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River in the City

People of the Thames

As she approaches the end of her five-year term chairing the City of London Corporation’s Policy & Resources Committee, Catherine McGuinness reflects on the river – past, present and future, post the pandemic.

Upriver roots

“I was born and grew up in Oxford.

“My first memory of the Thames is being pushed alongside it in a pram. In fact, it is one of my earliest memories.”

City calling

“I was first elected to City of London Corporation in 1997, representing the Castle Baynard ward.  

“My main motivation to get involved in local government was the desire to do work that was more community-focused than my day job.

“I was curious about the role the City Corporation plays managing so many of London’s iconic open spaces, especially Epping Forest, which I lived next to when I first came to London, and so many other London icons – the Barbican Centre, for example.

“Twenty years later, I became chair of the Policy & Resources Committee, leading on policy issues affecting the financial and professional services sector in the Square Mile and the public services delivered by the City Corporation.”

Career path

“Before I became policy chair, I spent my working career as a solicitor in the financial sector.

“It was an invaluable experience, giving me an understanding of the issues that the financial and professional services sector face, particularly through this challenging time.

Covid recovery

“Businesses in the Square Mile have had an extremely tough time over the last two years.

“I am proud of the resilience shown by the City Corporation members and officers - and the businesses and residents we represent - in responding to the pandemic.

“We have made great strides towards recovery - in health terms, in our many hospitality and retail businesses, and in our cultural sector. But it would be good to see an even stronger revival in the City.

“Now that work from home guidance has been lifted, the future looks very hopeful. 

“Despite the uncertainty faced during the pandemic, last year we saw rising demand for sustainable and flexible office space, with a 70 per cent increase in applications to build new office space given the green light.”

River ambitions

“The river can and will shape the future of London.

“There is a huge untapped opportunity for the Thames to be used for deliveries and passengers, taking traffic off our roads and reducing carbon emissions.

Markets on the move

“The City Corporation’s vision is to consolidate our historic wholesale markets – Smithfield, Billingsgate and New Spitalfields – at Dagenham Dock, on the Thames, to provide a top-quality market environment for traders, customers and suppliers.

“Co-location is the best way of securing the long-term future of the markets, providing market tenants with modern, environmentally sustainable facilities.

“One of the great advantages of the site is its prime location, and the river is a cornerstone of the transport planning for the markets’ relocation.

“We hope traders will have the possibility of transporting goods to customers in central London by river, where they could be delivered by bike for the last mile.

“The City Corporation is working with private and public sector partners to explore the opportunity to transport goods via the river, cutting carbon, traffic and air pollution.

“The move could also enhance the City’s cultural offer, with a new home for the Museum of London at West Smithfield, and boost the local economy in Barking and Dagenham, with the arrival of new businesses in the food industry.

Climate challenge

“Climate change of course remains a major challenge.

“Tackling it head on and transitioning to Net Zero is not only the right thing to do, it also makes economic sense.

“Sitting as we do on the banks of the Thames – we know only too well that when it comes to climate action, the stakes could not be higher.

“Adapting to reduce our impact on the environment is essential to building our resilience.

“It will allow us to continue to play a leading role on the global stage.

“Our Riverside Strategy - the first of its kind in the capital - aims to protect the Square Mile against rising sea levels and transform the riverside into an outstanding space for City workers, residents and visitors.

“We recognise that climate change is an issue that cuts across all of our roles and responsibilities, both in providing public services and in representing the Square Mile and its businesses on the global stage.

“In 2020 we developed a Climate Action Strategy, setting ambitious targets to achieve Net Zero carbon emissions for our own operations by 2027 and to support the achievement of Net Zero for the whole Square Mile by 2040.

“Last year, we also set out a plan to reach Net Zero for the City Corporation’s investment portfolio, to end the organisation’s single largest contribution to global emissions.

“As well as reducing our footprint, and encouraging others to do the same, we are removing carbon from the atmosphere through our stewardship of some of London’s best-known open spaces, including our Carbon Removals Project, using planting to absorb carbon emissions.”   

Cleaner and safer

“The Thames is far cleaner and safer than it used to be, thanks to the work of the Port of London Authority and partners in the public and voluntary sectors.

“This year we are looking forward to celebrating the 50th annual Thames Fishery Research experiment, with more than 70 anglers from eight adult teams and two school teams competing each year.

“It’s an event I greatly enjoy.

“When I was first elected, another Member asked me if I fished. When I replied no, she encouraged me to join the City Corporation Members’ fishing team. 

“I’m always so impressed at the skill of the serious anglers. But I suspect they view my amateur efforts as something of a comedy act.

“Perhaps I’ll have more time to practice now!

“As well as being a great day out enjoying fishing on the Thames, the experiment helps us to establish the environmental condition of the Thames through the variety, number and size of fish species caught.

“The results provide valuable data to organisations such as the Environment Agency, the Thames Angling Preservation Society and members of the river community.

“And over the years, the experiment has proven that the Thames remains the cleanest river in Northern Europe.”

Changing times

“Since I first arrived in the capital, I’ve seen the skyline of the Square Mile change dramatically.

“The Gherkin is no longer a solitary icon, but a ‘slice of pickle’, glimpsed between many more office-led developments in our iconic tall-building cluster.

“Our open spaces have been enhanced and are now even more used and valued than ever.

“In the City, workers and visitors can escape the bustle by going to Salters Garden, for example, or explore the labyrinth of high walks around the Barbican and London Wall. 

Reflections

“My feelings on standing down as policy chair are inevitably mixed.

“I have so been fortunate in meeting some incredible people, working so hard to tackle the challenges of the past five years.

“It has been a privilege to work with all the London leaders and representatives, who have put party politics and other differences aside to pull together to combat Covid and its consequences.

“The same applies to the business representatives, who have been helping the UK forge its new place in the world post-Brexit, while also turning their attention to the climate challenge. 

“But I am really looking forward to more leisure time – especially more walks, including the Thames Path – and I am sure I will be handing the policy chairmanship over into good hands.”

Quick fire

  • How do you relax? I enjoy walking, listening to music, reading and spending time with my family.
  • Favorite Thames-side restaurant or pub? I will soon be taking advantage of having more free time to explore, so any recommendations for a Thames-side restaurant or pub would be appreciated!
  • Best view of the Thames? On a crisp bright morning, the view of the Thames from one of the City bridges is unbeatable.

People of the Thames
Telling the stories of the river.