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Birmingham

Birmingham seems on the edge of a new trajectory

If only the rest of the country would sit up and take notice says Jon Neale, head of JLL UK Research


BIRMINGHAM, 13th March, 2014 - Having lived in (or close to) the capital for almost two decades now, I have lost all but a trace of my Midlands vowels – even though I am still very proud of my Birmingham roots. My relative lack of an accent perhaps explains why, whenever my home town is mentioned, many Londoners comfortable trotting out tired old insults and stereotypes.
 
If the city had not changed since the dark days of the 1980s, then this would perhaps be understandable – even if I would insist that Birmingham’s suburbs are in fact among the greenest, leafiest and most spacious in the country. But as someone who remembers the old Bull Ring and elevated Queensways, and has seen the huge changes since, it rings deeply false.
 
When I return home now, and see the ongoing improvements to the city centre – not least at New Street station and at Eastside – this image seems more outdated than ever. More importantly, Birmingham seems a more relaxed, integrated and happy place, and now has the shopping and leisure facilities to match. It feels, to me at least, as if it is on the edge of a new trajectory – if only the rest of the country would sit up and take notice.
 
Attracting investment is just as much about soft factors as hard questions about the economy and infrastructure. Birmingham still needs to work very hard to change its image. And this is not just about promoting new development projects or large-scale cultural events. What attracts people to cities is often the smaller scale details; interesting, authentic urban neighbourhoods and independent bars or restaurants.
 
For example, I think the city has not really capitalised on its wonderful dining scene, its still impressive Victorian architecture, or the vitality of the Jewellery Quarter – an area that I believe could be one of the most exciting urban villages in Britain, if only it were better connected to the centre.  Add its resurgent music scene to this mix, and it is easy to see how Birmingham could sell itself as a young, vibrant city. Indeed, publications from abroad, lacking domestic stereotypes, have recognised this already.
 
Allied with this we need to reclaim Birmingham’s history as a place of ideas. Other cities may have a claim to be where the implications of the industrial revolution became most apparent, but it was Brummie inventions and innovations that made the modern world. Other cities – with less of a claim – make more of their industrial history. It is time to make it clear that Birmingham has always been about far more than cars or metal bashing, that is has always been part of the knowledge economy.
 
The city’s real advantage, though, is the quality of its suburbs. Where else has areas of the quality of Edgbaston and Harborne so close to the centre? Certainly not Manchester or Leeds. Further afield, the city has a much better housing stock, and more spacious suburbs, than much of the competition – even if much of the country still thinks of system-built tower blocks. With the cost and shortage of housing such a burden to many young workers, the relatively lavish offer in Birmingham could be a real source of strength, if sold correctly.
 
It is true that the city is still struggling in some aspects of its economy. For example, it is still much more reliant on manufacturing than cities such as Leeds and Manchester, with which it competes for both public and private investment.  We should always remember – and remind others – that Birmingham was an affluent industrial centre until the 1970s, when those other cities had been in decline for decades. It has simply not had as long to reinvent itself as its peers, a fact that is too often overlooked.  Indeed, that reinvention was stifled by the effects of the constraints that central government had put in place after the war on a place that was then deemed too successful.
 
Business Birmingham is doing sterling work in demonstrating the strengths of the city, and the high level of talent that exists across the Midlands – diving deep into the statistics to demonstrate to investors the benefits of locating in the city. The scale of Birmingham often hides surprising depths; for example, recent work from Centre for Cities has shown that the city centre’s success in creating private sector jobs is hidden by the loss of employment elsewhere in the conurbation.
 
This should help to attract more inward investment – crucial, as nothing else can buoy employment numbers and sentiment as quickly in the short term. However, what the city needs to create in the long-term is more endogenous growth  – more start-ups, more entrepreneurship, more talented individuals moving into the city to make their ideas reality, just as the members of the Lunar Society did over two centuries ago.
 
That will not only change the image of the city – make it feel as if it is a place where successful people congregate – it will also help the business cases for large-scale relocation. A virtuous circle will have started. The recent growth of the computer games industry is a sign that this may already be happening in the all-important technology sector.

Nevertheless, there is much to be done in terms of skills and education, and Birmingham does not have particularly high concentrations of knowledge-intensive jobs in fast-growing sectors. But there are signs that both image and reality are beginning to change: the decision of Deutsche Bank to invest seriously in Brindleyplace is, hopefully, a sign of things to come.
 
It is equally heartening that Birmingham, Solihull and the Black Country are to come together under the Greater Birmingham banner. This is a really important moment for the whole of the West Midlands. Manchester may have been lucky with football and music – and to have avoided the worst excesses of the 1960s – but its success in recent years has been reaped after decades of working closely with other local authorities in the region.
 
After all, international investors do not understand or care about local administrative boundaries; what they understand as a city is a contiguous urban area . It seems peculiar to those outside the Midlands that Wigan or Stockport are happy to be “Greater Manchester”  while Wolverhampton or Solihull often seem to claim to be completely separate from Birmingham, despite there being no let up in the buildings as you drive between either.
 
 Admittedly this is partly a result of history; the cotton towns have always looked towards Cottonopolis, whereas the Black Country’s specialisation in primary and extractive industries gave it a very different character from Brummagem’s artisans.  But in a world where city regions compete with city regions, these old separations need to be set aside, or we will all lose out.
 
It is gladdening that Wolverhampton or Walsall are starting to recognise this, but there is still much to be done. For example, places as far afield as Bradford, York, Harrogate and Skipton are happy to be part of the “Leeds City Region”. The equivalent would be Coventry, Leamington Spa and Worcester accepting the Birmingham moniker. That may be some way away.
 
There is also a lot of ground to be made up.  Manchester’s Metrolink, its new museums and the BBC relocation do not come from government favouritism; they all come from decades of joined-up lobbying to government aimed at positioning the conurbation as the second largest business centre after London.  But Greater Birmingham, it seems, is now in a position to start properly promoting itself and telling the world about the vast amount of physical, human and cultural assets it has. A bit more football success would help, too.​