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Refining Birmingham's cultural and visitor destination plan

Exhibit from Birmingham Museums: 'The Past is Now' exhibition - originally curated in 2018 to examine the relationship between Birmingham's communities and the British Empire - now on display.

We were delighted that Symon Easton, Director of Culture at Birmingham City Council, Anna Williams, COO of Birmingham Royal Ballet, Erica Love, Director, Culture Central and Neil MacOmish, Board Director, Scott Brownrigg, all took part in our levelling up, cultural regeneration discussion panel at The Exchange, Birmingham, this week.

Questions were asked around the legacy of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, to be held in under two weeks time, the creation a more diverse workforce for the cultural industry in the city, improvements in connectivity to widen the range of people who can attend performances and the measures to put in place for the sustainability of big city events.

Birmingham City Council is turning its attention to how the city can enhance its cultural offer while promoting it as a national and international destination, as it recovers from the pandemic.

The Visitor Destination Plan will capitalise on the huge opportunities that hosting the Commonwealth Games brings, not least the unprecedented television coverage to a worldwide audience this summer. Outdated perceptions of the city and region will be challenged as viewers and visitors will see how much Birmingham has transformed in recent years.

The plan will support the visitor economy by showcasing areas where Birmingham is strongest including its vibrant culinary scene, world class culture and festivals, history and heritage, award-winning family attractions, independent and designer shopping, its acclaimed Christmas experience and a growing screen tourism offer. The council says it will work with its partners to ensure that these ‘hero’ themes will be communicated effectively to consumer and travel trade markets and become better known both nationally and internationally.

Symon Easton said:

'We have had a lot of turmoil and challenges recently and the timing of the Commonwealth Games is appropriate. There has already been work carried out on the potential legacy of the games and it is good for people living in the city to start thinking about what the benefits could be. People at the moment do feel disenfranchised. We are the youngest and most diverse city and whatever we plan in terms of sport and culture, it must meet the expectation of different communities. That's where the Big Culture Conversation comes in - in terms of inclusivity and relevance - and making sure the varied voices of the city are heard. We are a city of different centres, so we need to engage people and those marginalised communities. We have had ten years of adversity and we don't have huge resources, but we have to make it work.'

Birmingham Royal Ballet kept going throughout the pandemic and is constantly evolving its offer to draw in a wider audience. At one point during the pandemic, there was talk of taking ballet onto the streets to make it more accessible.

COO Anna Williams stated:

'We often talk about art being performed in the centre of the city but it is difficult as a traditional art form that is reliant on built infrastructure and large numbers coming in. An important question is how people navigate the city to come to performances and this is fundamental to the success of Birmingham. The transport infrastructure in London because it is a bigger city, works better and you can get to and home from performances that go on late into the evening, but it is much harder in Birmingham. We must make sure that people in this city feel they can cross boundaries to take part and we have to do this through community and place-making.

'We are a touring company and I travel up and down the UK so I am aware of different regional economies. The investment in Birmingham is extraordinary and in the centre you can walk among fountains and public spaces which is fantastic, a bit more of a challenge around The Hippodrome where we are and I do think we have to work on connectivity. In London, a lot of activity is moving to the east of the capital, and it is important that we keep growing these hubs.

'However, there is the danger of the centrist government with the idea of taking money out of London and redistributing it - the danger of the parachute policy - that negates the work of the people who understand their communities. It cannot be about gifting through largess and we must recognise the strength of the work in these communities that happens.'

'The recent appointment of Carlos Acosta was a bold statement and he has absolute ambition not only to make great art but has the warmth and ability to connect with young people and help drive talent and employment sustainably, which is drawn from local areas.'

Erica Love, Director of Culture Central added:

'We have been carrying out a programme of work to look at how freelancers can survive the instability of their employment in the cultural sector. Covid-19 has meant that the cultural sector is still suffering a loss of numbers in the workforce and we need a clear strategy around how to improve that, how funds can help and bring in the collective voice of the cultural sector to solve some of these problems. People have come from all over the country to work on the Commonwealth Games and we would like to understand how to retain that talent.

'There has been work done through the levelling up agenda to improve equality in the region, but there are still more places that don't have any investment. However, there is now incentive for companies in London to move to places like Solihull and the Black Country, and there is evidence of the desire of cultural organisations to spread to the regions. This is breaking down the misconceptions about culture in Birmingham and the surrounding areas.'

Scott Brownrigg's Board Director, Neil MacOmish who concluded our debate spoke of the importance of keeping an international perspective on culture and sports tourism.

He has reported on the work of The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) and Catalan Tourist Board which has published a summary of the proceedings, case studies, and the key lessons learned following the first World Sports Tourism Congress which took place in November 2021 in Catalonia:

'The process of transformation of tourism, and by extension also of sports tourism, began before the COVID-19 pandemic, but this has generated new elements that rethink the change. Aspects such as travel, essential for tourist activity, the profile of users, supply, or demand, will be affected. Both the events and the active practice of sports tourism should rethink their configuration, considering aspects such as sustainability, the environment, health, the impact on the territory and its residents, among others.

At Future Cities Forum in Birmingham Neil MacOmish continued:

'It is good to think about local, but if you don't take a national and global stance, none of us are going to exist - it's one planet I am afraid - and there are tensions in tourism with jumping on planes but travel is still part of a cultural experience and if we don't have that, we will have no empathy for other countries or care about them.

'Being transparent about policy makes it believable to local communities. I was asked to work on design codes for a football park in The Bronx, New York and the Yankee stadium opposite promised community engagement from the start, but it failed because it was just the rich who attended and paid very little once they were at the games. This did nothing for the community. We have been advocating long life, loose fit and the Emirates Stadium is the single biggest place where most learning happens because young people think they might catch a glimpse of one of their sporting stars and it's cool.

'The way for Birmingham to capitalise on the games is to tell the story and preserve the shared and collected memories, these become very significant. Urban fabric is critical and but also the experience that the host city gives visitors, how people are treated when they are there.'

Future Cities Forum will be holding its next cultural regeneration forum at The V&A in South Kensington, London, this September.


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