Born and raised in India, Agrawal distinctly recalls his arrival in Britain 20-plus years ago. “I still remember the day I landed at Heathrow in 2001. I’d never been on a plane before, nor outside India even and I didn’t know anyone in the UK. But London welcomed me with open arms.”
After a few years working for a small foreign exchange business, Agrawal struck off on his own “starting with just a laptop and very little money.” He went on to found successful money transfer companies RationalFX and Xendpay here in London. He attributes much of this success to the prospects offered by the capital, declaring that “London is a city for entrepreneurs, a land of opportunity – and I have experienced that first hand.”
Agrawal was appointed as Sadiq Khan’s Deputy Mayor for London in 2016. Since then, he has been the Mayor’s “eyes and ears” in the business world for seven years, throughout both of his two terms. He’s worked to bring his experience in business to City Hall, “looking at all the obstacles, but trying to see opportunities in them and making most of what we have.” Asked about his experience of the transition from private to public sector, he offers an unusual and indeed encouraging perspective: “in many ways, government is the biggest corporate of them all, but the Mayor’s Office is actually very nimble” and “doesn’t have the bureaucracy of Whitehall.”
“I am absolutely thrilled to be in this role, as a Deputy Mayor working for the greatest city on earth and I thoroughly enjoy it.” It is, in his words, “a fantastic role” focused on attracting investment “by showcasing what a fantastic city we have” as well as “championing and supporting businesses, by ensuring they have the tools they need to grow.” He underlines that this entails “taking businesses along with us, listening to them and taking their advice.” “I often refer to myself as the travelling salesmen for London,” he says “and what a great product to sell!”
He admits it’s been a bumpy ride at times, naming Brexit, the pandemic and now the twin cost-of-living and inflation crises as the biggest bumps by far. “Broadly speaking” he says, “in the last seven years ‘Brand Britain’ has taken a hit. But people do differentiate between that and ‘Brand London,’ which remains strong.” Yet, London’s “fundamental strengths” are rock solid and the city has “all of the key ingredients for a leading business ecosystem: access to growth capital, policymakers, infrastructure, amazing world-class universities and a huge talent pool, all in one place.”
Agrawal is proud of the work that City Hall has done to create a smoother journey for London’s businesses in trying times. He asserts that he and Khan – who aspires to be London’s “most business-friendly mayor” – are laser-focused on both residents’ and businesses’ “economic wellbeing,” as well as on ensuring that London remains a good place to do business and invest.
Asked about strained relations between Whitehall and City Hall, Agrawal offers assurances that “we work very closely with ministers.” He underlines that “we broadly support the intention to level up the country – and I want to make it very clear that we are all on the same side.” Ultimately, he says, “London is part of the solution, not part of the problem.” Equally, there is need for “levelling up within London,” which is home to “some of the most deprived areas in Britain and also need levelling up.”
He stresses that London as a whole nevertheless remains “the beacon of hope” for national economic recovery and growth. The message that Agrawal and the Mayor are focused on transmitting to Whitehall is that London continues to be “the engine of the UK economy.” Since 2016, the capital’s Gross Value Added (GVA) has grown by about 8%, creating around 600,000 jobs. The city has also, with the support of its businesses, developed infrastructure critical to continued growth – not least of which is the Elizabeth line, which Agrawal regularly encourages visiting investors to experience themselves. Besides being a “world class piece of infrastructure” in its own right, it is a concrete symbol of “how London keeps on moving up in the world.”
In 2019 alone, “23% of total national Gross Domestic Product output” was produced by London, which also “contributes £40bn more than what it receives from Government revenues.” Yet, the funding allocated by the Government to the capital “does not reflect the high levels of unemployment and child poverty that continue to exist in many areas here in London.”
Agrawal has not plucked that assertion out of thin air, pointing to analysis indicating that “of 11 major funding initiatives intended to support levelling up, London received by far the lowest amount – just £76 per person, a fraction of England’s average of £384 per person.” He says “it is important to recognise that” and “all we really want is a fair share for London, so that we can reduce the capital’s own substantial inequalities and continue to boost prosperity across our great country.”
“I say London is the economic engine for the UK, but within London, the Central Activities Zone (CAZ) is the growth engine… for London!” He highlights central London and Canary Wharf as “hugely important” as pre-pandemic, the area was home to 4.4% of UK jobs and 7.8% of GVA. He notes that the CAZ has since “been hit really hard and faces huge challenges, including the cost of doing business, inflation generally, and hybrid models of working that keep commuters away.” The unique concentration of sectors in the CAZ presents “unique challenges” and requires “longer term solutions.”
Agrawal has worked with the Mayor to lobby central Government on a number of relevant fronts. On financial support for London’s businesses through the pandemic; on the return of VAT-free shopping for foreign visitors; on VAT relief for the retail, hospitality and culture industries, which as he says are “particularly important for the West End”; on further business rates relief and devolution more generally; on addressing London’s labour and skills shortages; and on policies to help the city “adapt to new working patterns.”
But City Hall is doing more than going to Whitehall with cap in hand.
Agrawal highlights how the Mayor has directly supported businesses through a variety of initiatives over recent years. The London Business Hub has helped SMEs with “basic issues” like cashflow, managing rising costs, and property services. Meanwhile London & Partners (L&P), the business growth and destination agency of which he is Chair, has “banged the drum” for London as a destination for tourists and investors across the UK and abroad. Agrawal speaks with enthusiasm about L&P’s Let’s Do London and Love London tourism campaigns, which have brought “close to £300m of extra spend to London when industry needed it so much” – an estimated £28 for every pound spent through the initiative – and an estimated 600,000 additional foreign visitors.
Indeed, he and the Mayor both takes their role as “champions for promoting London around the world” very seriously – and only last year, took Let’s Do London on a US tour (NB: London Property Alliance is exploring a follow-up New York study trip with Agrawal and London & Partners, along with the City of London Corporation, later this year). Speaking of the 2022 tour, he said: “We created a mini-London in New York City’s Times Square” to draw in tourists and went on to meet with film industry leaders in Los Angeles, as well as tech sector representatives in San Francisco, promoting our city’s many attractions as an investment destination. Agrawal rattles through London’s advantages for these and other sectors, including the creative industries, life sciences and fintech – which, of course, is especially close to his heart. He tells us proudly that “London is the 3rd biggest tech ecosystem in world and the biggest in Europe, with more fintech startups here than any other city.”
The Deputy Mayor is also especially excited at more recently being named one of the champions of the Opportunity London sustainable real estate investment partnership – of which London Property Alliance is a supporter. “This is a fantastic initiative and I am proud to be an ambassador for it. London local government, the Mayor’s Office, leading private sector players and others have come together, to promote capital investment in London and help investors easily navigate our market” which, as he readily admits, “can be complicated, with its 32 boroughs plus the City of London.” Again, he argues, “the entire UK will benefit, as London is a gateway.” He also points out that colleagues from City Hall will be there with Opportunity London at this year’s MIPIM conference in Cannes, “another great platform for promoting investment into London.”
Agrawal insists that “Sadiq, I and fellow Deputy Mayors have got an open door policy and that’s very important. We continue to meet businesses and I am very proud of that” – fondly reminiscing that “one of my earliest meetings” as Deputy Mayor was actually with the Westminster Property Association. Ultimately, he says, if “anyone wants to get in touch, please free to” warning only that his schedule can sometimes be a little busy. After all, as London’s salesman, he is “always on the road.”
This interview was conducted by London Communications Agency on behalf of the London Property Alliance as part of its curation of the monthly Central London Planning & Politics newsletter.
Read more from our London Leaders series here.