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Opportunity knocks for the UKs second City

Spanish Steps, Rome

At our most recent lunch event for Directors and Executives, held in Birmingham, we posed the question:

What does being ‘The UK’s Second City’ really mean, and does Birmingham live up to the accolade?

Birmingham has generally been regarded as the second city of the United Kingdom in terms of standing and GDP, however, a number of opinion polls cloud the issue, with public response showing a consistent view, amongst the British population, that Manchester is in fact the second city!

  • By population Birmingham has roughly 1.1million inhabitants in the city area and 3.8million in the metropolitan area. By comparison the Greater Manchester area is roughly 2.7million.
  • Birmingham’s metropolitan economy is the second largest in the UK and the West Midlands GVA is £99billion (compared to Greater Manchester’s GVA of £62.8billion) and its six universities make it the largest centre of higher education in the country outside London. The city is also hosting The Commonwealth Games in 2022 (although Manchester hosted them back in 2002!)
  • Andy Street, Mayor of Birmingham, recently said “There will be difficult times ahead, particularly for the automotive sector as we head towards Brexit and we must also make sure HS2 (which has been underpinning the areas construction boom) goes ahead.”

The city is an important transport, retail, events and conference hub as well, so why does it get overlooked as the ‘second city’ and how do we ensure that the level of construction and other investment stays high, how do we retain the talent coming out of the local universities, attract new talent and overall ‘How do we put it back on the map as the Second City?’

HS2 will benefit Birmingham first before the North.

Sean Lowe, CEO of Atlas Hotels opened the discussion with the perspective that culture and arts often underpin the status as a second city in a country. “If you look at the great second cities around Europe, such as Barcelona, they are defined by their contributions to culture and the arts and that is not the case with Birmingham.”

Our Chair interjected saying that in a recent discussion with Maria Machancoses, Director of Midlands Connect, Maria observed that The Commonwealth Games has given some pace to showcase the city. It’s not just about the sport but putting the West Midlands on the map and one of the first events in post-Brexit UK. So The Games are a huge opportunity to put the city and the region on the global stage.

Russel Sang, former Finance Director of The NEC Group (owner of the National Exhibition Centre, International Convention Centre and The Arena Birmingham) observed that when he returned to the city, 6 years after graduating from The University of Birmingham, and has seen the regeneration over 20 years. There’s a feeling that it’s becoming a place where you want to be, both as a professional and socially. He has been impressed by Andy Street and what he is trying to do with Birmingham as a focal point for the region. He commented, “Birmingham has been behind Manchester and the North West, which has been much more cohesive in terms of a united front on politics, investment, business and education. The real opportunity for the area is with HS2, academia and the city having the youngest population in the UK. This is very powerful and a good opportunity for The Commonwealth Games to demonstrate the strength of the region.”

It is not about competing against London or Birmingham but just a focus on promoting the region in its own right.

Roger Dix, Chief Risk Officer at Wesleyan Assurance, believes The Commonwealth Games is a great catalyst and Birmingham has to be pretty perfect for The Games. He went on to say, “Birmingham is not only the youngest city in the UK but also in Europe, it is a very diverse city with a very balanced ethnic and Caucasian mix and this is one of the reasons why Birmingham won The Games.

Jonathan Bretherton, Managing Director of the Urban Growth Company, agreed that the historic sentiment is that of a poor city. Talking to investors internationally he shared that “The appetite to invest in London is well understood but increasing for Manchester. Manchester has done a very good job in the Gulf, of speaking with one voice to investors, which is what Birmingham needs to do, establish a better city centre and be very clear about what the offering is.” He firmly believes the very youthful and diverse demographic is hugely underplayed.

Our Chair mentioned that just by doing a Google search on Manchester it was very easy to find a site that was a one stop shop for investors, all the facts and figures were readily available. However, when searching for the same on Birmingham it was much harder and confusing to work your way through disjointed website pages.

Dino Kiriakopoulos former CEO of API Group, commented, “When API were choosing where to base its HQ the big difference with Manchester was the business friendly environment provided by Sir Howard Bernstein, the metro link, the wide choice of destinations from the airport and the city had a joined up voice. Take Salford Quays, the area has undergone an amazing transformation, the metro has enabled the city to be connected. When API moved to the airport the city was very proactive, they offered help, rebates, incentives and gave us access to the right people to support the change. All of this makes Manchester a positive place to invest and this strength has spread to the region. Birmingham should follow their example but currently it does not have as strong a reputation internationally.”

