Link-UP: Deputy Mayor of London for Business speaks to Croydon BID

Rajesh Agrawal, Deputy Mayor of London for Business, answers questions from Matthew Sims, Chief Executive of Croydon BID in this second episode of the Web Link-UP series.

Matthew Sims:  When talking about London, and I know how much you love London, what are you most proud of, what makes London for you? And tell us a little of your background too.
Rajesh Agrawal: I truly believe that London is the greatest city in the world. Because of its diversity, its unique eco-system, because there is no other city in the world like London.
I come from a small town in central India, and my family are working class, and I grew up in poverty. In 2001, I had the opportunity to come to London and arrived with £200 in my pocket. I’d never even been on a plane before; I’d never been out of my country. I didn’t know anyone here. I landed at Heathrow and London welcomed me with open arms. I didn’t feel like a stranger. I immediately felt at home here. That’s what London does for everyone. My love for London has only grown since then.
It’s amazing if you are a sports’ fan: there’s Wimbledon if you like tennis, Wembley for football, Twickenham for rugby and, of course, Lord’s for cricket, and so on. If you like music, you have the 02, which is the world’s number 1 music venue. If you are into business and finance, then there are all the banks and companies; in fact, there are more American banks in London than in New York. London is full of culture, music, fashion, the arts and so on. 
London is a city of opportunity. It will continue to thrive. But most of all, Londoners are incredible and resilient.
Someone who came from nowhere, I was able to set up a very successful company, and even become the Deputy Mayor of the greatest city in the world.
Matthew Sims: When you look at the UK economy, and the way in which it’s shrinking, and the impact that Covid-19 has had on London; what’s the economic outlook for London?
Rajesh Agrawal: There is no doubt that we’re going through a very difficult time, it’s unprecedented. I know we’ve faced huge challenges in the past as a city and we’ve welcomed those challenges. I’m in regular with many key stakeholders, whether it’s business groups, trade bodies, foreign investors or entrepreneurs…just to understand the real economic impact of Covid-19 and what we can do for them, as well as advocacy for them; lobbying on their behalf. 
London’s GVA has decreased to by 16.8% but and is likely to go to 17.2% into 2021, but in 2022, it is predicted to normalise (approx. 4.5% GVA growth rate) in terms of growth. 
So the Mayor and I are determined to do everything we can to support businesses. 
As an entrepreneur, I’m an optimist. These are all forecasts but essentially, things will start to go back in and in 2022, things will get better.
Practically every sector has been adversely affected by this crisis. Leisure, tourism and hospitality is a huge sector, which has been badly affected. A lot of young people have been working in that sector. Culture has also been affected badly; London has more theatres than any other city in the world.
We can support businesses with financial measures but it is important to say that any business needs customers in o0rder to survive and thrive. So, it’s all about raising consumer confidence. 
Many people have had their monthly income affected, but many others have not and have even saved money from working at home and not commuting. So, it’s important to increase confidence in these people so customers can return to businesses in London.
We’ve increased cycling space and we’re sharing TFL data with employers so they can stagger the staff hours appropriately.
As people work locally, we have an opportunity to build businesses in other parts of London and not just the centre. I live in Harrow and almost everyone commutes, but now is a good time to build more of a local economy.
We’re working closely with big multinational corporations like MasterCard and O2, to bring back tourists but we have to be smart. As we open London, we have to be careful as the last thing we want is a second wave.
Matthew Sims: What opportunities do you believe that young people have to create things moving forward, that digital aspect?
Rajesh Agrawal: Every crisis turns to tend into an opportunity but this Covid-19 crisis is disproportionately affecting young people. Some people will have a very difficult start to their careers. It is vital that we support young Londoners and include them in our recovery efforts. We want to expand the London Progression Collaboration project, which seeks to use apprenticeships to give more opportunities to low-skilled and low-paid people. 
I’m very passionate about skills. With the world changing so rapidly, with technology and the automation of many jobs in the future, so the most important thing that there is are people skills. Upskilling for all ages and mentorship.
In India, we have a saying that says “mingle with elderly people” to learn; well, I think it’s essential that older people mingle with younger people. 
Are you excited by the opportunities that it brings?
I think we’re still in the middle of the storm and it is too soon to see opportunities; I wouldn’t want to start talking about that yet.
If you look at the changes that were happening even pre-Covid, it is incredible. How we order taxis, how we book restaurants, and so on, has changed rapidly in a short amount of time. The adoption of new technology has been fast accelerated, thinking of Zoom or online shopping.
One thing I find fascinating is how quickly our businesses have had to adapt. Before this crisis, all my staff would come to the office to work but very quickly, we had 100% of our staff working from home. Quite incredible.
A restaurant near my own home turned itself into a local working station so local people, who hadn’t the space at home, or don’t want to be at home could work safely, with free Wi-Fi.
Matthew Sims: London is open. How does the GLA support businesses in the commercial sector?
Rajesh Agrawal: Often we think London’s economy is all big businesses but the fact is that 99% of London’s businesses are SMEs. 
GrowthHub.London has been expanded, with lots of information. We’ve added offline sessions, with 121 sessions with experts, as well as a series of webinars.
We have to lead by example, so Transport for London immediately gave all its tenants 3 months’ rent free as rent has been a key concern. The Mayor managed to influence the biggest landlord for SME businesses in the UK do the same.
Another initiative has been Pay It Forward, which works like a crowd-funding site, allowing vouchers to be bought for favourite local businesses, to ease cash flow problems.
Matthew Sims: What piece of advice would you give to businesses who are very concerned about the impacts of this crisis?
Rajesh Agrawal: I totally understand as a business owner myself and an entrepreneur. The main thing I’d say to businesses is not to lose hope. You are not alone. Don’t allow it to affect your mental health; don’t see it as your own personal failure. There is help available, so explore all the avenues of help available that there are.
Thank you, Rajesh.

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