Can a Place Built on Global Banking Survive Britain’s Retreat from Europe?

For nearly two hundred years, London ruled as the world’s financial center. As the British Empire spread, so did the influence of its bankers, based in the one-square-mile City of London in the heart of the larger city. As historian Jack Weatherford puts it, “From the offices, conference halls, and trading rooms of the City flowed the money that kept Nelson’s ships supplied at Trafalgar, financed the conquest of India, underwrote the mines of South America and the railroads of the world, supervised the banks of the largest and most far-flung empire in the world, and insured the legs of Hollywood movie stars.”

By 1986, though, London had lost its crown to New York, stagnating under regulations that kept British finance essentially unchanged from the 19th century. On October 27, 1986, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government instituted sweeping deregulation that changed the nature and future prospects of English finance literally overnight. Dubbed the Big Bang, the changes eased restrictions on mergers and acquisitions, opened British firms to foreign ownership, and moved trading from a face-to-face exchange to a digital transaction. The ensuing explosion of financial activity in the City of London led to a space crunch and the birth of Canary Wharf—a second financial hub built on a former dockyard.

By 2013, employment at Canary Wharf had risen to more than 100,000 and it had more bankers than the City. The project was expanding, building up to 3,000 homes for people of varying income levels. In 2014, the developers said that over the next decade, Canary Wharf would nearly double the people working and living in the area.

Then came Brexit, which has the potential to scuttle those plans as financial services companies move to Ireland and continental Europe. While the developers say they remain confident about the project’s future, others are predicting an ebbing of Canary Wharf’s power and influence in the financial world.