Birmingham. The economic powerhouse gears up for growth
Birmingham is used to being trashed or ignored and the city council is under threat. But businesses say the Council has got it right as the city fires up the engines of economic growth
A few days ago, I attended a Movers and Shakers breakfast networking event for senior people in Birmingham’s commercial property development sector. There were around 130 delegates, keen enough to be meeting and making sense at seven in the morning, mostly from large builders, developers, professional advisers and commercial property agents. Names like Atkins, Wates, Savills, CPRE and EC Harris. The place was buzzing with confidence and excitement as speaker after speaker told the meeting about the fantastic business and development opportunities opening up in the city, right now.
Less than a week later, and the leader of Birmingham City Council, Sir Albert Bore, was telling a full council meeting that the city needed to cut £400 million from the budget in the next four years and prepare itself for the loss of 6,000 council jobs - adding to around 7,000 full time equivalent posts that have already been lost from a total of 20,000 in place when austerity kicked in.
Further gloom was added in the same week by media reports that Sir Bob Kerslake, who is currently reviewing the council’s failures in children’s services and the Trojan Horse school scandal, could recommend the break up of Europe’s largest unitary local authority.
But if all looks pretty bad for the council, prospects for the city itself, based on investment potential and new developments in prospect, seem better than ever.
HS2 is a major factor. The project is considered to be a real game changer for the city and its ability to attract inward investment. One really quick win is the fact the project HQ is now to be sited in Birmingham, bringing 1500 well-paid jobs to the city from as soon as January next year.
A longer term win from HS2 could be the impact on Birmingham Airport, which as one speaker suggested will then be sited, travel time-wise, effectively ‘within zone 4 of the London underground’. A new runway extension at the airport, which enabled flights from China to be trialled this summer, is providing further cause for optimism about medium term business growth.
But the real and immediate cause for excitement in Birmingham is due to London’s overheating property sector. Large businesses are finding it just too expensive. Not just commercial rents, but costs faced by staff, in the form of high rent and mortgage costs, travel, childcare and all the rest. Even without HS2, Birmingham is conveniently close to London, and scores extremely high on a wide range of quality-of-life factors.
Deutsche Bank is the trailblazer here, ramping up its Birmingham operations from fewer than 30 to more than 2,000 in largely back-office functions. Now it is adding staff handing client work, with a 270-seat trading floor on the way. Other City banks are said to be watching the move closely, while the international law firm Hogan Lovells is setting up a new legal services centre in the city, primarily to be able to offer high quality services at lower cost.
So, where does the city council, with all its woes, sit in all this?
Private sector representatives at the breakfast meeting organised by Movers and Shakers a London based, property networking forum, were fulsome in their praise of the council’s enabling role in getting Birmingham ‘shovel-ready’ for the upturn. The raft of new infrastructure projects coming on stream now, like the revamped New Street Station, and the new tram system joining up the city centre, are also fuelling optimism. Other elements of the council’s Big City Plan, like Eastside (adjacent to Curzon Street Station, where HS2 will arrive) are now racing ahead, while work on the redevelopment of Paradise Circus, a 17 acre site right in the heart of the city, is due to begin in the autumn.
Developers also like the city’s Enterprise Zone – where securing funding is ‘an easy and transparent process’ - and the ability of council officials to work in tandem with the private sector to make things happen. BCC’s director of planning and regeneration Waheed Nazir was singled out for particular praise for his role in persuading HS2 to bring its headquarters to Birmingham, a decision announced in July.
It is commonplace for Birmingham to be referred to as ‘our beleaguered second city used to being either trashed or ignored,’ as did Stuart Jeffries in a long but not unsympathetic article in The Guardian in July. Notwithstanding all its image problems, the many good things Birmingham has going for it as a centre for economic growth do seem to be coming to the fore right now.
A video of the presentations at the Movers and Shakers event and intervews with a number those present will be published in The information Daily over the next few days.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.
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