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Birmingham – A Global City? Lies, damned lies, and how to avoid a Beta Minus – Guest post by Chris Game

Birmingham – A Global City? Lies, damned lies, and how to avoid a Beta Minus – Guest post by Chris Game

🕔01.Mar 2012

Like Paul Dale (February 22) and Kevin Johnson (February 23), I had the privilege of attending last week’s ‘Birmingham – A Global City’ parliamentary reception. As they reported, Council Leader Mike Whitby, in a characteristically impassioned speech, sought both to emphasise and justify the reception’s title – as he will doubtless continue to in the months ahead, whether or not there is a mayoral election in which he is the Conservative candidate. As he does so, though, his claims and assertions will surely be more sceptically received and rigorously examined – not least in these columns – than they were by the canapé-grazing well-wishers on the Thames’ left bank. His case is, as they say, a tough ask, and the Leader’s favoured approach doesn’t necessarily make it less so.

Councillor Whitby believes in overseas travel, trade fairs and delegations, as vital means of raising Birmingham’s business profile to that of a genuinely global city, and thereby stimulating major inward investment: high profile trips that inevitably provoke value-for-money questions from both opposition parties and council taxpayers. The killer retort and measure of success would be new jobs created as a demonstrable result of this international glad-handing. But these are hard to identify specifically at the best of times, let alone in the present economic climate.

This at least partly explains another of the Leader’s enthusiasms: city league tables. As Paul Dale has often noted, Birmingham’s position in the increasing numbers of city ranking indexes and surveys is logged and, where favourable, publicised as if these statistics in themselves were measures of job creation or economic growth. Currently there are two indexes that Councillor Whitby particularly cherishes: the Mercer Quality of Living Index, his and the Big City Plan’s  ambition being to see Birmingham somehow vault from its present 52nd position into the top 25, and the Cushman & Wakefield European Cities Monitor, of which more later.

The ambition is laudable, and, while every pub bore can reel off the “lies, damned lies, and statistics” quote commonly (though almost certainly wrongly) attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, our city council would hardly be alone in selectively deploying statistics to its advantage. Of course, with your own statistics, it’s easy; much harder, though, with other people’s, over which you have no control – and it is this that can present Councillor Whitby with some serious headaches.

First, and most obviously, however much he himself recites the ‘Birmingham – Global City, Local Heart’ mantra, most of those compiling global city rankings just ain’t listening. To them, Birmingham simply is not a global city – or at least not sufficiently global for their purposes. In four, therefore, of perhaps the five most genuinely comprehensive global city studies, their arbitrarily limited sample sizes prevent our even reaching the starting line: the Japanese MORI Global Power Index (35 cities), the Knight Frank Global Cities Survey (40), the American AT Kearney Global Cities Index (65), and PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Cities of Opportunity (26).

All the first three of these indexes, and indeed many others, place the long established ‘big four’ – New York, London, Paris and Tokyo – at the head of their listings, though with Singapore and Hong Kong steadily closing the traditionally wide gap between them and the rest. More to the point, none of the four studies include any UK cities other than London – regrettable perhaps from a national perspective, but a relief for our Leader, whose second potential headache is the inclusion in these indexes of a UK city other than, or ahead of, Birmingham.

The relief, however, is short-lived, for the fifth of these comprehensive studies – the Global Urban Competitiveness Project (GUCP) – compares an equally arbitrary but considerably larger set of 500 cities. It is a multinational exercise, but led by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which, given Councillor Whitby’s fondness for the country, makes it slightly surprising that he hasn’t made rather more of their rankings.  ‘Birmingham 51st out of 500 global cities’ – our position in the most recent (2010) report – would seem a pleasing enough headline, especially as it represented a rise of six places since 2007/08, in the course of which we overtook, among others, one of our partner cities, Frankfurt, plus Dubai and Bristol.

Yes – Bristol, which perhaps explains why we haven’t heard more about the GUCP.  Clearly, a project that until recently thought Bristol a more globally competitive city than Birmingham – and, even worse, still thinks Manchester (47th) is – must have some worrying methodological weaknesses.

