Forget London, Birmingham is the place for businesses, workers and house-buyers
In the 1960s, the UK had what some of the press referred to as a “Birmingham problem”. The city was too big, it was creating too many jobs, too many people lived there, and too many more people wanted to live there.
“The five counties in and around Birmingham lie at the strategic heart of manufacturing Britain,” said the now-defunct Statist magazine. They have the “fastest rate of population growth and the highest ratio of working population to total population in the UK . . . they help to underpin the whole nation’s economy by their output of capital goods, their direct exports and their supplies of products and work to other regions.”
Average wages were higher in Birmingham than in London. This sounds impressive, but to the government of the day, the intense concentration of commerce and wealth was considered to be a very bad thing.
It caused housing problems (a study in the early 1960s suggested that more than 500,000 people needed to be “decanted” from the region to prevent overcrowding); it meant the area was always “chronically short of labour”; and it created endless rows about slum clearances, housing policy and the value of Birmingham’s proposed greenbelt. So instead of nurturing Birmingham’s brilliance, the UK’s increasingly centralised state made it share: between 1945 and 1963 “some 200 industrial firms or projects had been steered out of the region” to “parts of Britain with labour to spare”. They took 100,000 jobs with them.
What was really needed, or so a departmental study group for the West Midlands suggested, was a way to build new towns away from Birmingham and to “persuade industry to conform and provide a sufficient number of jobs in these outlying areas”. In the meantime, wrote JE Dolby, general manager of Northampton Town and County, in 1964, “new industry is not encouraged”.
This was a policy that Birmingham’s leaders would come to regret. The once-great city fell into a nasty decline in the 1970s as the unions grew rather too powerful, industries shifted to other locations, and the car industry imploded. Two hundred thousand jobs were lost and unemployment rose from effectively zero to close to 20%.
In a couple of decades Birmingham had turned from being the strategic heart of a fast-growing Britain to being an unfashionable, unloved and largely ignored symbol of its industrial failure.
The good news is that the story doesn’t end there – things are changing again in Birmingham. HSBC announced a few months ago that it is to move its head office for its retail and business lending operation, and 1,000 of its staff, from London to Birmingham. Deutsche Bank has also expanded its operations in Birmingham: it now has 1,500 people based there, in both front- and back-office capacities.
A global survey of 300 cities by Jones Lang LaSalle put Birmingham at number 53 for foreign direct investment. PwC ranks it as the sixth-best city in Europe for investment — ahead of London.
A survey at the start of this year showed 46% of West Midlands firms reporting rises in output, and 34% reporting rising orders. That may explain why the city is showing the highest growth in manufacturing and technology jobs in the UK outside London.
As George Osborne noted in his Budget in March, a job is created in the Midlands every ten minutes. It might go some way to explaining why Birmingham was the top regional city for people in their 30s leaving London in 2014 – more chose Birmingham than chose Bristol.
So what’s bringing Birmingham back? One reason is that the extreme cost of living in London has reminded everyone just how close Birmingham is to the capital (100 miles) and how much cheaper it is to set up shop outside London. Jan Thompson, of commercial estate agent Jones Lang LaSalle, notes that setting up in Birmingham will have cost Deutsche only 55-60% of what it would have cost in London, while the bank’s head in Birmingham talks of the ease of transport between the cities and of the “lively and exciting” lifestyles Birmingham would offer their staff.
Birmingham also has one of the youngest, most highly qualified and most diverse workforces in the UK, and a development policy that seeks to work with rather than against business, says Thompson.
The universities are working together to put a “strong sales pitch” to students and employers; and since 2010, Birmingham’s 20-year Big City Plan has produced a pretty good infrastructure programme.
The airport has been extended and direct flights to China (the only ones outside London) began in July last year. The Midland Metro is being expanded. New Street station is to get a vast new atrium. And if HS2 goes ahead — note that its headquarters is located in Birmingham — you will be able to travel from London to Birmingham in 49 minutes. That, for reference, will make the journey 15 minutes faster than the trip from London to Winchester.