Birmingham on the World Stage: The Attractiveness of the City Before and After the Pandemic

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Rebecca Riley on what Birmingham needs to do to remain an attractive place to live and visit, ensuring the centre and surrounding areas remain vibrant and thriving.

This blog post has been produced to provide insight into the findings of the Birmingham Economic Review.

The Birmingham Economic Review 2020 is produced by City-REDI / WM REDI, University of Birmingham and the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, with contributions from the West Midlands Growth Company. It is an in-depth exploration of the economy of England’s second city and is a high-quality resource for organisations seeking to understand Birmingham to inform research, policy or investment decisions.

This post is featured in the full report and report summary here.

The world and Birmingham have changed significantly since last year, and we have yet to see how the impacts of the pandemic will continue to unfold and the effects it will have locally.

What we do know is lockdown, working from home and fear has emptied out cities and urban environments and may have longer-term effects as people seek green space and better home environments. However tech and personal based service hubs have increased their share of employment in the past and growth generated from intense agglomeration still remains important to these businesses in terms of staff, idea exchange and innovation.

Reviewing the evidence for and cities, some themes emerge on the challenges facing places (big and small). One of the main challenges for cities post covid is setting a clear vision for a future which may see significant changes to work and life patterns. Places need a positive narrative on which to build, and citizens need to be able to reengage with the city, whilst taking pride in their local areas. Businesses need to play a role in that as part of the fabric of social infrastructure. Post pandemic it is particularly important that people need to deal with feelings of powerlessness and mental health impacts.

A place must understand its unique selling point. It is vital that there is an understanding of the past, present and potential futures of place, and there is a lack of evidence used in identifying the uniqueness of place, alongside the basics of what purpose a place has. The smart specialisation approach is poorly adopted in the UK which means places fail to really understand their unique asset base and capitalise on it, moving forward this asset base may radically change.  We need to reassess our asset base, technological, people, cultural, environmental, innovative and business and use it to differentiate to be able to accelerate out of the looming recession.

Last year I highlighted that 1 in 5 jobs and 1 in 4 businesses were from the business and professional services sector. Although in data terms this still remains, this sector has seen major changes in the pandemic, which were largely an acceleration of changes already happening. Work spaces were becoming more collaborative, flexible working, and national teams the norm. Post pandemic we need to look at how they return to the city to ensure businesses can continue innovating, networking and gaining the business benefits from the city whilst also meeting the needs of employees and safety.

Transport plays an important role in the return to the cities centre but international research has highlighted that to maintain safe operations capacity needs to be kept at 50% and we are seeing this in the region, although services are running at 90-95% of pre covid levels. Timetables are different but capacity has increased, so flexible working and times is essential to open up the cities and high streets. Transport infrastructure is seeing a dramatic increase due to the return to school. As with many places globally, people have taken to their cars, which is increasing congestion despite the reduced numbers travelling.

Lack of contact, socialising and engagement with people is taking its toll on mental health.

The city has been a magnet for visitors, especially business-driven visitors and his has been a key selling point and previous numbers show this with Birmingham having the highest number of business trips (800k), spending and overnight stays (2.4m) in England in 2019. Visitor numbers and footfall in the city centre is dramatically down, and business tourism may take a while to return due to social distancing. Although spend remains near the average for cities, and footfall is not as low as other cities such as Manchester or London there is still some way to go to get back to levels in last years data. But local high streets have gained with walkable places doing well. Places that have been hit harder by loss of footfall are those that are university cities and towns, a higher percentage of knowledge workers and home workers. Going forward, the return of students, ensuring the city is welcoming and has a safe way to bring people back into the city is essential.

There has always been a need to understand the local demand for socialising, the retail, entertainment and liveability offer and what local residents demand and want, alongside attracting those from outside. Post Covid-19 this is now a difficult balancing act, between keeping people safe and ensuring people can return to the shops, cafes and entertainment offer is essential not just for the economy but for wellbeing. Lack of contact, socialising and engagement with people is taking its toll on mental health and home working is leading to a feeling of not working from home but living in work and business face an incredible challenge in managing this.

Research into the success of places was already pointing to a lack of good spaces for interaction with place, open green infrastructure was already seen as a disadvantage. Cities will be faced with a potential future where properties lie empty if demand changes; the boom in city living may shift as it has in the past. Research on successful towns and cities had already highlighted that places which build a sense of community and invest in the social fabric were more successful. Encouraging the local population to invest, spend time and money on local businesses creates a more resilient local ecosystem, and the points above all add to this.

The success of places is dependent on targeted and specialised investment and support. The pandemic may have accelerated the change but embracing that change, adapting and evolving is key.

This blog was written by Rebecca Riley, Administrative Director for City-REDI / WM REDI, University of Birmingham. 

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The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham

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