Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Brum-bashing a thing of the past

Having written in defence of one city I used to call home yesterday, now it's the turn of another...

While it's irritating that the BBC sub-editor couldn't resist an unnecessarily attention-grabbing headline ("Why does everyone hate Birmingham ... even Jane Austen?"), there's much to approve of in the substance of David Cannadine's article. He's right to focus on the striking new library, now nearing completion, as a symbol of the confident transformation of the city centre - and make no mistake, it has been completely transformed in the ten or so years since I started visiting regularly. Gone are the dank subways and aerial dual carriageways around Moor Street train station, and it's now far easier and more pleasant to navigate between different parts. The city centre is now home to some excellent restaurants and proper pubs of character and distinction.

Shortly before I left the city, I was temping in the office of the Council's Strategic Director of Development, based in the impressive main building in Victoria Square at the top end of New Street. It was an exciting time to be there, with plans for the new library already afoot and the place awash with a general surge of enthusiasm for revamping and reviving the heart of the city.

One of the article's commentators mentions that New Street Station makes for a grim welcome to and first impression of Birmingham - he may be interested to know that the importance of the various "gateways" into the city was appreciated back then, and that the coach station in Digbeth was demolished and completely rebuilt for this very reason. Improving the main train station is somewhat trickier, given its location, but some success has been achieved on that front too, I think (though it doesn't help that the Pallisades shopping centre which stands above it is dying a slow death, at least partly as a result of the Bullring).

Two caveats, though. First, there's a danger that the City Council - and those elsewhere in the UK - become distracted with the construction of "iconic" buildings for their own sake. That's not yet the case in Birmingham, but it could happen. Second, the significant shockwaves of the tectonic transformation in the city centre are yet to be really felt in the outlying areas - and Birmingham is a city that sprawls and sprawls. It's important that regeneration isn't confined to a small area that all can visit and work in but that only the select few can afford to actually live in.

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