The GUCP is positively Brum-friendly, though, compared with the most recent stats in some of the specialist economic global studies. The Brookings/LSE Global MetroMonitor, for example, is an annual analysis of the per capita income and employment changes in 200 of the world’s largest ‘metropolitan economies’ – which for us, although we’re listed as ‘Birmingham UK’, actually means the Metropolitan West Midlands.  Anyway, if there’s any good news to be had, it’s possibly that in 2010/11 our 169th position put us fractionally ahead of Birmingham US’s 175th – both cities having experienced ‘partial recession’, and neither showing measurable signs of recovery. Less good news is that we lagged behind Sheffield, Bristol, London, Leeds/Bradford, Portsmouth/Southampton, Manchester, and Nottingham/Derby, all having apparently been through ‘major recession’, but already ‘partially recovering’.

Then there’s the World Cities List, produced by the Globalisation and World Cities (GaWC) research team coordinated from Loughborough University. Unlike most other indexes, it starts with its own definition of a global city – one whose ‘advanced producer services’ (accountancy, advertising, banking/finance and law) give it a high degree of integration into the world city network – and then sees how many aspiring cities make the grade. The 2010 list assessed 288 cities, and, if it took the form of a straight rank-order, Birmingham would be a tolerable 85th.  Sadly, it doesn’t.

Being academics, the GaWC people grade their global cities as if they were student assignments – from Alpha Double Plus through to Gamma Minus, with a couple of extra categories for those judged to have only a ‘sufficiency’ of services – and Birmingham thus becomes a Beta Minus.  Believe me, persuading Birmingham residents that this Greek mumbo-jumbo, signifying a position in the top third of the planet’s global cities, is a really rather praiseworthy result would be like getting a student, in this era of up-front fees and grade inflation, to see the positive side of the Beta Minus you’ve just awarded their essay. And then, when they learn that their bitterest rival got a straight Beta, as Manchester did – well, you just don’t go there.

All of which may help explain why Councillor Whitby is much keener on the Locational and Quality of Living Indexes. His locational index of choice is ‘Cushwake’ – the Cushman & Wakefield European Cities Monitor – which, like most of this group, exists primarily to assist governments and companies in setting compensation packages for employees relocated to new international assignments. It certainly has drawbacks, not least its title. It positively proclaims the fact that it’s not global, and Manchester, despite slipping three places since 2010, is still the 16th ‘best city in which to do business’, against Birmingham’s ranking of 18th.

The good thing, though, is that plenty of subsidiary indexes contribute to this overall assessment, and there will invariably be some on which Birmingham can reverse the two cities’ rankings.  Currently, these include ease of access to markets, external transport links, cost of staff, and value-for-money of office space – and I can almost hear the Leader explaining how these are surely among the most significant factors in companies’ locational decisions.

Still, you can always hope for even better, and Councillor Whitby, who has evidently led a singularly wholesome life, has been rewarded with what must have been the object of at least some of his dreams: a truly global city index, large enough both to include Birmingham and to appear comprehensive, yet whose methodology somehow allows Manchester and most other UK cities to be excluded altogether. Yes, it’s the Mercer Quality of Living Index – wide-ranging in content, whimsical in its sampling.

221 cities were ranked for the 2011 Index on 39 ‘living condition’ factors grouped in 10 categories – political, economic and socio-cultural environment, health, schools, public services, transportation, etc. – Vienna, Zurich and Auckland being judged as having the highest living standards, and Baghdad the lowest (there’s a surprise!). Yet, while European cities dominate the top rankings in what is a generally quite Eurocentric survey, just five cities were selected from the whole of the UK: London (38), Birmingham (52), Aberdeen (54), Glasgow (56) and Belfast (63).

That’s Mercer’s problem, though. Councillor Whitby’s only headache here is his self-created one of aiming to propel Birmingham into the top 25 cities in what is anything but a volatile Index. Just for the record, among the cities we would have to overtake, in addition to London, are, in ascending order: New York, Tokyo, Washington, Madrid, Chicago, Milan, Barcelona, Boston, San Francisco, Paris and Singapore. Now that really is positive thinking!

Chris Game is Honorary Senior Lecturer, Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV), University of Birmingham.

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