A city at a crossroads

A city at a crossroads

The issue: With a growing population and an expanding city centre, Birmingham’s future economic and social prosperity depends upon careful and co-ordinated management of strategic developments. But will they deliver the ambitious economic and social goals they aim to achieve?

Rob Groves, who heads Argent’s major Paradise Circus development in Birmingham, said his company was bringing a lot of learnings from its huge King Cross project in London. But whereas London “sells itself”, he warned “our first challenge is selling Birmingham.”

He said: “Back in the 1980s, when the Thames Valley was trying to attract hi-tech companies, it was as much about selling the place as it was the office. So when you’re selling Birmingham, you need to say to potential occupiers, like Deutsche Bank, where are their people going to live, where are they going to employ from, and what’s the rest of the infrastructure?

“That’s not just highways, but restaurants, theatres, cinemas, schools, and making sure when you’re doing your sales pitch that you’re selling the whole big picture.”

Danny Parmar, of Overbury, said Birmingham used to have a poor reputation but that many things had changed in recent years “in a very positive way”. He said that the old perception of the ‘typical Brummie’ needed to change.

Rupert Young, of Nurton Developments, said: “Your best sales force is your ambient population, and I sometimes wonder if enough people round here know enough about the city.

“I’m a Midlander by birth, and I got fed up of London partners [at a previous company] not knowing anything at all. What I used to do is every month send an email to all partners saying: ‘Five things you never knew about Birmingham’, and I managed to keep it up for two years!”

Neil Edginton, of EDG Property, who played a leading role in Birmingham’s Mailbox, Fort Dunlop and the Cube developments, said: “I agree – you have to sell Birmingham first. But in the last 20 years, how much the city has changed for the better.

“We will always have to sell this city in the way you wouldn’t have to sell the capital city.
“The sooner we stop worrying about that and just get on with the job we’re doing, the faster we’ll move forward, because that’s all I’ve heard over the last 20 years.”

Paul Brown, of EY, and also a board member of the Black Country LEP, said: “My issue is between how we liaise with schools telling them about what industries are out there, rather than sending everyone to university. We’ve got 6,000 jobs, potentially, around JLR and that cluster of high-value manufacturing. There’s an issues of teachers not being aware of industry.”

Elizabeth Foster, of Ingram Hawkins and Nock, also chair of the West Midlands development committee of the Prince’s Trust, agreed that young people were not aware of the opportunities.

She said: “The apprenticeship days, which the city runs very well, are huge days [but] young people find those very intimidating, [and are] not very well prepared.
“As long as schools are measured by the number of young people they get into college or university, they’re not going to be persuaded to direct young people into the workplace.”

Brown said that LEPs were now working with Ofsted on the importance of STEM subjects [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] to make children more aware of the job opportunities available. Foster said this was good, because if children knew jobs were waiting for them they were more likely to work harder at school.

Mark English, programme manager for Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust, the city’s house-building programme, has a background in securing community benefits from regeneration projects. He said: “Part of the problem is to get commercial employers into schools to talk about what [pupils] can do, because if you can get in early enough and get them going in the right direction, it doesn’t matter if they don’t come out with every certificate under the sun, they’ll still be enthused to do something.”

Kitty Patmore, of Barclays, is also a management committee member of the Big Brum Theatre in Education Company, a charity working with a charity delivering TIE to 80 schools and 4,000 young people in the West Midlands. She agreed with English, but said: “It needs to be early, though, because by the time they get far progressed in secondary it’s too late because a lot of behaviours are developed. And it needs to be coupled with a pride in Birmingham, combining ‘where do you go’ and ‘what do you do’ with ‘this is somewhere to be proud to live’.”

Adam Ramshaw, who runs LSH’s Birmingham office, said he worked with the city council and partners to ensure regeneration was “net inward investment” and that “regeneration of one part doesn’t lead to the deterioration of another”. Talking about the need to get industry and education working together, he said: “Whose responsibility is it to coordinate all these things and to make sure that industry is in the schools, that we’re marketed in the right way?”

Brown said it sits with a variety of organisations – for example, Marketing Birmingham, the LEP, the city council, who were all “doing great things” – but that: “We’re not quite aligned and go off in all different directions.” He added that universities have “a massive role to play”.

Edginton said: “If you want people to stay and work after they’ve been to one of the nine universities within a one-hour’s drive [of Birmingham] – a massive population of students – you’ve got to offer them jobs. And if you want them to stay and have a family, you’ve got to offer them schools and hospitals. It’s about infrastructure. And the same is true if you want to inwardly invest people, you’ve got to offer them all the same things.”

The debate went on to discuss the shortage of space to build new homes in the Birmingham area for an increasing population, with planners talking about the need for up to 100,000 new homes by 2031. Green belt land near suburbs like Sutton Coldfield were being considered by Birmingham City Council as places to expand, but do not have the necessary infrastructure in place.

Ramshaw said: “I live in Sutton Coldfield, and there’s not been a new school built there for ages, and the transport pressure means that in rush-hour the roads and cross city trains are packed. Something’s going to have to give. Unless you live on the street where the school is, you can’t get in.”

Barclays Montage

English said: “Section 106s [planning conditions placed on developers to invest in necessary infrastructure] are quite blunt tools. People go in and regulations are drawn… they have planning permissions, but they’re not being developed. With 106s, there’s no ability to renegotiate if developers sit on that site. So will there be moves to enable renegotiation based on changing values over that period?”

Young said: “I don’t buy the point of people sitting on sites for the sake of it. There’s usually another reason why things are not happening, although I’d back making sure they flow through. These strategic projects – building homes and jobs – has to be a partnership, and 106s are only a block if a developer doesn’t negotiate appropriately.”

