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Prestige or Priorities: Can you imagine a city centre without the ICC and Brindleyplace?

Prestige or Priorities: Can you imagine a city centre without the ICC and Brindleyplace?

🕔21.Jan 2015

In the second part of our city centre development debate, Patrick Willcocks – a former Birmingham City Council officer – argues the investment in the centre and glamour projects have brought jobs but that we now need smarter economic development. 

Professor David Bailey argues for a move away from an economic development focus on the city centre and the glamour projects that started with the 1998 Highbury Initiative. I think this is wrong. Let me first address the focus on the city centre and secondly the impact of such ‘glamour’ projects.

A recent report by the Centre for Cities on Birmingham says:

In order to support future jobs growth in the city, Birmingham City Council and its partners should focus economic development measures in the centre.

The key fact is that private sector jobs in the city centre rose by 17% between 1998 and 2011, with jobs in the same sector falling significantly outside the centre. In fact the city centre was the most significant jobs hotspot across the whole urban area.

This jobs growth was precisely because of investment in the city centre. Another report from Centre for Cities contradicts the idea that we might be over centralised in employment terms. In 2011 Birmingham city centre had the lowest share of private sector employment relative to total private sector employment of any of the Core Cities’ centres.

So to the ‘glamour’ projects. The ICC did cost the city council a significant sum of money, but it drew in £50m of EU investment. Could you now envisage a city centre without it? Would BrindleyPlace with its 10,000 jobs have happened otherwise; would the huge growth in hotels and restaurants have happened? I think not.

A 2008 KPMG report on the NEC group suggested it supported almost 30,000 jobs and created £2bn added value for the local economy. Indeed, this investment together with city centre environmental improvements; the Bull Ring (another glamour project?) and investment in arts and culture has meant that the city has a record numbers of visitors, including from overseas. They are not coming to visit Kings Heath or Acocks Green; largely they are here for the city centre and they create employment.

Millennium Point was largely paid for by others and despite a weak start, under the current steerage of CEO Phillip Singleton it really is starting to add value to the city. Unlike other cities our Millennium project didn’t go bust but is now thriving!

The Library is a conundrum. It is both a missed opportunity, but a wonderful success. All parties saw the need for a new Library – unfortunately one of the most expensive sites was chosen and its conceptualisation was too narrow. Ask a librarian what you need and they will say a new library. It should have been much more of a multi-use facility, with other functions helping to fund it. And yet it attracted over 2.7m visitors in its first year.

Like most projects viewed with hindsight, we could have done better with our glamour projects but they were needed. Rather than having too many – we probably have had too few in recent years. In the week that Manchester announces a new arts centre, I say we are in danger of being left behind in the culture and creativity race.

Let’s not forget we’ve tried a more decentralised approach. When I came to the city in 1998, the Heartlands UDC was just finishing trying to restructure parts of East Birmingham. During the 1990’s we had a plethora of SRB schemes across the city. To what effect? Whilst there were some individually good projects, I am not sure what they in total achieved?

Don’t get me wrong, much more needs to be done outside the city centre. If we establish a Greater Birmingham Combined Authority, we can do more with greater control of funding,. The issue of skills and inequalities is vital for the city. I view this as largely a fail of central government as it has doggedly maintained control of skills and social inclusion funding. The ‘under investment’ in education has not seemingly done Birmingham school pupils any harm as we outperform London and other Core Cities, but the real issue of how to increase skill levels and the economic activity rate of some of our communities does need to be tackled urgently and we need control over these resources.

And there needs to be further change. The current administration has started by investing in ICentrum to support digital jobs and companies, supporting the investment at the University of Birmingham in the Institute for Translational Medicine; the Battery Park Life Sciences Campus and the work on the Advanced Manufacturing site in Aston. But, far more needs to be done working with our universities.

In fact, our universities need to step up a gear and be more entrepreneurial. Perhaps the trailed launch of a Technology Enterprise Zone will help.

Finally, a little bug bear of mine. The creative engine that is Digbeth grew up largely in spite of the Council – which doesn’t quite understand creativity and how to stimulate it. This should change.

I think we need a debate on the future direction of the city: our economic development needs to be smarter; more work is needed with our Universities; we need to embrace creativity and culture. But, the overall focus still needs to lie largely in the city centre because it is the one place where we have shown we can grow jobs.

Patrick Willcocks is an adviser on urban and European affairs. He tweets @urbanpivot. 

We asked Birmingham City Council for its response to Professor Bailey’s post, but no one was available. 

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