How Birmingham is using property development to re-tool its economy

The new New Street. Image: Getty.

Something I’ve noticed when visiting Birmingham over the past couple of years: parts of the city have started to feel rich.

The new glass-fronted offices of the central business district, Colmore Row, blend in better with the grand Victorian architecture that surrounds them than you have any right to expect in a city whose architectural history is as chequered as Birmingham’s. The names of the shops point to a certain prosperity, too. Nespresso. Harvey Nichols.

Colmore Row is not the whole of Birmingham – as so often in England’s regional cities, you can turn a corner and find the city centre just stops, to be replaced by crumbling housing estates or derelict industrial land. And subjective impressions are, well, subjective. But there’s a core of prosperity in Birmingham that many cities would kill for.

Part of the explanation lies in the city’s proximity to London: a number of major financial or professional service firms, refugees from the capital’s property prices, have moved chunks of their operations to the Midlands. At a Centre for Cities event in late 2014, the American urban theorist Edward Glaeser suggested that Birmingham could have a bright future providing back office services to London. The following August, HSBC announced it was moving 1,000 jobs there.

But another part of the explanation is that the city has been, literally, planning for this. In 2010, the council published the Big City Plan, a “20 year vision... supporting transformational change to create a world class city centre, delivering sustainable growth”. Cut through the thickets of jargon, and that basically means building a load of nice new shops and offices, and making sure people can get to the bloody things.

The big plan

The recent extension of the Midlands Metro tram into the city centre fits into this plan. So does the New Street station development, in which the dark and cramped concourse has been replaced by an airy light canopy, and the grim brutalist Palisades shopping mall cleaned up and rebranded Grand Central. (The tram now terminates at the confusingly named Grand Central New Street; one day it’ll extend through the nightlife district into Edgbaston.) The shopping centre’s largest retailer, John Lewis, was “lured in by the Big City Plan,” says director of planning and regeneration Waheed Nazir, one of its authors.

The extending city centre. Click to expand. Image: Birmingham City Council.

The biggest idea in the plan, though, is to extend the footprint of the city centre by 25 per cent, by transforming under-developed land on the edge of the city centre – “book ends”, Nazir calls them – into posh new retail and commercial space. The city was prevented from doing any such thing for many years by the inner ringroad (the “concrete collar”), which made it impossible to leave the city centre on foot without using a dingy subway. Burying sections of that, and re-directing traffic where possible, made it possible for the city to expand.

The Big City Plan has already seen new developments around Colmore Row, and on the West Side (the “Paradise” redevelopment, currently separating the city centre from the ICC conference hall at Centenary Square). It’s also seen the city relocate the old fashioned Bull Ring Markets from the Smithfield area around the back of the shopping centre, on the grounds that it was occupying what Nazir calls “prime real estate”.

Much of this work will come from private developers, but the city is investing too. “The game changer was keeping business rates,” says Nazir. “Suddenly TIF [tax increment funding] was viable.” TIF is, basically, a mechanism for funding developments by capturing the uplift in property values those projects will create. Doing this will give the council at least £700m of investment capital to play with, and possibly up to £1.2bn.

The city’s biggest investment priority, though, is one which it can’t control: High Speed 2, the rail link which will shave a few minutes off the journey to London. During the recent Conservative conference the city’s enthusiasm for the new rail link was literally visible on seemingly every available surface, with posters plastered all over the place. (That said when I visited the city to speak to its leaders back in the spring, whenever I asked what the city’s priorities were, everyone gave me the same identical answer: protecting vulnerable children. I got the distinct impression a memo had gone around.)

Nazir denies that talk of HS2 has been the key to the city’s regeneration – Deutsche Bank moved there in 2008, before it was even a gleam in Lord Adonis’ eye, he points out. “But it brings confidence and changes perception of the city.”

