2015: A Year of Transformation
The year got off to a promising start as far as the Birmingham economy was concerned, and the good news just kept getting better and better throughout 2015, writes Paul Dale in the final part of our review of the year.
Birmingham is the most entrepreneurial city outside of London for new business start-ups, is attracting more foreign investment than anywhere apart from the capital and the south-east, and is a magnet for tourism with visitors generating an all-time high of £6.2 billion for the economy.
Oh, and not that we are bragging, but Birmingham and the West Midlands is the only region in the UK to operate a trade surplus with China. So stick that where the sun don’t shine, Manchester and the Northern so-called Powerhouse.
Rugby World Cup matches at Villa Park, the Birmingham Weekender arts festival and the opening of New Street Station and John Lewis store gave us Super September, the planning of which was marked by the development of crowd-control contingency arrangements to deal with the consequences of too many people flooding into Birmingham city centre.
According to estimates by the Regional Observatory and tourism research body Global Tourism Solutions (GTS), more than 38 million people will have visited the city by the end of 2015.
Thankfully, the ‘Birmingham Full’ signs didn’t have to go up, but the very fact that the emergency services had to think seriously about the possibility demonstrates the way the city centre has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few years.
Giving his annual statement to the city council in June, the then leader Sir Albert Bore was able for once to cast aside his gloomy ‘jaws of doom’ mantra about the impact of public spending cuts and focus instead on business growth in ‘Booming Birmingham’.
The city, he declared, is set for “a level of economic success we have not seen for 50 years”. Sir Albert said:
The latest figures show growth in the West Midlands is now outstripping that of any other core city region. The region is now the nation’s only exporter with a trade surplus with China, 2015 will be a special year in the city’s journey back to prosperity.
The council leader hardly needed to highlight a series of major developments that have combined to produce a step change for Birmingham city centre unheralded since the Bullring was redeveloped a decade ago, for the tell-tale signs of cranes on the skyline are there for all to see.
We have, in no particular order of importance, the completion of the £700 million New Street Station redevelopment, work starting on the £500 million Paradise redevelopment, progress at last on Arena Central, demolition of the former NatWest Tower in Colmore Row, the relocation of the Wholesale Markets, construction of the Beorma Quarter in Digbeth and refurbishment of the Mailbox.
Three of these schemes – New Street Station, Arena Central and Paradise – have been on the drawing board for at least 15 years and there were plenty of occasions during the mid-2000s when it seemed neither would happen very quickly, if at all.
Agreement to build a John Lewis store above New Street Station, the largest outside of London, is seen by many as the icing on the cake, and the Grand Central shopping centre is certainly a vast improvement on the grim and outdated Pallasades.
Meanwhile, the 2015 STEAM report – which is produced annually to assess the economic impact of visitors to the UK’s major cities – highlighted the growing appeal of Birmingham’s festival offering, which helped draw record numbers of visitors to the city.
This year’s calendar of more than 50 festivals included the city’s biggest charity art exhibition, The Big Hoot; Moseley Folk Festival, which celebrated its 10th anniversary; and the city’s largest arts festival to date, Birmingham Arts Partnership’s Birmingham Weekender.
The STEAM report also revealed visitor spend is expected to increase from £5.9 billion in 2014 to £6.2 billion in 2015 – a rise of £245 million, creating 859 more jobs in the city and surrounding region’s tourism sector.
If 2015 has been a good year for the Birmingham city centre economy, there is every reason to think that the current boom has plenty of legroom left to grow at pace.
An extension of the city centre Enterprise Zone, announced by the Chancellor in the Autumn Statement, will set positive conditions for further inward investment and job creation. At the same time, with local authorities set to retain all of the business rates they collect from 2020, the city council has a clear incentive to grow the local economy and reap the financial rewards.
The biggest economic prize of all is a little way down the track, so to speak. HS2, the high speed rail line from London to Birmingham, isn’t due to arrive at Curzon Street until 2026, but the regeneration opportunities that will be created in and around Digbeth and Eastside are only just beginning to be understood.
Vast tracts of land occupied by empty and run-down properties will become highly marketable. The huge area occupied by the Wholesale Markets and adjoining land, on the doorstep of the new HS2 station, will surely be Birmingham’s next great regeneration project.
Birmingham city centre is growing, not just into the sky with new tower blocks, but outwards from what was the constricting concrete collar of the inner ring road, expanding into Digbeth, Eastside, Snow Hill and the Jewellery Quarter.
This year was good, next year will be better, and the 2020s look set to usher in an economic boom the scale of which Birmingham has not witnessed for generations.
Pic: Musicians stop shoppers in their tracks at Birmingham Weekender; Verity-Milligan.
Tomorrow: ChamberlainFiles Regional Awards for Politics (branding guidelines stipulate the title must be used in full).
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