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Birmingham’s bad image: how to solve our second-rate status

Birmingham’s bad image: how to solve our second-rate status

🕔01.Aug 2013

Have you seen the latest survey about people’s perceptions of Birmingham? Don’t worry if you haven’t, you already know what’s in it. We’re second rate for pretty much everything it seems: bottom of the league, or thereabouts, for nightlife, culture, architecture, music, sport, even for how we dress which is a new one on me. And the accent of course, that goes without saying. I’ve seen so many of these surveys over the years that they don’t wind me up anymore – they make me mildly irritated rather than downright annoyed – however, what, if anything should we learn from them?

If we want people to see us as the second most important city in the country, then a good place to start would be in how we respond to these perennial ‘Birmingham is second rate’ surveys. The more we complain about this sort of thing, the more Marketing Birmingham come out with comments in mitigation like ‘well, our food offer has been praised by the New York Times’, the more it looks like we care, and the more we look like bad losers. Throwing lots of statistics back in reply – ’33.8 million tourists last year’, ‘105,000 visitors to the cricket’ – won’t make the blindest bit of difference. We’re talking about people’s perceptions.

The CBSO and Birmingham Royal Ballet are exceptional, well respected institutions that do a huge amount of good for the city but please, let’s stop pinning our cultural ‘offer’ on them. I’m not convinced that they particularly reflect the diversity, and age profile of our city anyway – two of the things that we really do have going for us – and it’s encouraging that more marketing is now being done around the ‘New Beat Generation’ group of younger, noisier artists and musicians. I’ve got form with regards to continually banging on about this sort of thing but everyone of my generation will remember how Manchester briefly became the coolest city in the planet in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s on the back of its music scene.

Let’s get behind the Birmingham Big Art Project and its proposal to create an iconic piece of public art for the city, and let’s get it right. The High Line Project in New York, a public park built on an historic rail freight line high above the streets of Manhattan’s West Side, is now on any discerning tourist’s ‘to do’ list and could work brilliantly in Birmingham. The artwork along the route is constantly changing and is consequently a much safer bet than funding a single, very expensive, piece of art which, let’s face it, many of us would probably end up moaning about.

I think the case for HS2 is getting weaker all the time. Even the head of the CBI thinks that the money could be put to better use. A proper, integrated local transport system would be much more beneficial to people living and working in this city. A train network that could get people from say, Sutton Coldfield to Moseley, would be a start. Or from Digbeth to the Jewellery Quarter.

It’s people that make great cities, not buildings. It’s great news that Birmingham is getting a new public library at a time when many around the country are closing down, and the photos of it will certainly look good on the marketing material, but I’m not convinced that it’ll bring people into the city, or, more crucially, help keep people here. The hard slog of improving our schools, getting people into work, and making it safe and easy for people to get around will not only improve everybody’s quality of life, it will also encourage graduates to stay here and put down roots.

If we want to improve people’s perceptions of this city, then, we need to act with a bit more self-belief, widen our cultural offer, invest in the arts and give people plenty of reasons to want to stay here. Get these things right and the only surveys that’ll be left to irritate us will be the ones that rate our accent.

What’s particularly frustrating, however, is that you probably wouldn’t be able to find a room big enough to accommodate the people at the head of all the organisations responsible for these areas of public life.

Wouldn’t it be useful if we had a single person, accountable to the residents of Birmingham, and with the democratic clout to bring together the marketing people, business groups and cultural organisations? Who could confidently shrug off the next ‘second rate Birmingham’ survey that heads our way and tell the media, on our behalf, that we’re too busy building a great city, thank you, to respond to the same, boring criticisms that we’ve heard a hundred times before? Who could put the case, perhaps, for how he, or she, would tackle the city’s ‘image problem’ to residents prior to an election and give us all the opportunity to debate the issue?

Does the leader of the city council, voted into his position by his councillor colleagues every twelve months, have that democratic mandate? Or is it about now that we start kicking ourselves for not voting for a mayor?

Philip Parkin is the Conservative councillor for Sutton Trinity Ward and former deputy leader of the Conservative Group. His interests are in the regeneration, cultural offer and reputation of Birmingham.

Blog: www.philipparkin.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/peparkin

Cover Image: Victoria Square – Jas Sansi, Jas Sansi P H O T O G R A P H Y

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