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Seize the day Brummies, if you really are the Second City

Seize the day Brummies, if you really are the Second City

🕔28.Aug 2012
via marcreeves

This is it. This is Birmingham’s chance. The news that the Palace of Westminster is crumbling around our MPs’ ears and will cost skyward of £3 billion to fix is great news for Britain’s Second City.

Get on the phone now, my dear Brummies and convince Speaker Bercow and his gartered flunkies to up-sticks to Brum and flog-off that ratty old ruin by the Thames to some Arab squillionaire so he can turn it into a boutique hotel.

Alas, I’m not holding my breath. Birmingham often struggles to rise to the challenge. I’m not a native son of the city, more of a second cousin I guess, but I have spent enough time working here in recent years to see that.

There seem to me three inter-related problems that are holding the city back when boldness is called for. The first is the size of the place. Brum is effectively a one-city region, twice as big as Manchester or Sheffield. With 50,000 employees and a budget of £3 billion, the City Council is said to be the largest unitary local authority in Europe.

This creates friction with the neighbours as they don’t like working with you because they think you dominate proceedings. Short men don’t like to have tall girlfriends. So effective joint-working, of the kind that is commonplace in Greater Manchester or West Yorkshire, doesn’t happen here in the same way.

The size of the place leads on to the second problem – Birmingham is hard to run. I once asked an old hand in the Town Hall why so many so the senior players seemed, well, pretty average. He said it was because Birmingham was “an elephant’s graveyard.” With honourable exceptions (Sir Michael Lyons springs to mind) the quality of the senior management, both politically and administratively, is, historically, not what it could be.

“People come here with high hopes”, my Deep Throat told me, “but they soon realise the place doesn’t like change”. It’s so big and complicated. The bureaucracy is Byzantine and the politics of the Town Hall are Roman (and not for the quality of the oratory). Fiefdoms, back-biting, disjointed policy-making, indecision, poor management and a lack of imagination are the end result.

This leads to the third problem: Birmingham’s crippling lack of self-confidence. I’ve worked with enough Brummies to know that their glass is usually half-empty. It may be said (and I can tell you it’s true) that it always rains in Manchester, but it’s Brummies who always take their metaphorical raincoats and brollies with them when they step out.

It’s not a lack of civic pride, far from it; it’s more the absence of swagger.  Birmingham’s cultural identity isn’t as in your face as Liverpool’s or Manchester’s. In some respects that’s a good thing; but there’s not enough effort put into settling on a clear narrative of what the city has done and where it’s going. This is a great city, with a lot going for it. Why aren’t you shouting it from the rooftops?

Just look at the mayoral referendum in May. You had the chance to create a ‘Brummie Boris’ and cement Birmingham’s claim to Second City status. And whoever that person would have ended up being, they could have put the city and its priorities on the map.

But, if you don’t mind me saying, you blew it. Timidity won the day. “Better the devil you know” was the result. To be fair, the other big cities, (Bristol and Liverpool notwithstanding), ballooned the ball over the bar as well. But the others aren’t claiming to be Britain’s Second City are they?

So, dear Brummies, here’s another chance to show what the city is made of. Be bold, seize the day! Get on to Bercow now and offer him the Council House for free. It’s half empty these days and it would pull in a few tourists who could stand in Victoria Square and gawp as our refugee legislators move in.

That would be bold. That would set the pace. That would get Birmingham noticed. That, my friends, is what a real Second City would do.

  • Kevin Meagher is a communications consultant and political commentator who has worked for Advantage West Midlands, Service Birmingham and on Sion Simon’s mayoral bid
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