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Opinion: Does Lloyd’s need One Lime Street?

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Since the pandemic struck, every business has been forced to reassess its real estate needs and question whether its physical presence is fit for the future.

Lloyd’s is no different, but the stakes are higher.

The Underwriting Room and its future have been at the centre of both Lloyd’s thinking and market debate, and the Corporation’s decision around the Room is pivotal in its messaging to the wider market about how it believes Lloyd’s should trade and operate in a digital world.

Our latest intelligence, published on Monday, revealed that the real-world practicalities of creating a new-world underwriting room make taking this decision a far more complicated process.

After a market consultation on the future of the Room, the project has now been suspended as Lloyd’s holds talks with PingAn, the owner of the Lloyd’s building, on its lease. Options are understood to include both extending the lease and buying One Lime Street outright, although it has also thrown up the (arguably less likely) possibility that Lloyd’s could choose to leave.

There are of course big financial considerations to be made here, which are hard to get a true sense of from the outside – including how much money Lloyd’s would need to find to buy the building, and the cost effectiveness of that action versus the other options on the table.

But the most interesting questions this situation throws up are more existential.

How closely is the Lloyd’s market intertwined with One Lime Street in reality? If Lloyd’s chooses to move from the building it has occupied for nearly 30 years, does it walk away from its heritage and traditions? Or to go one (controversial) step further – does it matter if it does?

Of course, the Lloyd’s market – or its early iterations – has moved multiple times in its 330-year history.

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But to walk away from One Lime Street at this juncture would certainly be a very bold statement on how Lloyd’s is embracing modernisation and its future.

And it would lay down the thinking that Lloyd’s is a collection of actors, an ecosystem, and a set of capabilities, opportunities and interactions – not a place.

CEO John Neal and wider management have made it very clear that they see value in the unique advantage of face-to-face trading and negotiation. Lloyd’s has also carved out a greater role for itself as a market convener, and when you take both elements into account, it makes sense that it needs somewhere physical for this to take place.

The new underwriting room – wherever it is located – needs to make a statement on what Lloyd’s is, how it sees itself and how it operates, both now and into the future. Its specifications and its capabilities need to be impressive, and tailored so specifically to market need that it attracts both underwriter presence and broker footfall.

But would it make any difference if that room was in a top-grade EC3 skyscraper – one which could be effectively a blank canvas and made fit for purpose for Lloyd’s to start this new chapter, just like One Lime Street was deliberately designed to do in 1986?

Would a change of scene to a brand-new space in turn push the market to see itself anew – as forward-thinking, fast-moving, digitally empowered?

The Lloyd’s building is undoubtedly iconic and has served the market well, but it has its restrictions as a listed building and arguably feels dated compared with the shiny broker suites housed in the offices of an increasing number of managing agents.

Would a change of scene to a brand-new space in turn push the market to see itself anew – as forward-thinking, fast-moving, digitally empowered? Sometimes comfortable familiarity can hinder us in challenging the status quo.

There is no denying this is a market steeped in history and tradition, and there is value in preserving that heritage and acknowledging those roots. But there is a question whether it is Lloyd’s proper role to be the custodian of the space and all its antiquities.

There are, of course, also very valid reasons why Lloyd’s should stay put. Financial implications aside, to take on a relocation exercise on top of all the Future at Lloyd’s work would throw up very real concerns about bandwidth and disruption at a time when Lloyd’s needs to focus on Blueprint Two execution.

Lloyd’s is already changing a lot, and moving away from the Richard Rogers-designed building may be the step which leads clients to start thinking it is losing its identity.

As such, this is no normal post-pandemic real estate decision, and one which won’t be taken lightly or based on blue-sky thinking alone. However, it will set the tone for Lloyd’s and its identity for now and well into the future.

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