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Birmingham

Birmingham today is a nod to its wonderful past

JLL'S head of research, Jon Neale, a Birmingham native turned southerner, revisits the city's history to chart the rise and fall and now rise again of one of the UK's great centre's for business and innovation


​BIRMINGHAM, 28 March 2017 - Walking out of a train into the cavernous modern spaces of Birmingham's recently redesigned New Street station - and the Grand Central shopping centre that sits above it - or strolling through the elegant streets outside in the city's Victorian heart - or the revitalised Bullring - it is hard to believe that some still use it as a byword for urban decay and ugliness.

I grew up in Birmingham and remember its early 1990s incarnation.

The city centre, or rather a tiny fraction at the heart of it, was hemmed in by dual carriageways on concrete stilts.

The main entrance to the city was not Future Systems' dalek-like Selfridges building but the brutalist slab of the original 1960s shopping centre.

I couldn't wait to escape. But I also didn't understand the city's recent past. In 1980, when I was just five years old, the West Midlands was the richest region outside the South East.

By the time I was a teenager, the city had lost thousands of jobs - perhaps the biggest casualty of the Thatcher decade.

Manchester might have been where the mills reached Earth-shaking scale but this birth place of industrial revolution was where the first steam engines and first factories were conceived, where great entrepreneurs like Matthew Boulton and James Watt mulled over their plans, where European-league intellectuals like Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin debated in coffee houses.

Later, under Joseph Chamberlain, it would pioneer municipal reforms, becoming a model for urban planning around the world.

It had once been known as the 'city of a thousand trades' and so fertile was Victorian Birmingham as an 'innovation district' that Edward Glaeser, the American academic who wrote the recent tract 'The Triumph of the City', selected it as the example par excellence.

Some argue that the city has been lagging other British centres in reinventing itself. They completely underestimate how much has been achieved over the longer term.

In the early 1990s Birmingham was in the forefront of urban regeneration.

It lowered ring roads, built convention centres and concert halls, opened up canals and urban squares for revitalisation and tried to make the centre more walkable.

It was groundworks for its latest wave of redevelopment. Today, Birmingham feels like a completely different place. More confidant, more attractive, more cosmopolitan.

It has a clutch of Michelin stars and is full of hipster coffee bars, independent shops and restored Victorian pubs with a dizzying choice of hand pumps and craft beers - all frequented by a population which is just as multicultural and diverse as the capital.

The retail and leisure market, meanwhile, is buoyed by the resurgent manufacturing sector.

HS2 has already spurred further investment and relocation of both talent and business (HSBC and Deutsche Bank) alienated by London's high costs.

Of course, the city still has its challenges, but it also has huge advantages, being so centrally located.

It is also - surprisingly, to those who do not know it - green and spacious, particularly in the southern suburbs -"lavishly green, and a picture book anthology of architectural styles", according to the critic Jonathan Meades.

Not least the best 'urban village' in the country, the Jewellery Quarter - its wonderful (if modified) Georgian townscape and art deco factory buildings make Shoreditch or the Northern Quarter look humdrum and plain by comparison.

The Government is taking it seriously, too; Nick Timothy, one of Theresa May's closest advisers, is a native and a great advocate of the city.

The mayoral elections later this year could see Conservative candidate Andy Street, the former John Lewis boss, become the city's figurehead.

It is a totally different place from the city I remember and one to rediscover, except perhaps the accent. Oh, and the Villa weren't a bad team in my day.

- Jon Neale
Head of UK Research

Published in the Birmingham Post.