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Birmingham: 'the golden decade ahead'

Image above: Commonwealth Games Hub on Centenary Way in central Birmingham

In a research seminar gathering of government, science academics, cultural leaders, senior real estate advisers and architects, Future Cities Forum asked questions around the potential legacy of the Commonwealth Games for Birmingham (due to begin in under two weeks time), broadening training and job opportunities for young people in the West Midlands, and how to attract investment partners for the new health innovation campus being built at Selly Oak.

In the discussion, there were concerns around how the UK government has been handling the process of assessing levelling up bids, on how some poorer areas of Birmingham would be regenerated for healthier living, and debate on how the new HS2 Curzon Street Station would act as a catalyst for economic growth.

Leader of Solihull Council and Portfolio Holder for Environment, Energy and HS2 at West Midlands Combined Authority, Cllr Ian Courts, said the city faced a 'golden decade', whatever the political turmoil:

' Look at what's happening in the wider region - we are all working together, all the local authorities for a common end. Most investment comes from the private sector, not government and what we do regionally is the most important element here. What we have a duty to do is make our place the most attractive possible for investment. The best locations get through in any political turmoil and we are one of the best located places already in the country. The connectivity is excellent and we are going to exploit that.

'The new HS2 (interchange) station at Solihull will be very complementary to HS2 Curzon Street in Birmingham, and it will sit next to the NEC, the airport and motorways. It is going to be in one of the best connected places in Europe, less than forty minutes from London. Yes, there is an issue around timescale, as it is years away, but HS2 has just agreed to release thirty acres of land in the next four years around the station site, and the University has submitted plans for a health campus which will be transformative for the region.

'Now that project does need government support and it is a shame that the ministers who came to Birmingham recently have now moved on with the political changes taking place, but the opportunities remain phenomenal. It's not about health tourism, I want to see a public sector legacy for our people and it may not be a traditional hospital, but we want to carry out diagnostics for example and capitalise on technology. The West Midlands is connected on health, education and business and transport is the key thing. I think we get the funding for transport measures because government sees where it is used most effectively and where it is used properly.'

Image above: the western 'unpaid' concourse at Curzon Street HS2 Station (CGI from Grimhsaw)

On the design of the new HS2 station at Birmingham, Associate Principal architect at Grimshaw, Max Fawcett, felt that this would be a station that would stand the test of time and be a new impressive gateway for the city:

'It is much more than a railway station, it is one large interchange with a major public square in front of it. The station is being returned to the size it was before Beeching reduced it in the 1960's and it will be served by a new tram line coming in. It has two concourses with a 15 metre level change between each and potentially some existing rail arches could be opened up, but that is separate to HS2. The station will extend the city centre by half a kilometre. Architects practice Glen Howells, which has worked on the masterplan, has said that the inner ring road has acted like a tourniquet to stop expansion, but now that won't be the case.

'There are going to be ancillary services in station for the public as well but we don't want to create another shopping centre. There is an arts and culture strategy that we are implementing and maybe the artefacts illustrating the manufacturing industry of the city, will be part of that.

'To illustrate the scale of what we are doing here, the roof of the station has the same profile as that of St Pancras Station. The design will be timeless and there's nothing added onto it, like cladding. It is functional as well as creating renewable energy, with what we term as' rain gardens' that reduce the amount of run-off rain water from the city's drainage system.'

Arcadis joined the discussion to talk about the next stage of Birmingham's 'Our City Plan'. Arcadis has been appointed by Birmingham City Council to take the plan forward, which will help regenerate areas of the city that so far haven't benefited from investment. Director and City Executive Simon Marks said:

' We're talking about the Big City Plan of fifteen years ago which has driven growth, but now and for the future we are talking about tackling a slightly different geography, of more challenged inner city areas but with great opportunities. There is a collection of centres, with different characters, and we want to create more of these fifteen-minute walkable areas. We want to focus on city growth for all and make sure that investment really impacts the people who need it. We must concentrate on the city of nature, which is making the most of green spaces and regenerating poor green spaces as well as active green travel. Birmingham should work on being a city of connections as well as a city of knowledge and innovation. We need a bold vision but something that realistically we can deliver over the next twenty years.

'In all of this, there was an early round of consultation and we have used data analytic techniques to really get under the skin of what both business and community wants. We are ready to get back out again and engage more. Blue and green infrastructure are very important, Covid-19 has shown us that, and we need to develop the Digbeth canal masterplan for example. The Commonwealth Games will be a catalyst for exploring how we can develop sport in the city and I know that football clubs locally will be creating wider engagement. The Perry Barr development is all about this vision and the legacy of the games.

However, in conclusion of our opening panel discussion at Birmingham, Managing Partner at Volterra, Ellie Evans, warned that the UK government has shown too much disorganisation around processing the Tranche 2 Levelling up Bids:

'We have been supporting local authorities to put in their latest levelling up bids but the portal through which to do this still does not exist and the timescales for local areas to submit them is unreasonable. Then there is the question with all the current political changes on whether the funding is still going to be there. The Government has developed guidance of the distributional effects of levelling up but concentrates on the capturing of land value. The problem with this is that poorer areas where existing land values are low, really struggle to make the case for uplift. Sports facilities, libraries and tourism should all count, i.e. how many visitors an area has, long term health can benefit from sports activities/facilities and so on. But this is not the Government's preferred method for assessment and this really undermines the whole idea of levelling up.'

Read our full-length levelling-up report due to be published shortly.


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