The new economy

It’d be misleading to suggest that Birmingham sees its future entirely as a sort of commuter suburb of London. Besides the central business district, the Big City Plan also proposes a number of other economic zones where it hopes employment to grow: a food hub, an advanced manufacturing hub, and so on. Council leader John Clancy vision for the city is as a “nimble, tech driven manufacturing” economy. To that end, it’s investing in facilities like the BioHub life sciences centre on the edge of the university campus.

I meet Clancy at the Innovation Birmingham Campus, a sort of tech hub in the Aston area. He was in ebullient mood: the government’s independent improvement panel, which had been monitoring the city’s children’s services department, had just left the city (the cause of that memo, one assumes), and he’d just been talking to some American visitors. “They like big things,” he said. “Well this is the largest local authority in Europe. We’ve got a £3.1bn budget and own 40 per cent of the city.”

HS2 is an “absolute game changer” he tells me. Curzon Street, the currently derelict area on the Eastside where the new terminal will be built, is “absolutely an investment hotspot that the world is interested in”.

The Metro extension, because we love a map. Click to expand. Image: Birmingham City Council.

But the opportunity is as much about skills and jobs, he adds. “We’ve been known as a motor city. Now we may very well become known as a train city.”

The city has other investment plans, too. It wants to build a Bus Rapid Transit network called Sprint. It also wants to “upgrade its housing to make it a better asset”, says Clancy.

To fund this, it’s been talking to the Treasury about increasing its borrowing powers through by launching “brumme bonds”. (This one’s gone a bit quiet since Brexit.) It’s also trying to encourage local capital to remain in the city: “It’s about re-writing things so that the pension fund is feeding back into the local economy.”


From next year, of course, despite being the leader of Britain’s largest local authority, Clancy will have a bigger figure above him: the new West Midlands metro mayor, elected by the residents of Birmingham and six other boroughs. The leaders of all seven will make up his cabinet, however. “We’re not ceding power upwards, except possibly in transport. If anything, the power of local leaders will be enhanced.” The Big City plan is likely to continue.

In terms of selling the Midlands to the world, Clancy points to an unexpected ambassador. “People in the UK don’t associate Shakespeare with Birmingham – further afield they do.” Stratford-upon-Avon isn’t technically covered by the West Midlands metro mayor, but Warwickshire is a non-constituent (that is, non-voting) member.

Birmingham doesn’t have the strongest brands among British cities, and the West Midlands has often seemed to get forgotten in the race to build a Northern Powerhouse. But when I ask him if he feels that the city is overshadowed by Manchester, Clancy – a native of Stockport, albeit one who’s been in Birmingham for 27 years – professes to be relaxed. “This is about re-balancing the economy, and I’ve no problem with the economy being rebalanced to Manchester and Birmingham.” (I’d only asked about Manchester. The reappearance of Birmingham in that list is his own.)

“Good luck to Manchester,” he adds. “I wouldn’t say I think we will match [the Greater Manchester deal], because we were late to the game politically.” Yet he is certainly ambitious for his adopted city. “We might even see parliament move here,” he adds. “They’ve got to move it anyway – and I’m sure we could accommodate the United Kingdom parliament.”

This is part three of a series on the West Midlands. You can read part one here, and part two here. Next time: onwards to Coventry.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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“The British have no food culture” – but London’s multicultural suburbs do

Bagels, of the sort one might find in Ilford. (These are actually at Katz's Delicatessen on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.) Image: Getty.

Last month, Angela Hartnett went on Desert Island Discs and said that the British don’t have a food culture: there are just some people who have money and can afford to pay for good food.

Hartnett is a deity in the culinary pantheon, and is unusual in that she is both a shining star and an eminently sensible person. A woman of such no-nonsense credentials that she laughed in the pock-marked face of Gordon Ramsey, and lived to tell the tale. She takes none of this cheffy, foodie willy-wangling seriously, because it is, after all, “just a plate of carrots”.

So I found her comment fascinating, and shaming. It feels true. I feel it as I walk up Islington’s Chapel Market on a Sunday, from the farmers’ market end to the daily market end. I felt it when I squealed with delight when my partner told me we were getting a Whole Foods at the end of the road, and when I moaned with disappointment when it turned out he was kidding. (We were, in fact, getting a joinery and an HSS Hire.)

