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2014 Review: Centre success must spread

2014 Review: Centre success must spread

🕔24.Dec 2014

If 2014 was a bad year for Birmingham council, which it undoubtedly was, the almost parallel universe of the city centre goes from strength to strength writes Paul Dale in the second and final part of his 2014 review.

This is where the money is sucked in, when there is any cash for investment, and the city core will soon benefit from extended metro tram lines, the arrival of HS2 in 2026 and the Grand Central shopping complex at New Street station with a John Lewis store in September 2015.

Work began on the £650 million New Street Gateway project in 2010. When completed, the station concourse areas will be three and a half times larger than the old station, although crucially there will be no additional platforms or extra train capacity.

Grand Central will have about 40 shops, including John Lewis, 20 restaurants and will create 1,000 jobs. The city council says it intends to work with the shopping centre in an attempt to make sure as many of the new jobs as possible go to people living in Birmingham’s worst unemployment areas.

Whatever else happens, the start of 2015 will be a landmark moment in Birmingham’s post-war history with work starting on the demolition of the old Central Library and the redevelopment of Paradise Circus – one of the largest regeneration schemes outside of London.

This £500 million project is being delivered through the joint venture company, Paradise Circus Limited Partnership (PCLP), a partnership between Birmingham City Council and BT Pension Scheme, managed by Hermes Real Estate with Argent as development manager.

The first phase of works will include demolition, significant infrastructure changes and enhancements to the public realm, including improvements to Chamberlain Square. The first two office buildings overlooking Chamberlain Square are speculative developments and not pre-let in a move that is seen as an important vote of private sector confidence in the Birmingham economy.

A detailed planning application for the buildings will be submitted in early 2015.

The pending completion of New Street prompted Transport Secretary Patrick McLouglin to claim when launching the Birmingham Mobility Action Plan that the new station and shopping centre will become a tourist destination in its own right, which is surely exaggerating just a tad even for a politician.

But Birmingham’s stakeholders have always been keen on shops, as evidenced by Marketing Birmingham’s 2014 annual meeting with its customary beatification of the Bullring, Mailbox, John Lewis and Brindleyplace.

And it is certain that the city centre will become an even richer place over the next decade or so as the tax benefits of the enterprise zone and the regeneration stimulus provided by HS2 kick in, which is undoubtedly good news for Birmingham and the redevelopment of Digbeth and Eastside

An announcement is expected soon revealing the new owners of the NEC Group after Birmingham council’s perilous financial position forced the sale of the city’s ‘crown jewels’. Under the terms of the sale the new owners must maintain the NEC, the ICC, Symphony Hall and the NIA as conference/leisure venues and will be expected to pump in much needed financial investment.

But, and this is the really big but that has troubled the city council for two decades or more, how can the glittering success of the commercial and retail core of Birmingham trickle out to the inner city wards and suburbs where unemployment and deprivation remain far higher than the national average?

Despite efforts over many years to turn things around unemployment is still more than 20 per cent in some parts of Aston, Sparkbrook, Lozells and Bordesley Green and – as the Kerslake Review pointed out – this is one reason why the Birmingham economy is underperforming against other metropolitan authorities.

Any thought that Birmingham council can ride to the rescue by pumping money into schemes to improve skills and cut deprivation is wishful thinking. The council faces budget cuts of at least £340 million over the next two years, and probably more, as the Chancellor’s austerity programme continues to bite.

In reality, the council in future will be a smaller body, down from 120 councillors to 100 or even fewer. Its role is likely to be that of a commissioner of services from the private and voluntary sectors, and as the responsible body for overseeing the finances of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership.

LEPs appear to be the only game in town, with access to the Local Growth Fund and tax incremental funding the only real prospect of financial stimulus. To what extent though can GBSLEP and the city centre enterprise zone deliver the step change required in the Birmingham economy?

This is the challenge for 2015 and beyond. Whether this is a challenge that the city council in its current broken and demoralised state can pick up and run with is uncertain.

One thing is clear: whoever wins the General Election, someone in Government will be keeping a very close eye indeed on whether Birmingham takes the Kerslake Review recommendations seriously and delivers the radical cultural and organisational change that is so desperately needed.

Next week: our preview of 2015. In the meantime, on behalf of the Chamberlain Files editorial team and publisher RJF Public Affairs, we wish all our readers a Very Merry Christmas. Thank you for visiting the Files during 2014. Have yourself a few days away from the local political fray. 

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