There have only been two women to hold the office of Lord Mayor of London in over 800 years. Alison Gowman wants to be the third.
The annual election of the Lord Mayor is hidden from public scrutiny, chosen from among and by a small group of mostly male town elders, a process considered by some to be typical of the murky processes that run through the operations of the City of London Corporation.
But Gowman, an alderman and sheriff of the City of London, knows a little about the inner workings of the City. In fact, she wrote a book about it – subtitled “who, what, why?” – which partly explains how its dozens of administrative committees sit alongside age-old institutions in the common council, liveries, aldermen, sheriffs and, of course, the Lord Mayor – head of the City of London Corporation , the local authority for the Square Mile, and ambassador for the capital’s financial services industry.
The city, says Gowman, is not just another local authority given a broader portfolio that stretches from a police force, schools and charities to running parks and timber as well as an extensive real estate portfolio. He has been the subject of criticism given this range of activities – for example, overseeing planning applications while also being a major landowner.
“The Municipal Corporation is a multi-headed organization that does so many different things,” she says, sitting in her office at the Old Bailey above the cells where prisoners are held. “I think there are checks and balances built into the system. We all need to be careful how we deal with these kinds of issues. [and] potential conflicts.
Despite everything, she sees the need to shed more light on the functioning of the City. “We need to be a little more clear and open about what we do and why we do it. It’s an evolution rather than a revolution, because I think it’s an old office that should be respected, but can actually innovate just like the companies in the city are innovating all the time.
Gowman is one of four women sitting on the 25-person group at the Court of Aldermen who hold the ballot to elect the Lord Mayor, a largely ceremonial role surrounded by centuries-old pomp, from applause to regular formal dinners at Mansion House, where the Mayor has an apartment, at the annual parade through the streets of London.
But even if it’s ceremonial, the office has power – described by Gowman as the “soft” type of influencing decision-makers and promoting the city while convening important groups, as well as lobbying leaders political and commercial overseas and in the UK.
The mayor, alongside the sheriffs, she says is “engaging with businesses and governments and foreign governments to [help them] understand how London is a global city, with innovation and finance at its heart”.
There is, she admits, a lot to do, but the role means much more than that.
“I would definitely like to step up to be Lord Mayor… I got involved because I felt I had something to say.
She is already an alderman and one of two sheriffs in the City of London, a necessary first step to being a candidate for Lord Mayor. As sheriff, Gowman has responsibilities, supporting the judges of the Old Bailey and promoting the rule of law. This role dates back to Magna Carta, which enshrined the right of the City of London to elect its Lord Mayor and Sheriffs.
“There are a lot of formalities, which you could say society is steeped in,” she says. “But sometimes the ceremony can be good because it gives a structure around which to do things. If you have something that’s been tried and tested over centuries, that actually means it’s happening right and easy.
She wants the City to be open to everyone, as it should be for a candidate for a role that will always be tied to the fictional story of Dick Whittington, a poor boy who traveled to London to make his fortune.
Gowman, born in Essex, was educated in high school but felt the city was a place for her when she transitioned from trainee solicitor to first female partner at law firm DLA Piper.
“I have seen things change and I hope I have contributed to this change. It may seem a bit of an edifice, and not as open as it should be. I felt like I could have my way and I think that’s how everyone should be able to feel the city – that it’s open for them to get involved and be embraced.
London is facing new challenges from the pandemic, having been one of the hardest hit by successive lockdowns as most of its population are workers who have stayed at home. Offices are slowly filling up with workers, but as more companies adopt hybrid work policies, they’re sure to be just as essential to the city’s functioning again.
Still, Gowman is confident businesses are coming back, with a future focus on greener office developments with better facilities in the Square Mile. “I don’t want the building to stop. New buildings [mean] healthier buildings, more open to diversity, more open in terms of equipment.
Gowman can also see the City’s wider challenge outside the EU single market, battling for its share of the financial industry against rivals in Germany and France as well as the United States and Asia.
“There is competition for all of these things. And we have to sell our competitive advantage. We cannot rest on our laurels.
Green finance – investments such as bonds used to support environmentally friendly activities – is an area she wants to develop. “If we don’t address these issues, we as a city are going to be left behind. The transition to a low-carbon economy is going to be the defining feature of the next 20 to 30 years.
London itself is aiming to be net zero carbon by 2040, which it says will mean “a very different looking city” with a focus on greener streets and better flood defences. “It will trickle down to people feeling the city is a more livable place.”
By supporting the City of London as a financial centre, she says, the rest of the UK benefits. “If you don’t have a thriving city, the rest of the UK will suffer. I don’t see it as hostile to upgrading, I think the city can help with that. ”
Gowman was until 2019 chairman of the City Bridge Trust, which distributes money left over from maintaining five bridges over the Thames to charities. She is also a trustee of the Museum of London, which is moving to a new site in the redeveloped area around Farringdon which Gowman sees as the city’s thriving cultural hub.
Ahead of that, the Museum of London is working on a new exhibit that some may not like: the story of how the pandemic tore London apart.
“We have a great collection of pandemic stuff, which we have collected. You’ll come in a few years and say – oh, we had that rainbow in our window. Those signs to keep your distance,” she says excitedly before pausing.
“I hope we don’t keep those on our floors around the place anymore.”