I feel it when one of my neighbours at our housing co-op has to sign for my veg box or wine discovery crate, or when the Ocado van pulls up. I feel it when I drop off my food bank donations by the till at Waitrose or, worse, when I get an Uber to take it round in person. In Islington. Islington. Say it twice, for there are indeed two Islingtons.

But it also feels totally untrue. Who is the “we” here? Who are the British of whom we speak? What is this beige buffet of Britishness, class-ist, philistine, pale and bland as white bread?

I find all this talk of class alienating, because I – and I am inherent to any we I can participate in – was raised in a vibrant and class-fluid food culture. I’m sure it combined many diverse aspects of class, wealth and virtue signals, but it did so in such a mishmash that you could not hope to decode it, even with a copy of Debretts and minor public school education. I speak, of course, of the ancestral homeland, the Old Country.

Ilford.

 

Ilford: unexpectedly foodie. Image: Geograph.co.uk.

Ilford is a London suburb on the Essex/East End border, which, like a reverse Mecca or a shit Jerusalem, unites travellers from across the world in the fervent desire to get the hell out, go mad, or kill everyone. And, like Jerusalem, it has its Jewish, Muslim, and Christian quarters, with further fractions etched out by Hindu, Sikh and Chinese diasporas, waves and tides of 20th century immigration ebbing and lapping on the shores of the Cranbrook Road. It became home to the refugees of innumerable wars and disaster areas: Ugandan Indians, Kurds, Rwandans, Bosnians, Serbs and Croats. And the economic migrants, Nigerians, Polish, Hungarian. It was an Ithaca: a place you had hoped would be journey’s end, but was in fact a bit of a disappointment. A rest rather than a new beginning. A bad motherland, to which we are all ambivalently attached.


Say what you like about Ilford, but it is a place where you’ve been able to find tahini, turmeric and jackfruit since decimalisation. Most of these items, you could buy at any hour of the day or night, and be served by a tiny child who had been left to mind the shop whilst the adults were at second jobs or night school, at the mosque or synagogue, or in prison. Purchase and consumption of these items signified nothing, except the taste of home.

And it really didn't matter whose home. On festivals we would exchange samosas or jalebi or pierogi or hammantashen or honey cake with our neighbours and drink masala chai three doors down. There is a whole world of dumplings, and a season for each one. We consumed a lot of chicken: fried pieces in boxes, or in a soup lovingly simmered for the precise amount of time to extract the maximum amount of guilt.

On a Sunday mornings you can wander along Barkingside High Street, which is by any normal metric an utter shithole, and join a queue for fresh Sri Lankan curries or Jewish bagels or Italian gelato. There is an egg-free cake shop, British, Halal, Kosher and African butchers and fishmongers. There are four Jewish delis and bakeries, ranging from the glatt to the glitzy. There is no shortage of grilled meat, kebabs, chicken shops, noodle bars. Vast banqueting suites accommodate large celebration meals, and local cooks cater for weddings of some thousand guests, often in marquees in suburban back gardens.

You could accuse us having no culture in Ilford – the cinema long ago became a bingo hall which became a mega-mosque which became flats – but you cannot say we have no food culture.

That said, and without wanting to sound racist against, y’know, white people, I do kind of agree that the British in general have no food culture. I can go to the house of any of my Indian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Israeli, Nigerian, West Indian, or Scandinavian friends, safe in the knowledge and mutual understanding that I am going to be fed. And time and again I have been baffled and outraged by friends (only ever the white, British ones; and the whiter and more British they are the more likely this is to happen) turning up at my house, having already eaten, as if I wasn’t going to feed them like foie gras geese from the moment they arrived to the second they left.

Food is my culture. I feel a twitch on the end of each strand of my DNA, like the taste of madeleines on a thousand foreign tongues. I feel it in my bones and the bones of my ancestors as they dissolve into distant soil: come, sit, eat.

