings which Rees says contradict claims that the City is dead. “There is already a lot of pre-letting.

It belies these articles you read saying that the City doesn’t need modern buildings, that there’s more than enough accommodation.”

Evidence of the City’s historic trading centre is dotted everywhere. “We just crossed Bread Street, nearby there’s Friday Street, where fish used to be bought on a Friday. We have Milk Street. All this indicates the trades that used to operate in the days when Cheapside was the market and high street of the City.”

Cheapside has enjoyed a revival since the opening of One New Change, the Land Securities mixed-use development designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. Its eight floors include shops, offices, cafes and restaurants and it has opened up fresh rooftop views of St Paul’s which are open to the public, as well as seven-day shopping in the City.

“The old word 'cheap’ was the Saxon word meaning market and of course it’s always been the City’s high street, but there was very little shopping in the City 20 years ago,” says Rees.

Close by is St Mary-Le (Paris: FR0000072399 - news) -Bow Church, within the sound of whose bells you must be born to qualify as a genuine Cockney. As we pass a statue of a cordwainer, commemorating the leather workers who originated in Cordoba in Spain, and were concentrated in Bow Lane, Rees and Boleat point out a very modern solution to an age-old problem: a pop-up urinal. “It’s better than having people peeing in corners,” Rees says.

The City and other financial centres worldwide faces challenges as the global economy struggles against the eurozone crisis and weak demand.

But Rees shrugs off talk of rivals.

He describes Canary Wharf as “like two brothers we love to fight, but we’re the best of friends really. And if the rest of the world has a go at us, we side together.”

He is much more scathing about Frankfurt, however, which he says has “an inferiority complex”.

“In the 1990s Frankfurt thought it was going to be the financial capital of Europe, so they built all the tall buildings, all the modern offices, they thought they needed. But it’s not a good place to go for a party. It is very boring.”