SOME people enter into local government for the glory, others because they are looking to challenge the status quo.
When it comes to the City of London Corporation, many sign on to represent their own interests as members of the financial services industry or for the networking opportunities among some very powerful people. And, if you believe the reports, a few do it for the free lunches.
But it wasn’t a job in banking, nor the occasional three-course lunch that has motivated Wendy Meade OBE to represent Farringdon Without on the City’s Common Council for the last 20 years (and she categorically denies lunch at Guildhall is “fine dining”, for the record).
From pollution through to public toilets, the common thread throughout her time in civic life has been working to find solutions to the City’s problems.
“I think my career within the Corporation has always been about people’s issues,” she says.
“Like with port health and environmental services where we try to keep the streets clean, we try to deal with air pollution.
“On open spaces [committee] it was about looking after the spaces we provide that are the lungs of London… and then you’ve got healthcare and social care, that’s really been my area.”
But for the last six months or so, Wendy has been dealing with the issues of a select few; rather 99 colleagues who rely on her counsel as the City’s Chief Commoner.
Established in 1444, the role of the Chief Commoner is to represent the rights, requirements and privileges of members of the Common Council, and is the only civic position directly elected by the entire Court.
As the ceremonial and civic leader of the Corporation, the Chief Commoner supervises training and development of councillors, but is equally responsible for keeping them in line – kind of like a den-mother-cum-speaker-of-the-house.
They also oversee the day-to-day running of the entire Guildhall complex, which for Wendy can be anything from selecting new window furnishings – her office in the West Wing needs new blinds, she notes – to the City Corporation’s hospitality, which includes those offending lunches.
Several days before we meet the Corporation came under fire for “lavish” spending on, among other things, “heavily subsidised fine dining” at the Guildhall Club’s members dining room where spirits cost just 60p a measure, according to figures obtained by the Observer.
“It’s not subsidised, it’s at cost,” she says firmly, pointing out that the funds come from City Cash, a non-public taxpayers fund built up from a combination of properties, land and bequests that dates back to the 15th century.
“I know it said in the paper it was fine dining, well it just happens to be that we have got a very good catering company that gives us nice food.
“Actually it costs less now with this outside catering company than when we had it in-house…it’s not anything like the half a million that the paper suggested.”
Lunch tabs aside, one of Wendy’s most important roles is that of sounding board to the councillors.
“I have complaints brought to me about members behaviour that I try to deal with in an informal way.
“Anything really serious will go to the standards committee, but I do the ‘trying to avoid that’…. it’s really just giving them a little talking to and very often they just have to write a letter of apology to whoever they’ve offended.”
With so many power players and big personalities on the Common Council, one would expect Wendy’s complaint box would be overflowing, but she says reports of squabbles are few and far between and often quite minor.
The primary challenge during her tenure has been a lot of fresh faces on the court following the City elections in March.
“In the last four years we have had 51% turnover; we had 25 new members four years ago, so we’ve got 51 members who are still relatively new.
“I think members are always pretty challenging really, they do a good job here at taking us to task over things they want to see done better, and of course we’ve got quite a vocal residential population as well so we have lots of issues to deal with.
“Of course when a lot of new members come on, they’ve gone around saying ‘this is what we’re going to do, we’re going to change all this’… it’s the usual thing, they are full of zeal so that takes a little bit of managing, particularly for the officers.”
And while there are expectations to be managed, that doesn’t mean Wendy doesn’t recall her own formative years on the council in a similar fashion; a natural progression from her time leading the campaign to save St Bart’s Hospital from closure.
“My late husband had major surgery there in 1991, had marvellous treatment, [but] one year later the Tomlinson report was published.”
Sir Bernard Tomlinson’s inquiry into London’s health services recommended the closure of several major teaching hospitals across the Capital, with St Bart’s first on the chopping block.
“I had no campaign and lobbying skills at that point, I joined out of a fervour to save the hospital. And, very soon, I learnt how to lobby and campaign,” she says.
“People in the ward came to me and suggested I stand for the council, they said they’d support me and I stood, not really thinking I’d get elected but people came out to vote.
“Well I remember waking up the morning after the election and thinking: ‘Oh, what do I do now?’”
Over the two decades that followed, Wendy has served on “most” of the Corporation’s 30 committees ranging from the Barbican residents committee and City Bridge Trust through to policy and resources and planning and transportation.
“I’ve been in policy and resources years and years, which is the one you need to be on to keep your eye on everything,” she says.
“I have served on planning but with planning, quite honestly, there are so many papers to read…and I get very upset with planning sometimes – it has to happen, I know.”
So what is on the cards for Wendy once her time as Chief Commoner concludes in April and she hands the gauntlet (and the complaints box) over to her successor John Scott and goes back to being a regular old councillor, or as she puts it “a backbencher”?
There is a half-hearted suggestion of another chairmanship, “but I think after this I’m going to have a bit of a breathing space,” she muses.
Perhaps she’ll give herself enough time for one of those long lunches – though if the last two decades are anything to go by it’s probably unlikely.