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Greater Birmingham: has it’s time come?

Greater Birmingham: has it’s time come?

🕔10.Mar 2014

Whisper it softly, but Birmingham has been on the end of some favourable publicity lately.

Media attention, when it manages to peer warily out from London, tends to focus on some ghastly child murder, a riot, or doom and gloom economic news, before reverting to type by trumpeting how the capital is booming and what a great place it is to live in.

In the past week or so, though, serious newspapers have begun to pick up and report on the Birmingham success story in terms of jobs and new businesses being created.

Or perhaps that should be the “Greater Birmingham” success story, for a soft rebranding exercise has slipped into gear and is being pushed forward by Birmingham City Council and the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP (GBSLEP).

GBSLEP chairman Andy Street, writing in the Daily Telegraph, was at pains to talk about Greater Birmingham when he commented on tonight’s second part of the BBC2 programme Mind the Gap.

The documentary, presented by Evan Davis, considers which of Birmingham, Manchester or Cambridge are best placed to deliver the skills, jobs and inward investment land required capitalise on London’s ‘over-heated’ economy.

There can be little doubt that the London economy is booming, perhaps at a dangerously fast pace. A recent study by Centre for Cities found that the capital accounts for 19 per cent of jobs, 21 per cent of businesses and 25 per cent of economic output for the whole of the UK.

The question facing Birmingham is whether it can overcome an unfair reputation as an inward-looking city presiding over declining mass-volume manufacturing industries and present its true face as a place at the heart of promoting digital technology industries and advanced manufacturing and as a world class research centre for medical sciences?

There is, it is fair to say, a certain amount of apprehension about Mind the Gap.

Tonight’s programme will look at the ‘planning mistakes’ of the 1960s and 1970s. Many of these errors involved the ‘concrete corset’ of Birmingham’s inner ring road, drawn far too tightly around the city centre 50 years ago. Much of the elevated section of the road has been swept away in Eastside and Digbeth, but severe problems remain to the west of the central area where the A38 slices off the Jewellery Quarter from the centre.

With GBSLEP’s update on its draft Strategic Economic Plan, the annual property shindig in Cannes and the BBC2 programme, a full on PR assault has swung into action. Those promoting Greater Birmingham will accept that the city hasn’t always planned effectively for the long term, but it is showing strong signs of a return to economic health.

Advocates for Greater Birmingham will point to attracting record investment from overseas; significant growth in sectors such as digital tech and life sciences; manufacturing companies such as JLR, SAIC and Mondelez backing Birmingham because of its R&D expertise and a booming BFPS sector. They will say that the infrastructure decisions being taken now, on airport expansion, HS2 and urban regeneration, are the ones that need to be right in order to continue to grow and secure the city’s resurgence.

Mr Street makes the point in his Daily Telegraph article that Birmingham’s economy is on the move, with exports from the West Midlands up by 30 per cent over the past two years compared with two per cent nationally.

And last year more businesses were started in Birmingham than anywhere outside of London, over 16,000 in total. Inward investment was over 50 per cent up and Mr Street believes it is “very likely” economic growth in Birmingham will outstrip the country by more than two per cent this year.

He talks about the manufacturing revival and Jaguar Land Rover’s “incredible story”. He points out that some £64 billion of public and private sector money will be pumped into West Midlands’ infrastructure by 2020.

The completion of the £600 million New Street Station refurbishment next year, with a John Lewis department store, obviously gets a mention since Mr Street is the chief executive of John Lewis. The forthcoming Birmingham Curzon development around an HS2 high speed rail terminus, and the redevelopment of Paradise Circus, will trigger the most dramatic re-shaping of the city centre for years and create thousands of jobs.

In a separate newspaper article, also in the Daily Telegraph, Mr Street talks about a £150 million Investment Fund put together by West Midlands LEPs which he says will help 500 advanced manufacturing companies to double their growth in four years.

The cash pot has been renamed the Greater Birmingham Investment Fund, in an indication of a softly-softly move towards using the ‘Greater Birmingham’ tag to describe the metropolis covered by Birmingham, Solihull, Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

Any formal recognition of Greater Birmingham as a local government entity, perhaps a Combined Authority with strategic powers over economic development, transport, housing and skills, would still appear to be a very long way off.

Generations of mistrust of Birmingham’s motives by Black Country councils and Coventry have always conspired in the past to prevent the “Greater” tag from receiving any formal approval.

But the use of the tag informally is gaining currency, both locally and nationally. At this year’s Mipim property fair in Cannes, starting tomorrow, the West Midlands councils are exhibiting side by side under the Greater Birmingham banner, although this unity may be more about cost-sharing than neighbourliness.

Sir Albert Bore, the leader of Birmingham City Council, spoke recently of the need to get back on track with city region status and is pressing for much closer co-operation between Birmingham and the Black Country councils.

The theory is, looking from London, that Greater Birmingham through its sheer size and economic power morphs into a place that is easier to grasp as an investment opportunity than an isolated Birmingham sitting on its own. What could be simpler?

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