RUTH SUNDERLAND: It's time to raise a toast to urban life

There is an awful lot of rubbish being talked about how Covid-19 will lead to the decline of once-bustling cities.

Middle-class millennials who have fled their flat-shares to return chez mum and dad in the shires are bleating in lifestyle articles that they don’t want to go back to Stoke Newington.

And, after being locked down with the kids, well-heeled parents are resorting to property porn, fantasising about the vast country home they could buy for the price of their inner-city terrace.

If you want to sell brands that will capture the imagination, your ideal home is a social and cultural hub, not a soulless industrial estate with a low rent

If you want to sell brands that will capture the imagination, your ideal home is a social and cultural hub, not a soulless industrial estate with a low rent

Businesses are alleged to be drawing up plans to save millions of pounds by moving out of prime locations and letting staff work from home forever.

It’s extremely difficult to make predictions about the pandemic but here’s one: the urge to leave town will wear off.

When we’ve vanquished the virus, London and our other great cities will soon revert to teeming, maddening, exhilarating honeypots. Ivan Menezes, the chief executive of drinks giant Diageo, thinks so too.

He, of all people, has seen how hard city centres have been hit in the pandemic as his sales and profits were banjaxed when the shutters came down on the pubs.

Although many of us have been glugging at home on the Baileys and mixing up DIY quarantinis to take the edge off lockdown, it hasn’t been enough to bolster Diageo’s bottom line.

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But Menezes is pressing ahead with plans for a new head office to house 800 senior staff in Soho, the bohemian, creative heart of London, and it has moved to new premises in New York.

Sure, there would be cheaper office space out of town, but he believes a drinks company needs to be in the middle of life, near the theatres, cinemas and art galleries.

If you want to sell brands that will capture the imagination, your ideal home is a social and cultural hub, not a soulless industrial estate with a low rent.

He’s right, of course. For a multinational company like Diageo, a Soho HQ is a relatively small move, but it is symbolic of a broader attitude. Menezes is betting that we will return to urban melting pots, congregate again in bars, cinemas and concerts, in cities replete with material wealth and the cultural variety.

There are three imperatives in facing down Covid-19. Saving lives comes first. Livelihoods second. But let’s not forget the third: emerging with lives that are sociable, rich in experience and worth living.


Jobs for the girls

The plight of an elite handful of women who run FTSE 100 companies but are paid less than male chief executives is not likely to goad armies of woke protesters onto the streets.

Yet a consistent finding of the High Pay Centre’s annual review of the Footsie is that the women at the top are paid significantly less than the men.

The mean average pay of a male CEO was £4.74million, nearly three-quarters of a million pounds more than the mean average for a female leader.

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It’s not possible to put this definitively down to sexism – in fact, it would be easy to mansplain away the discrepancy.

There are only half a dozen or so female CEOs in the Footsie and a variety of reasons they might be on a lower package.

These include the size and type of company, experience, the length of time in the job or – a horrible thought – maybe the women sometimes put in a less impressive performance.

Perhaps Emma Walmsley, the chief executive of drugs giant Glaxosmithkline on £8.4million, really is worth nearly £6million a year less than Pascal Soriot, her male counterpart at rival Astrazeneca, who is on £14.3million.

She’s impressive, but he’s been there longer, Astra has a bigger market value and he’s had better publicity in the pandemic, so maybe it’s fair enough.

But the process of setting rewards is subjective and opaque. The system is run by pay committees who are meant to be independent but are often so in thrall to the CEO they seem to suffer from Stockholm syndrome.

It is supposedly policed by big investors. They, however, are so fantastically spineless they have never defeated a pay policy in a binding vote at a FTSE 100 company since given the power to do so seven years ago.

That’s right, not once – even when faced with truly obscene packages.

Executive pay is so riddled with unfairness it might seem absurd to complain about inequity within the Footsie towards a minority group who are by any measure highly privileged. 

All of that said, it’s interesting that, for whatever reasons, even at the very top women are still paid less.

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