A London curry house in action. Image: Getty.

In Pygmalion, Professor Henry Higgins boasts that he can pinpoint here a person is from by listening to the way they talk. “I can place any man within six miles. I can place him within two miles in London. Sometimes within two streets.” I once had a linguistics tutor pull the same trick on me. It was creepy.

But I would defy him to do the same thing now. Talk to a young Londoner. The ubiquity of Multicultural London English is a great leveller. On the top deck of the bus, you can’t tell the schools apart. And whilst there is a huge gulf between rich and poor, and the extremes of both in this capital are truly horrifying, there is a Multicultural London way of speaking.

There is a Multicultural London way of eating, too. In the centre of town, and in the places where being Minority Ethnic is not a minority position, there is a London Multicultural Food Culture which is divorced from class. An immigrant, diasporic, food culture. A sense of the importance and significance of food and meals and flavours. An appreciation of our own and your neighbours’ diverse food heritage. A love of the marketplace and the communal table. An ear for languages where foreign is the same word as guest and friend. The importance, virtue, culture, and significance of hospitality.

Also, to be honest, some asshole’s going to sprinkle sumac and pomegranate seeds on your kebab wherever you are, from Ilford to Islington. What you are prepared to pay for it, in what environs, and with what brand of soap in the bogs, is another story. And this is where the the conversation goes full circle: if you have no food culture, but you do have money, you can afford to buy one in, from the Connaught or Ottolenghi or Whole Foods or Deliveroo or Blue Apron or the DietChef.

Maybe I’m guilty of over-romanticising the immigrant food experience. The food of poverty, the bread of affliction, the cheap cuts of meat, the over-reliance of sweet treats, the economic and social impoverishment of generations of immigrant women slaving over hot stoves to feed the family on a pittance whilst the neighbours turn up their noses. We should talk of the dietary diseases more prevalent amongst People of Colour and second generation immigrants. We should talk of the chicken shops around the school gates. We should talk about the amounts of money spent on marketing crap food at kids and the totally other amounts of money being spent on school meals, home economics lessons, growing spaces, playgrounds. We should talk about those food banks.


My partner is from white, British working class stock. They do things differently there. I now too turn up Having Already Eaten, because I learnt the hard way: line your stomach, or you’ll end up singing/falling over/throwing a chair/throwing up/getting naked by 3pm at a Romford wake because you assumed that lunch would be served. It’s only five miles from Ilford and Romford, but it may as well be 500 or 5000.

I don’t know what they make of me and my food. Foreign muck? Posh nosh? Do I give off wafts of a different culture entirely, like the tell-tale scent of frying onions and or slow-cooked sabbath cholent? Like the banquet of curry smells from next door when all their kids are home from university, the eye-watering wince of vinegar being boiled for pickles, or the uric tang of a hot pho pot bubbling away two doors down or the unseasonal barbecue from the house behind, a familiar-unfamiliar meat, like mutton or goat?

Throw the windows of your semi in Ilford open on a spring morning and you’ll get waves of bacon, chai, cholla bread. And the sounds of TVs in a dozen languages, and music in a dozen different keys, and Sikh builders shouting at Polish builders, and the soft shoe shuffle of the Lubovitchers and the revving engines of the rudeboys before we all go home for Sunday lunch.

Sunday lunch: maybe that’s something we can all agree on. That you should have a Sunday lunch with your mum or your auntie or your nan and whoever else is around. You gather at table, at your folks’ house or the Toby Carvery or your uncle’s restaurant, with a mountain of roast beef or bags full of bagels and plastic containers from the deli or six different curries and chutneys, with the old folks telling the same story for the hundredth time, and the ageless bickering of siblings and the screaming of babies. Maybe we can agree on the Great British Sunday Lunch, whatever the menu, as our shared food culture.

Leave room for pudding.

Sara Doctors writes about food and culture, and tweets as @UnusualSara. A version of his article first appeared on her blog.

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