Is Greater Birmingham connected and contributing to the debate on the future of English Cities

Today another important report has been published on the role of cities in the English economy by the City Growth Commission. The report titled Connected Cities: The link to growth argues that investment in infrastructure in UK has historically been low compared to our competitor countries and argues that a focussed approach on investment in our ‘metros’ (effectively city regions) will lead to a rebalancing of growth as well as higher UK growth overall.

CityGrowth

The report is well argued if not comprehensive and well worth reading. The question for me is how much influence has Greater Birmingham had on the report.

 

Well a number of hearings were held to gather evidence – in Bristol, Manchester and Newcastle amongst other places but none as far as I can see in Greater Birmingham.

Written evidence was sought and a wide array was submitted including from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, from Bristol, Nottingham, Leeds Milton Keynes, Newcastle and Sheffield Councils. The Mayor of London and London Councils also submitted evidence. There was no evidence submitted from Birmingham or other authorities in our metro area (unless these were from the 6 bodies who requested secrecy).

So Birmingham relied on evidence submitted by the core cities group and also answered a questionnaire.

Looking through the examples given there was not one positive one  from Greater Birmingham (excluding HS2) but examples from elsewhere were mentioned positively like the £1bn Chinese investment in housing Greater Manchester. A small example of the lack of influence in this report was the use of research pointing to the fact that office space in Birmingham costs upto 40% more than in Manhattan. This is research that could be challenged but it is the fact that the quote used was

Even in medium sized cities such as Birmingham…….‘ Now this quote, in bold and capitals  relates directly to the research but the fact that the biggest city outside of London; namely Birmingham is quoted as being a medium sized city- without explanation is to me shocking. You may think it is only an oversight but I think there is a deeper malaise out there; Greater Birmingham is not playing well in national fora and national inquiries.

Today another important announcement was made. Chamberlain Files announced the launch of Think Birmingham.

thinkbirmingham

A campaign to argue for further resources for the City. This campaign is leading up to the general election and will make the case for cities. This initiative is linked nationally to a ThinkCities campaign backed by the Centre for Cities thinktank. This is great stuff but to my mind – we don’t just need a campaign in Greater Birmingham. We need a thinktank that can be the voice of reasoned argument for Greater Birmingham. This is a subject I am returning to as I blogged on this here. The Growth Commission report was supported by Manchester New Economy and you can see its influence. The focus is mainly on the North.  If there are conferences to discuss cities; how often is there a speaker from Greater Birmingham – not often. How many publications have come out of Greater Birmingham arguing its case – and by that I mean not promotional documents but reasoned and well evidenced papers; I would argue again not many.

There is a real problem in this city region. Nationally the Guardian picked up recently a re-occurring theme – our poor image. I have lived in this city for 16 years and every year this comes up in one form or another.  There are other problems such as unemployment; low numbers of high growth firms etc. It is my view that we do not get across nationally our strengths nor convincingly put forward the case that we know how to solve our problems. We are non players when we need to be key partners in this national thinking. So we need to start thinking and we need to set up an organisation that does that. What are your ideas for this?

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5 comments

  1. […] However, Patrick Willcocks, a respected consultant on urban policy, highlighted a concern about th… No evidence was submitted from Greater Birmingham, no hearings were held in the city and the report features several negative examples. […]

  2. Mike Loftus · · Reply

    Mildly dispiriting that that ‘Birmingham 40% more expensive than New York’ still staggers on ( and that the Commission couldn’t be bothered to check it out. The stat is old and may not have been that accurate when it first circulated. Might want to check our the latest comparative office occupancy costs from CBRE that confirm ( surprise, surprise) that Birmingham is not more expensive than New York at all.

    1. Mike, thanks for this. It does start to undermine the quality of the research behind the growth commission if they get a basic fact wrong.
      Best
      Patrick

  3. Regionalist · · Reply

    Why is our voice not heard asks Patrick Willcocks, compared to Manchester and the North? It’s partly due to a slide into institutional impoverishment in the West Midlands.
    10 years ago we had regional institutions founded on high levels of co-operation between local authorities. The West Midlands Local Government Association fed into official institutions such as the 100 strong partnership body the WM Regional Assembly. WMRA in turn, could speak for the region. This co-operation was not just the creation of the then Government’s ‘localism’ agenda but was rooted in co-operative bodies like the West Midlands Planning Forum, stretching back to the 1980s and before. We allowed all this to disappear by 2012, under the present Government’s irrational onslaught on regionalism.
    Some of it – the voluntary planning forum, for example – could have been recreated, but the crisis in council management created by the budget cuts, plus party political divisions (not present in one party dominated Greater Manchester) forestalled any attempt. These divisions continue and currently exclude the West Midlands conurbation from a Manchester style city-deal. Conservative Solihull won’t join in. We let this lack of joined-up working continue at our peril.
    With the re-founding of a (so far invisible) WM Local Government Association maybe the tide of fragmentation has turned, but we lag far behind the North. Those council leaders with vision need to get behind a new attempt at creating a practical multi council body as a forum for regional spatial and economic planning. Much of the technical support could be pulled together swiftly, given the good work of regional voluntary professional/academic networks like Futures Network West Midlands.
    It’s not very sexy, but it would be a start in getting the West Midlands working together again and building a national voice for the West Midlands region with Birmingham at its heart.

    1. Philip,
      I think you are right; it is the withering of joint working that has served the West Midlands poorly. I think however the region is a bit of an artificial construct as what has Hereford to do with Stoke and so myself would place more emphasis on getting the old West Midlands County – LA’s working much more closely together. That is the basis of the GM working – which has then spread outwards from there. I think this is just starting to happen and the debate about a combined authority will pick up momentum in the coming months.

      thanks for contributing

      Patrick

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