What I said at the ‘Birmingham, Second City or Second Best’ debate

My colleagues Professor Diane Kemp and Bob Calver have started a series of monthly debates at Birmingham City University’s Parkside building with the first focusing on Birmingham and its status, or rather lack of status, as Second City.

My co-panellists were Pauline Geoghegan (political blogger), new CEO of Birmingham City Council Mark Rogers and Beverley Nielsen (runs the Birmingham Made Me Expo)

This isn’t a write-up to summarise the whole debate (which was robust, lively, fun) but rather just a place to dump my opening position statement. This wasn’t as delivered (neither is it properly proofed) but was more or less the angle I went for:

“So I’m a resident of the city, having been brought up about two miles that way in Alum Rock and now living in Bournville, with stop offs in Perry Barr, Stechford, Kings Heath and Stirchley in between. Briefly I even lived in Moseley. I am currently doing some research in South Birmingham and in the Castle Vale area in East Birmingham and I guess I sometimes commentate about the city on my blog. I also edit a website about the wonderfully boring suburb of Bournville in South Birmingham.

So the first thing I’d like to say something I’m sure we can all agree on, that Birmingham is not the second best city in the UK. I have it around 8th – that feels about right? London first obviously, and then the nations’ capitals (Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast), then there are some places that just feel so liveble and cool that surely they would come ahead of us. Bristol, Brighton. Leeds maybe? Where does that leave us? 8th, 9th? I actually know nothing about Manchester and have  been there no more than a handful of times in my life. Maybe that’s ahead of us as well.

But actually I’m not sure what the problem is. I live in one of the UK’s top ten cities – that’s fine by me. Maybe that’s a new slogan for Birmingham. ‘one of the UK’s top ten cities – kind of, just about’.

But don’t be mistaken for thinking I’m bad-mouthing Birmingham, because what we have here is one of most joyfully messy, complicated, refreshingly grumpy cities in the UK. I think we’re a city whose citizens never quite believe the corporate spin that we’re somehow a must-see destination for the international jet-set. I think most Brummies don’t care about Manchester getting the plaudits ahead of us.

In what way would being the second city change the lived experience of living in Birmingham. In no tangible way whatsoever. I predict that the economic impact of being officially the second city of the UK would amount to one extra cool-looking coffee shop and an almost imperceptible increase in trendy young men with beards. In short, if you’re from Alum Rock, Castle Vale, the three estates, it wouldn’t matter a jot.

But here’s what I think Birmingham is perhaps a leader in. Something the world could learn from us. We’re world-class at our continued resistance of gentrification. Despite Big City Plans, regeneration schemes, upmarket shopping centres, the city still feels kind of gritty. Even those places that seem to want a bit of gentrification never quite make it happen. I’m looking at you Stirchley.

Perhaps the best example of this is Digbeth. A few years back the then City head of planning, Clive Dutton, said that the likely scenario for Digbeth is ‘do nothing’. The money to regenerate the area just wasn’t there he said; so therefore we won’t interfere. That turned out to be a piece of planning genius. Development in that area has been incremental. Where flats have gone up there’s been an effective vocal pro-noise, pro-pub, pro-music lobby arguing that such developments should be stopped. The conversion of former industrial properties to workshops for digital/creative companies has been at a pace that reflected the modest growth that the city has seen in that sector.

The fabric of Digbeth as a place of industry hasn’t changed. I suspect those cool creatives we’d like to see more of kind of like it like that. It’s not Shoreditch, never will be. It’s really quite down to earth and welcoming. A middle-aged suburban dad of two can feel at home there. That’s how painfully uncool the place is. At the weekend Birmingham City Fans can swell its pubs. Some of those pubs still feel scary to go into. That’s good, Birmingham should be a city of slightly scary pubs. Birmingham is a city where we never quite seem to be at a tipping point where popularity results in a huge spike in house prices or business rents and therefore makes the place unaffordable for citizens or businesses.

So my message is not quite ‘do nothing’, more ‘do it in at a human scale that makes the city continue to be a liveable place’. In short, do it in a less garishly glitzy corporate manner. We know the city has to play at being a ‘global city’ because investment is important. That’s linked to jobs which is absolutely the thing we need more of here. But don’t get upset if we sound a bit ungrateful about it. We’re just not that kind of people – we’re scared if we universally declare the place to be amazing then they’ll be a rush of red-trousered hipsters eager to pay inflated property prices just to work next to a scrap yard on Fazeley street.

So those people who say our problem is ‘we don’t shout loud enough’ are quite right. We know that we have to pretend to care about being the second city but to be honest, we just don’t. Top ten? That’s fine – I’m happy with that, you should be too.”

3 thoughts on “What I said at the ‘Birmingham, Second City or Second Best’ debate

  1. Refreshing to see the city not described as either world- class or awesome. Birmingham is ok: quite a lot to do in it- culture/ politics/ parks/ music/ etc. But too much: poverty/ litter/ traffic.
    Not enough walking / cycling.

    Further to go.

    • Very good piece. As someone who came to Brum over 30 years ago, I sort of do want Birmingham to be seen as a great city; as somewhere that people want to visit and live in. However, I can’t disagree with any of what you’ve said here (even though I’m from Stirchley!) especially as your view of Digbeth echoes my own as I wrote a few days ago in my blog – http://www.photodigitalart.co.uk/a-paean-to-digbeth/
      Jonathan Meades summed us up well in his Town Hall gig last week with this comment – “Birmingham has a collective sense of humour; self-deprecating, unboastful & ironic, perhaps why it’s no good at promoting itself.”
      I like the big shiny projects and I also like the make-do-and-mend attitude that has flourished in Digbeth!

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