There is a variant of Parkinson’s Law which says that once an organisation builds itself a grand headquarters it is in decline. A visitor to Tower Hill, in London, will see an imposing building called Ten, Trinity Square; now a hotel, formerly the home of an insurance broker, but built as the headquarters of the Port of London Authority. The PLA decided to build it in 1911; it was finished in 1922. Its boardroom was so grand that the first meeting of the United Nations was held there in 1946.
1911 was the year in which trade through the Port of London, and thus the revenue of the PLA, reached its peak. It has declined ever since.
The International Maritime Organization is, as everyone reading this knows, a United Nations agency based far away from the UN’s HQ in New York. It was set up at a conference held in Geneva in 1949, which agreed that a new UN agency, to be called the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation (IMCO), would be set up in London. From 1959 to 1982, IMCO wandered around London, in various rented buildings, from Chancery Lane to Berners Street to Piccadilly, doing useful stuff. It got its own place, on the Albert Embankment, and a grander name, in 1982. It was no longer ‘intergovernmental consultative’ but ‘maritime’. It soon became less useful and has done less and less, with more and more bureaucracy, with every year that passes.
The trick is to get the Singaporeans to pay generously for something that they so desperately want
The IMO has fossilised; it needs something to wake it up. A change of scenery might do that.
In 1949, London was obviously the headquarters of the world’s merchant shipping. Not only was the British merchant fleet the largest in the world, but London was still, as it had been during World War II, the ‘home from home’ of the Greek, Norwegian and Dutch merchant fleets. By 1959, the open registers had eaten into the dominance of those flags, but London was still pretty much the place to be, with New York as the only practical alternative, so far as shipbroking, finance, law, arbitration and special expertise of all sorts as well as shipmanagement were concerned.
British merchant shipping reached its greatest tonnage in 1977. By 1982, it was well into absolute as well as relative decline, but nobody who wasn’t at sea, and being made redundant, really noticed.
London could pretend for a few decades that although it no longer had many actual ships, it still had Lloyds, most of the P&I Clubs, the Baltic Exchange, most of the brokers, many of the bankers, most of the lawyers, arbitrators, average adjusters and the like (remember the Salvage Association?) and many experts. And anyway, it was doing better than New York.
The IMO has fossilised; it needs something to wake it up
The IMO is now in the wrong place. That Eighties building, stranded on the Albert Embankment, looks more and more like a white elephant. It has been shut for months – did you notice?
Shipping isn’t centred on the North Atlantic anymore; this is the Pacific Century. Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila, and of course Singapore, can all make a better claim to host the IMO than can London, which isn’t even in the European Union.
Changing the location of the headquarters requires an overwhelming majority of the member states. Clearly, any city making a play to house the new IMO HQ will have to be somewhere that delegates (and let us not forget, partners of delegates!) want to be. Five of the cities I have listed can do that with no trouble at all, and even Manila can look quite good when it wants to; it is already the home of the IIRI and the ADB.
I suggest that the secretary general convenes a committee to hold a beauty parade in the manner of the International Olympic Committee, and get in the most generous financial inducements and the best offers of new buildings, perhaps located where a ship or two may be seen from the windows. It’s going to be Singapore; the trick is to get the Singaporeans to pay generously for something that they so desperately want.
Perhaps the IMO secretariat can make a start now, whilst they are not so busy?