The Sunday Times’ publication of the Rich List 2017 shows that the rich are getting richer. The wealthiest 1000 individuals, who enjoy a combined total wealth of £685 billion, saw this increase by 14%, or £82.5 billion, in the last year.
Much of the reaction to the List has focused on how it shows the UK is becoming more unequal. Whilst the combined wealth of the richest top 500 (£580bn) is more than the £576bn of the top 1000 last year, the mega-rich now have more wealth than the poorest 40% of all households in the country. According to research by the Equality Trust, their increase in wealth last year (equivalent to £226m per day) would pay the grocery bills for all food bank users nationwide for 56 years, or for adult social care in England for the next four.
The understandable media interest in who features on the latest Rich List overshadows other intriguing aspects to the annual compilation. In particular, where this vast wealth lies and, at a time of swingeing cuts to public spending, what some of the rich choose to do with their money. The List’s information on the location of the rich, and their increasing inclination to give their wealth away (£3.2bn in 2017; up 20% on 2016), represents a fascinating challenge for London.
London is home to more billionaires than any other city in the world. Of the 134 billionaires in Britain, 86 (64%) are based in the capital. New York, in second place, has 74; the highest other ranking European capital is Paris with 33. Yet London’s increasing polarisation of wealth is potentially the greatest risk to its economic success.
London is a city of contradictions. The capital contains the highest proportion (15%) of people in families with incomes in the bottom tenth nationally and the second highest proportion (15%) of people in the top tenth, after the South East. The London Fairness Commission reported last year that for every £1 of wealth owned by the bottom 10% of London households, the top 10% owns £172. In short, London is again ‘becoming a city of great divides.’
“Time for a Peabody moment?”
This apparent “re-Victorianization of London” has put the names of the great nineteenth century individual and corporate philanthropists back in the spotlight. Their altruism may have been driven as much by the perceived threat to the social fabric from the massed urban poor, as a sense of unfairness. Yet, in its call to arms (“Time for a ‘Peabody’ moment?”), the London Fairness Commission heralded “a new philanthropic age [believing] that the time is ripe for London’s wealthiest residents and businesses to come together in an exemplary social philanthropic effort.”
Halting the apparent slide back to Victorian levels of inequality should be a strong argument for individual and corporate philanthropists to engage in shaping an economy which can both deliver “inclusive growth” and sustain a healthy civil society. However, the work to date on The Way Ahead, a new vision of support for civil society in London has struggled to include business. Defining civil society in a way that highlights the distinctions between the different sectors, The Way Ahead is too last century for our increasingly common purpose. “Civil society is where people take action to improve their own lives or the lives of others and act where government or the private sector don’t.” (p6) It will remain difficult to motivate business if we do not acknowledge that an enabling state and an enlightened private sector are as much a part of civil society as voluntary and community organisations, or informal associations.
Responsible businesses can and do take action to improve the lives of others. However, as with individual philanthropy, corporate giving (of money, time or resources) will always remain an unreliable substitute for state spending for reasons which academics label as “philanthropic insufficiency” and “philanthropic particularism.” “Philanthropic insufficiency” is the realisation that charitable giving will never replace the redistributive role of the state because it is unable to meet the scale of need. London local government receives approximately £22 billion of funding to spend on services. This is almost four times greater than the total cash giving by private sources in London (£5.6 billion). “Philanthropic particularism” is the recognition that donors choose which causes to invest in, responding to needs which they can relate to and not on the basis of objective evidence. This can give philanthropic activities their strength, but also means that they cannot ensure consistency and equality.
And yet individual and corporate philanthropy has a far longer history than public spending in tackling the capital’s social needs. This is not to underplay the influence of the state, but rather to put its recent shrinking in historical context. Philanthropy will never be able to replace state-funded provision. However, it does have the transformative potential to mitigate public sector cuts by meeting needs that lie outside the responsibility of government, as well as to supplement existing but diminishing state provision. Identifying where this can and should happen in London is the key challenge for London’s stakeholders engaged in The Way Ahead.
The exact level or proportion of giving in London is not known. Cash giving in the capital is estimated at £5.6 billion a year from all private sources, accounting for 29% of all UK giving. This is a significantly greater proportion than London’s contribution to UK GDP (22%). In terms of volunteering, a recent report by City Philanthropyfound that 39% of London employees volunteer on an ad hoc and/or regular basis.
Whilst the UK in general, and London in particular, are generous in terms of the amount of money, time and insight given to charitable causes, there is a strong perception that London and Londoners have the potential to scale up their philanthropic activities in the capital. Businesses in London would like to be better integrated within their wider community and have greater social impact. Companies told the London Fairness Commission that they would like to scale up their successful philanthropic initiatives so as to reach a greater proportion of London’s population.
The harder challenge of making philanthropy more effective is linked to one of the inherent weaknesses in private giving; the difficulty of influencing such activity so that it can be coordinated and directed at meeting the most pressing needs of Londoners. This is likely to be contentious on at least two counts. Firstly, reaching a workable consensus on what the priority needs for London are and, secondly, agreeing on the most appropriate vehicle to coordinate and (re)distribute philanthropy alongside public, trust and foundation funds. Opportunities do exist, however, to shape this agenda at a number of levels which are both place and theme-based. A few of these are summarised here as “Give More; “Give Local” and “Give Together.”
(1) Give More
The Mayor of London, potentially working with the incumbent Lord Mayor and the City of London, can make greater use of the Bully Pulpit to challenge London’s business community to co-invest in future strategic priorities for a civil society. London is home to the corporate HQs of many of the FTSE500. In 2014, the top 500 companies in the UK spent £3.25bn on CSR-related activity. This sounds impressive. It actually represents just 0.026% of profit and well below the 0.5% benchmark which only very few corporate citizens manage to reach. London’s civic leaders need to challenge business to give more (following the example of Mayors Bloomberg and De Blasio in New York City):
- Harnessing CSR – the old, paternalistic models of top-down CSR (ie the board “adopting a charity” for its staff to fundraise for – and appropriating the credit) are changing. Employees, particularly millennials forging careers in the City, want to know they are working for corporates which do good as well as make money. This is becoming a powerful driver and top companies now have to compete for the best recruits on the basis of their social responsibility. A good example of an initiative which has tapped into this zeitgeist is BeyondMe; there are new models out there which need promoting and scaling up as they offer more sustained engagement of corporate resources to support civil society organisations and address social needs.