The North identifies itself as a region far more easily than the Midlands does.

Michael Hulme from Alstom Transport shared that his business has worked closely with Liverpool and he felt the difference between the two cities was the ‘branding’. The Northern Powerhouse being a great brand. “It is not about competing …but just a focusing on promoting the region in its own right.” He endorsed the need to create a brand for the Midlands region to form a broader identity as a vital collaboration.

Our Chair then commented on the region having 6 universities and asked if our guests’ organisations collaborated with any of them for feeding through talent.

One guest commented that they work well with both the Birmingham and Coventry universities, particularly with the strong engineering connections.

Our guest from a transport company said “We work closely with Birmingham City University and Aston University and have recently taken part in micro placements and internships in our business, this creates a feed directly to our business. We are also looking at creating a MBA programme on the back of this success.”

Surprised to see how much Birmingham has got going for it now but it does not shout loudly enough!

Peter Mumford of Highways England, said “We interact with local senior schools which has been a real eye opener. When you scratch beneath the surface some of the capability and enthusiasm is phenomenal. Timing is also key, Birmingham is on the right path but still five years behind.”

Sean Lowe posed a question; “Is part of the problem that Birmingham does not have cultural competition for its identity? Looking at the North, Manchester has got Liverpool, Leeds, possibly Sheffield, whereas Birmingham is much bigger and has perhaps swallowed the local competitors and so does not have any great competition?”

Jim O’Sullivan, CEO Highways England, shared his view on the location of Birmingham. “Because of its proximity to London and the West Coast Mainline, Birmingham has something of the South East about it and perhaps less of a regional persona or brand because of it. I don’t think the broader midland area see Birmingham in the same way as Leeds sees Manchester for example. It’s hard for Midlands Connect to bring the Midlands together as the West could see itself as largely industrial with good links to London and the East could see itself as largely rural, with smaller towns and conurbations and poorer transport links to London, so the North identifies itself as a region far more easily than the Midlands does.”

Phil Newland, South Staffordshire Water said, “Our catchment is north of Birmingham and we have no real issue with talent, however, social mobility is a real challenge for us.” He agreed with the comment on the arts scene being pretty poor despite a really exciting cultural mix with a large student population. Citing that the younger generation does not view Birmingham as a cool place to live or work, his own children have a far more favourable view of Leeds and Manchester.

Richard Wood from Tarmac supported the notion “Is it about the brand of Birmingham?’ It’s not the lack of business, I know, because we compete with lots of other big businesses for talent, and we have links with academia, it is really about Birmingham selling itself on all fronts. Birmingham needs to get its act together as to how it presents itself – it is not about competing with Manchester, it is about why Birmingham is a great place in its own right.” He went on to highlight what he felt was a disproportionate investment strategy, “I am not sure the focus on Birmingham exists, proportionately the London area is smaller than the Birmingham region and yet London has had c £40bn investment vs less than £10bn in Birmingham and Manchester has suffered in the same way….. Public transport links are appalling, business parks have been built away from residential areas with no meaningful infrastructure to support the workforce getting to them.”

Another guest supported this view, “Insufficient investment in infrastructure means lack of connectivity through public transport. This forces people into cars, but councils are trying to restrict the use of cars through reduced parking. We need to make it easier for local people to work in Birmingham and we are behind the times with connectivity.”

Birmingham needs to get its act together as to how it presents itself.

Another guest mentioned that the transport issue is not isolated to Birmingham, some areas of the North are equally poor if not worse, for example, Leeds to Manchester is dreadful. He felt the city was still ahead of the North and the great news is HS2 will benefit Birmingham first before the North.

Phil Newland, commented “Another point about HS2, that many people miss, is that it takes the London / Birmingham traffic off the West Coast Main Line which creates more space for southern trains, so the local services out as far as places like Rugby will see local services improve dramatically, as trains along that line will stop at many more places. So there will be a lot of communities connected by the West Coast Main Line that aren’t connected today.”

In summary

There are a number of areas that are critical to Birmingham right now, The Commonwealth Games, how the Midlands is branded, continued investment in infrastructure and transport. At the heart of this is HS2 and the decision as to whether that goes ahead or not will dramatically impact the region in both investment and economic terms as well as how the UK is perceived by the world in a post-Brexit era.