Edginton said: “We’re doing a site in Northamptonshire for thousands of homes, building four schools with a massive infrastructure cost. Trying to get sites off the ground is really hard, and the more things you put in the way – like renegotiating 106s – [will] make it even more difficult to give the city what it needs.”

Brown said: “For me, lobbying is a massive area. There are 57 MPs across the region, and we need to use these to the full to get to the likes of Greg Clarke [Minister of State for Cities and Constitution] to promote what we’re doing in Birmingham and the West Midlands.

“These are the people who are talking to world leaders. The big PR campaign is quite broad, and we’re all custodians of the brand and need a consolidated approach to make sure we’re recognised on the global stage.”

Foster said she found it difficult to get to see MPs about such matters. She said: “MPs take their line from the same group of people. They go where the money comes from – people who are going to fund their campaigns. There’s not a wide enough voice to be heard.”

Brown responded: “They’re [MPs] not going to come to you. Lobbying is the key. MPs are in their constituencies every Friday – it’s in your interest to go and see them if you have an issue.”

Alistair Robertson-Dunn, of GVA, said one of his primary interests was finding a better way of selling new developments in Birmingham to occupiers, who were sometimes bypassing the city. He said: “The international stage is an easier sell for us. The harder sell is in the UK and against the misperceptions we have. We need to change what people locally think of Birmingham and then look at going outside. Educate people locally and let the word spread.”

Patmore cited Birmingham Future and Birmingham Forward as examples of a “really active” voice, and drew attention to the recent Birmingham Young Professional of the Year awards – “a most amazing event… it just needs to be continued and highlighted.” Foster said: “The danger is young people who are not connected with certain charities or groups.”

Groves highlighted the forthcoming John Lewis store development at New Street Station and lauded Birmingham’s employment team. “Jobs were at the top of the city’s agenda, in the way we selected contractors based on local employment opportunities.”

English said there were various initiatives, such as how the city expected a “bursary payment” for a development with St Basil’s [a homeless charity]. But he added such projects were “too often built on individual people’s knowledge” rather than the “wider psyche of organisations”.

Groves mentioned how apprentices had been taken on during the development of the new Library of Birmingham “in joint venture with the city – it’s what we’re committed to”. He added: “We need them [apprentices] in every aspect of developments – from eventual office workers to people on site. You can almost see there’s going to be a shortage.”

English said young people were not always choosing the right options. “We need to tell them there are alternatives. Not everybody’s an academic. It’s trying to encourage people [towards] different career structures and opportunities so they don’t see themselves as a failure because they haven’t got the right piece of paper. It’s saying from an early age: ‘You can do this’.”

Andy McDonald, of Barclays, was interested in keeping the city’s talent and attracting more from outside. He sympathised with people having to deal with the system’s “short-termism”, and said: “The heads of schools are judged on last year’s test results, the chief executives of companies are judged on last year’s financial results. One of the biggest issues for long-term sustainability is that we’re judged on what we did the year before.”

Young referred to schools highlighted as “specialist language” academies and other subject champions: “What’s wrong with having a specialist automotive academy? That would be a good way to do it!”

Matt Weaver, hosting the evening for Barclays, referred to his experience in schools talking about financial skills: “It’s frightening when you speak to kids who’ve got no knowledge about money. We make a difference.”

Talking about the wider vision, needs and communications for the region, Parmar said: “A central deliverer is missing. Having one body to pull it all together and get the message out as a cohesive plan.” Ramshaw agreed: “Ultimately, someone needs to take responsibility. You need to identify who that is or else you won’t coordinate it together.” Young said: “The fact that there is a vision is a good start.”

Brown said such a huge vision needed to be delivered in parts: “There are five-year plans. There’s a lot of things to deliver that touch all parts of business. Infrastructure encompasses everything – the community, growing its prospects, spending money on leisure, education, transport and so on. Don’t be fooled that we’re thinking about 2031.

“Next year is an interesting year. A lot of funds are kick-started next year, but then we’re into a General Election year. The execution is the big thing. We talk about strategies a lot. The real target is that we’ve got to manage and deliver [those strategies].”

Edginton agreed, and reminded people that “2031 is far away” and that “plans are meant to evolve and change over time, as the needs change.”

Groves suggested that the Government should “stop moving the goalposts, as it can slow things down”, and said if Labour got in [at the next General Election] he hoped they wouldn’t change everything as “it will completely reverse important developments”.

Young said there “needs to be stronger government at a local level”, and added it was a shame Birmingham hadn’t chosen the elected mayors system in its recent referendum. “Some of the [council] members need a lot more education [about planning matters]… [also] we often have a rampant outbreak of nimbyism. That more than anything else will hold things back.”

On planning, Groves said: “It seems to be easier to deal with in a city centre than it is in the shires [due to the] quality of staff. We have got council members who sit on a planning committee and I do sometimes wonder if they know what they’re looking at. Planning committees need to take a bit more notice from planning officers.”

On a positive note, Young said: “Birmingham City Council are being pretty brave. They’re backing Argent massively in Paradise Circus. We could be hacked off about that, but we’re not at all. It’s important because of the size of what Birmingham has to do. And the results will wash through. That’s a really good thing for them to have done.”

Young added that he was keen for Marketing Birmingham to host more visits from international site locators: “If it costs the city council some money to get people over let’s carry on because it’s working.”

Groves agreed: “The opportunities in Birmingham are huge… with the Bull Ring, pedestrianisation, the NIA, New Street Station in its final stage [of redevelopment], the Metro extension… everyone always gets taken in by new ‘kit’. This is the best opportunity for Birmingham to sell itself to the world.”

Edginton agreed but said the message needed to be tailored for different audiences, as foreign investors often “expect that for a city the size of Birmingham [things like] the station should already be there”.