I'll fund the Blue Plaque scheme myself - Luke Johnson

Luke Johnson, chairman of Risk Capital Partners, says the famous blue signs are a brilliant British invention and a unique part of London's heritage.

by Luke Johnson
Last Updated: 04 Feb 2013

The quango English Heritage is bleating about budget cuts, and seems to be using these as an excuse to stop funding the highly popular Blue Plaques that commemorate the homes of important historical figures who have lived in the capital and elsewhere.

I hereby offer to fund the scheme in full. Each plaque apparently costs £965 and a mere 10 are erected every year.

No doubt there are some modest administrative costs too, although why it takes three years to decide whether a plaque should be stuck up I have no idea.

I have always felt that they were a brilliant British invention and bring London to life like almost no other feature.

One of my favourite sights in the city is the marvellous juxtaposition of adjacent plaques for Jimi Hendrix and George Frideric Handel - both immigrants and both musical geniuses who lived in neighbouring houses in Brook Street, Mayfair, 220 years apart.

I have dealt with English Heritage over planning issues for listed buildings on various occasions, and found them to be bureaucrats of the most obstructive and impractical sort.

I suspect they are chopping the funding for Blue Plaques as a political ploy, because it is a visible and popular activity - not because the sums involved, out of a budget of more than £175m, are material. Perhaps the quango should stop the unsustainable defined benefit pensions enjoyed by its executives instead.

I have a modest connection to the scheme. It was initiated by the Royal Society of Arts in 1866, an organisation I chaired until last year. I am happy to ask the RSA to take back the responsibility - and, of course, I will pay their costs.

But what's the betting that the snobs at English Heritage don't even make contact to discuss the idea?

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A report has been produced for the Government recommending that honours should no longer be bestowed on business people for their professional achievements but only for their charitable efforts.

Apparently, this line has been taken because some recipients of titles have not given enough back to the community.

This is a bad idea.

I am all for philanthropy and volunteering, but if we want to cut our deficit and restore standards of living, we need to encourage more enterprise, investment and wealth-creation. By recognising only entrepreneurs and captains of industry who have given money and time to good causes, the problem is overlooked.

Perhaps the single biggest challenge we face is the scourge of unemployment. Those who create jobs in a community do more than virtually anyone else to make a positive difference.

Taking someone off the dole saves benefit payments, generates national insurance contributions and income tax, and contributes towards a more productive society. Yet there is no official congratulation for this vital role. There are thousands of awards for everything under the sun but no proper celebration of those who provide work, which gives income and meaning to our lives.

There are awards for innovation, boldness, leadership and dozens of other achievements in the commercial sphere, but nothing to applaud those who do perhaps the most important thing.

This matters now because many feted, high-growth firms actually generate few jobs. Digital firms often require little labour input, or subcontract most of their activities. Their owners might get rich, but these businesses are unlikely to address the difficulties of finding productive work for the hundreds of thousands on the dole.

I suppose this desire to ignore pure entrepreneurialism reflects the ambivalent attitude that the political classes have towards capitalism and private enterprise - even though these are the economic mechanisms by which the Whitehall elite enjoys comfortable lives. It is time to inaugurate annual prizes for job-creation.

If anyone wants to initiate such a prize, I'd be happy to become a partner in the project.

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Almost all self-made entrepreneurs in Britain worth over £500m fall into one of three categories: they are either immigrants, Jewish or attended boarding schools.

In some ways, the last group is the most unexpected. Examples abound of such super tycoons: Michael Spencer (Worth), James Dyson (Gresham's), Charles Dunstone (Uppingham), Richard Branson (Stowe), and John Whittaker (Ampleforth).

Several of these boarding-school boys did not do well academically, but nevertheless the enforced independence and resilience engendered by such institutions may well have helped their ascent. And for the right personalities, Britain's public schools are good at instilling self-confidence, an essential trait for anyone trying to build a fortune from scratch.

The analysis above confirms my view that culture matters enormously when it comes to making great wealth.

These classifications taken together comprise less than 20% of the overall population, yet they seem to produce almost all the richest entrepreneurs and financiers. And even if some clearly have material advantages, by no means do they represent the best-off fifth of households overall.

The politicians, academics, civil servants and think-tank gurus who are charged with finding ways to revive the British economy would do well to study the traits, influences and common characteristics shared by these specific sets of people to find out why they do so well. Of course, the sample size is small, but I still think it is relevant.

And if anyone discovers the answer, then as a nation we need to replicate that formula as much as possible.

- Luke Johnson is the chairman of Risk Capital Partners. This diary appeared in the February edition of MT.

 

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