Meeting Nelson Mandela, Diana Princess of Wales and former German chancellor Kohl must be unforgettable experiences for anyone. But for Bernard Harty, meeting three of the world’s most famous dignitaries was more than just memorable. He bestowed the freedom of the City of London on them.
All of this was just one facet of the life of a public-sector accountant.
As Town Clerk and Chamberlain of the Corporation of London, Harty’s role includes high-profile, ceremonial duties – complete with traditional robes and rituals.
Hosting these prestigious occasions was not a role Harty had imagined for himself when he left school. At the time he had wanted to become a linguist and he stumbled into accountancy more by accident than design.
While he was searching for a job in his home city of Coventry, Harty heard of a vacancy in the city engineering department, and grabbed the chance without too much thought for where the job would take him, never thinking it would lead to a career in accountancy.
‘I got into accountancy through serendipity,’ he says. ‘Somebody told me that if I wanted to make more progress I should get into the treasurer’s department.’
Harty tried to persuade Coventry city council to let him enter its graduate training programme, and was finally accepted after several attempts. Coventry was popular with young professionals at the time, attracting many high-calibre individuals and producing more council treasurers than any other local authority.
He soon realised that working in a local authority treasurer’s department meant you could influence the way things were done in other departments.
‘Accountancy lets you interfere in everyone else’s area, whereas no-one wants to interfere with the treasurer’s,’ he says.
Local government has continued to stimulate him ever since. ‘It is a continually changing landscape, which means one’s interest is always maintained,’ he says. He confesses to once considering a move to a consultancy in London, but decided it was too narrow a field to work in: ‘I felt it would be advising others but not really making anything happen myself.’
Having rejected a consultancy career in London, Harty was to find his greatest satisfaction working in the capital. Following stints at Derbyshire county council, Bradford city council and Oxfordshire county council, he became Chamberlain of London, the City equivalent of finance director. The move signalled the start of his love affair with the metropolis.
‘People in London think they are the best, and that is true. It is the sheer concentration of professionals in the capital that makes it so special.
I got swept along with that and it was very exhilarating. But it makes it very difficult to leave once you are here,’ he says. ‘There is nothing like the City. Probably nothing like it in Europe.’
Out before the millennium
Harty’s imminent retirement – he leaves the Corporation of London at Christmas – means he will miss out on the next change in the history of London’s government, the introduction of the Greater London Authority in 2000. The GLA will be a strategic authority for all 32 London boroughs, and the Corporation of London will be responsible for services such as police, fire and transport. But he has no regrets from his time at the Corporation. ‘I live with a sense of fulfilment. I do not feel a sense of unfinished business,’ he says.
He also leaves as the business improvement district, or BID, an idea he has championed for around four years, looks set to change the local government landscape still further.
BIDs, which originate in the US, provide a means whereby the private sector can contribute to services traditionally provided by the public sector. The idea is that for a small additional levy to existing taxes, residents and businesses can help local authorities improve their areas.
Better street lighting, security guards or landscaping are examples of the type of improvements that can be tackled.
The latest local government White Paper suggests a 1% increase on business taxes to implement improvements locally – a move which could lead to the setting up of schemes similar to those in the US.
Harty’s involvement in BIDs has been through research work carried out by the Greater London Group, the London School of Economics public-sector research body. The group’s intention was to assess the success of BIDs across the Atlantic and to determine if the concept could be successfully transferred to the UK.
The Corporation of London commissioned the Greater London Group to go and look at BIDs in New York in 1993. ‘What we saw in New York was a much improved Times Square. Local businesses were pleased with the results,’ says Harty.
He recognises the difficulties in transferring the BIDs idea across the Atlantic. Above all, Londoners would view the additional levy needed to fund BIDs as a tax. ‘I am not supporting BIDs in the sense that it is that or nothing,’ Harty says. ‘I want to find a way to deal with inner city problems in the context of reducing public finance. That is a matter for government.’
Harty believes the study highlighted the general principles, but the concept would have to be adapted for the UK. The private sector, he believes, should not leave the regeneration of our cities solely to government.
‘There has got to be a recognition that you get nothing for nothing.’ That said, he recognises that there is some way to go before the proposals outlined in the White Paper become viable. ‘BIDs could work, but would we get the statutory powers to implement the concept? What BIDs offer is the opportunity for the private sector to get involved within a statutory framework in improving their areas, and they can be as big or as small as the groups want them to be.’
Financial problems are not his only concern. Harty believes that constant and largely critical public scrutiny does local government great harm – particularly when it comes to attracting new recruits. ‘It would be instructive to see what the impression of the private sector would be if they were constantly under the spotlight. Bad press has an effect on youngsters coming in.’
Harty believes a career in the public sector still has a lot going for it. And he reserves special praise for the councillors he has worked with over the years. ‘I have been lucky with members, some of whom have become friends. Members do a tremendous job and it is little recognised,’ he says.
He is also glad that in his job he can say what he thinks. ‘I feel I have been indulged and have been allowed to speak my mind, or maybe I wasn’t but did anyway. The final decisions are made by the elected members and all I have ever asked for is that my view is heard.’
BUSINESS IMPROVEMENT DISTRICTS
Provisions in the local government white paper ‘Modern Local Government: in Touch with the People’ could bring the Business Improvement District, or something very like it, to the UK. The White Paper suggests a levy of about 1% of the current business rate to fund local improvements.
In its research into BIDs, the Greater London Group, led by director Tony Travers of the London School of Economics, looked at several US schemes including one covering New York’s Times Square.
The group found that before a BID can come into existence, local businesses must vote for it. To date, decisions usually have to be unanimous. The US, however, has an advantage with implementing this kind of local taxation since it has a greater tradition of businesses getting involved in funding local services. For the same concept to work here, there would need to be a change in culture, Travers believes.
Another hurdle in the UK is the question of who would pay the tax. In the US, it is paid by property owners. In the UK, it has been suggested that occupiers pay. Councils would benefit from levying the tax, but would need to forge relationships with local businesses.
Partnerships between councils and business in setting rates would require close consultation.
The White Paper mentions this proviso.
‘Before allowing councils a measure of discretion over local business rates, there must be effective arrangements for the involvement of business in local tax and spending decisions, and greater efforts by local authorities to build constructive partnerships with local firms,’ it argues.
Travers believes that the difficulties are outweighed by the cost-effectiveness of BIDs. ‘BIDs are extremely effective for the tiny amount of money they require. In total, BIDs are only spending about $45m for the 34 schemes in operation at present in the US. They total about 0.5% of the cities’ budgets, yet the benefits are there to be seen,’ he says.
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