London First supremo Jo Valentine has the ear of everyone who matters. And we mean everyone
Jo Valentine is London’s hidden force. Unlike Bozza or Lord Coe she’s got no public profile. But there is no question she is one of the City’s kingpins.
Valentine runs London First, representing the interests of 200 of London’s largest firms. In banking alone members include RBS, UBS, Barclays, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Citi, Lloyds Banking Group and a dozen others. There are schools, all the universities, Spurs and Chelsea football club, Somerset House, all the magic circle law firms and big four accountants, architects, BT, GE, British Airways and Network Rail. Even Twitter is a member.
The goal of London First is to make London the best place in the world to do business (a bit like LondonlovesBusiness.com).
So how the hell does Valentine do it? After all, with a membership body that big and diverse it must be impossible to keep them all happy.
I meet her in the National Portrait Gallery’s café, which sits opposite the London First HQ, to find out.
“It is tough,” she admits. “We talk to the members and try to get them to tell us where they are prepared to go to solve the problem. To some extent just clearing up the facts means you can get closer to a place people will be comfortable with.”
Translation: it’s a bloody nightmare.
Of course it is. London First takes strong lines on all major issues. It lobbies government for lower taxes on wealth creation, on increased air capacity at London’s airports and defending the financial centre from EU meddling. These are tough issues, and Valentine has to make sure she doesn’t alienate any of her big members.
Fortunately, she’s a natural diplomat. Well practised too, having run London First since 1997.
This means she not only knows the top dogs – the Mayor, the prime minister, the chaps at City of London Corporation – but their staff too.
“We can talk to anyone we need to,” she says matter of factly. “The art is knowing who you need to get to. You don’t get stuff done by bleating to the PM or Boris. You need to go into the undergrowth and know who is briefing what and what the counterwins are.”
Her experience is not entirely positive. “You are working against bureaucratic inertia all the time,” she moans. “Take congestion charges. We wanted to get payment a day later as an option because everyone was forgetting to pay. We worked out that we did a hundred meetings to get that changed. You go to the GLA and they say it’s TfL’s fault, TfL say it is Capita’s fault, Capita say it is TfL’s fault.”
Valentine won that battle (that goodness).
Now she has two major fights. There’s immigration. London First is campaigning for the immigration cap to be more business friendly. This means allowing skilled workers from outside the EU to continue to be able to come and work here. Also, Chinese tourists are known for overstaying their visas – London First has implored the immigration service not to be too heavy handed when dealing with friendly visitors such as these.
And then there’s air.
The third runway at Heathrow generates furious opinions. Residents and the green lobby abhor it. Many businesses say we can’t prosper without it.
How does Valentine navigate this conundrum?
Rather cleverly, Valentine has shaped a policy which tries to keep both parties happy. She advocates “mixed mode” usage of Heathrow’s runways, whereby runways are used for both take-off and landing concurrently. This would cut CO2 emissions by reducing stacking.
She has also put the case for a third runway so carefully, so conditionally on umpteen factors such as reduced noise, improved capacity elsewhere, that her advocacy is often hard to detect. She comes across as a disinterested invigilator of the debate, fact checking claims and researching all the possibilities.
This is classic Valentine. By putting the emphasis on research and facts she tries to draw the sting out of any debate. It can also lead to some unexpected policy decisions. “We were against the cut in corporation tax,” she says. “This seems counter-intuitive, but we preferred a different tax mix: bring down personal tax rates rather than corporation tax.”
London First was also in favour of a supplementary business rate to fund Crossrail – not entirely popular, but, in Valentine’s view, the best way to fund a vital long-term investment.
One issue she’s not nuanced on is the need to keep investing in London. “The danger is that after London got money for the Olympics, Crossrail and tube upgrades is that other parts of the UK will say it is their turn. The trouble with that is that you won’t get the same return if you put money into the North-East.”
And this is not a time to be even-handed, she argues. “The UK is in a hole and the only way out is to sweat our assets, which involves sweating London. This is where we can generate the cash we need.”
So does she still fancy doing the job? After all, she’s been at it since Tony Blair was in opposition. “Yes, absolutely!” she says without a hint of doubt. “Keep fighting!”