Thursday, 20 March 2014

Birmingham: Second City or Second Best?

The School of Media at Birmingham City University have decided to start having a monthly debate. The first, held last Friday was about the status of Birmingham and the view the outside world has of the city. The panelists were the Mark Rogers new Chief Executive and Director of Economy, Pauline Geoghegan from the PoliticsinBrum (which doesn't seem to have been updated for a while), David Harte from the Bournville News, a hyperlocal site focusing on a part of Birmingham that gets little press coverage and Beverley Nielsen,  the director of BCU's Birmingham Made Me, which celebrates the city's innovation.

The discussion was chaired by Professor Diane Kemp, who was quick to explain that in some respects the topic had been chosen to reflect the recent coverage the city had received; all Peaky Blinders and Benefits Street. The question was, is that all Birmingham is? Is that the only way the city is seen?

The panel put forward a disparate set of views, to the Chief Executive the question was about the future, not about the past or even the present; it was a matter of where the city would be in a number of years' time. He stressed the city's diversity (there are 189 different communities within Birmingham) and depth of culture, throwing facts out. For instance Birmingham has the youngest population and the most visited REP theatre in the UK. He also stressed that the issue for him was not about being second city or second best, but whether Birmingham could be first rate.

Opposing views were automatically put forward, Pauline Geoghegan said the city was bruised and beleaguered in the difficult times, after a series of savage attacks from Westminster. She highlighted the vast levels of youth unemployment and the lack of proper engagement with the grass roots communities in the city.

Controversially David Harte argued that Birmingham wasn't even second, but more eighth or ninth city in the UK. He didn't see that as a bad thing, though it wasn't a popular opinion with most of the crowd. Later he explained that he welcomed the idea of Birmingham is so low because it makes the city more livable, keeping rents and costs down. He also welcomed the fact that Brummies are sceptical about rapid gentrification, citing Digbeth's gradual growth as a hub for designers and artists as an example. He railed against the idea that glitzy brands like John Lewis would save the city's economy and dismissed HS2 as something of a 'red herring'.

Beverley Nielsen stressed that within in her area Birmingham could be seen as first, so many brands and trades have grown from industrialisation and the growth of the city. she referred to the city as once being the 'city of a thousand trades' but now a 'city of a thousand brands'. It could be argued that Birmingham created branding back in 1707.  To her the ability to think outside the box was paramount and something Birmingham excelled at; the city sits at the heart of changing the world with its English design ethic.

Discussion turned to where the city might go, as members of the audience asked questions. There was discussion of the idea of 'Greater Birmingham', which was felt to be a way of 'cheating' our way to be second city by default (lest we forget, Birmingham is already the biggest local government area in Europe). Other panelist's gave the idea pretty short shrift, with a focus being put on partnership with the other cities in the West Midlands and the idea of Local Enterprise Partnerships to boost excellence across the region.

When a member of the audience asked what the city's unique selling point was, the panel stumbled a little. Mark Rogers said there wasn't one, but felt that was a strength as it avoided over specialisation, whilst David Hart argued that steps should be made, even if it was just to push to make Bournville a world heritage site and move outwards. Branding reared its head again, with the argument being put forward that its invention should be at least part of the city's claim to fame. There was a consensus that in many ways Marketing Birmingham, the outfit responsible for promoting the city did a poor job, though there is an argument that they're hampered that the airport and NEC; places strongly associated with Birmingham are actually geographically in Solihull.

One of the more interesting points was that Birmingham keeps its secrets. There are fascinating things going on but they're small, tucked away. The Custard Factory is a wonderful example of artisan businesses working together but its not a place that's splashed across the front page. Ditto Alum Rock, an area of the city that attracts people from all over the region to shop at the jewellery and spice shops. Compare that with the Jewellery Quarter, which is internationally renowned for its central product. At least one member of the audience said that this tendency to keep knowledge close isn't helpful, it doesn't help to sell the city, and to an extent that's true.

For me, the day underlined a number of truths. For a long time its seemed that the city is running to an imagined future, trying to get away from its history as quickly as it can; as if that has become an embarrassment. I can understand this move to an extent, but what use is a future if it has no foundations, which is surely all that will be achieved by severing the past so completely?

The point about Birmingham keeping its secrets rang a bell with me, but only to underscore that there isn't one city, but several. In many ways the face the city presents, of industry and science, is a mask to bring in new people and attract investment. What lies underneath in the communities and the little places that aren't bragged about, are the things that induce us to stay. In fact I'd say the mask of innovation is sometimes a deterrent - the veneer of big flashy brands cuts down on the interesting things that grow up from the streets after all. I can honestly say that the fact that brands like Aston Martin were created in Birmingham means little to me because I've never wanted an Aston Martin. In fact 'brand' says 'flashy and hollow' to me, and I don't want my home to be dominated by that, but by something of substance and integrity (as an aside, this is a tricky place to be, what are Doc Martens if not a brand?)

Returning to the debate, it was lively, fun and informative. I liked the fact that the university was stepping up to promote discussion and, dare we say it, intellectualism and I'm looking forward to the next one. Do come if you can.

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