When Andy Street wants to show off the best of Birmingham to visitors from London, the West Midlands’ Conservative Mayor begins its tour at Centenary Square, a public space that is two football stadiums long. To the west is the International Convention Center (ICC) and Symphony Hall. To the north is the Birmingham Rep Theater and the new Birmingham Library. HSBC’s new UK headquarters is in the south, and the optimistically optimistically named 700m development in the east, where the streets march. The square and its surroundings are the streets a statement that this place has regained its confidence.
Perhaps it is. However, the buildings surrounding the square tell another story of the modern city. The ICC was sold by Congress five years ago to cover the cost of 1.1 billion equal pay bills after thousands of women were paid less than men for doing similar jobs. Birmingham representatives are currently closed and 40% of employees are likely to lose their jobs. The Birmingham Library cost 188m, which led the city to cut opening hours, staff, and books from libraries across the city, and couldn’t even cut the sparkling new center itself. HSBC will bring 2,200 people into the city center every day, but the percentage of employees coming in since Covid-19 is around 35%. He is confident that when Paradise is complete, new office blocks will be full and restaurants will be busy, but he feels optimistic amid the pandemic to fix economic hopes for city-centred jobs.
The city center can come back, but the city itself needs more than office blocks and boosterism. According to all possible economic indicators, the UK’s second-largest city is in crisis. The official unemployment rate is 9.8%, second only to Blackpool (9.9%). More Brummies will be added to that aggregate. Birmingham has 55,400 more people than other local authorities in the United States. Manufacturing jobs fell sharply in cities with 1000 trades. In 1999, 1 in 5 people worked in manufacturing, but in 2019 it was 1 in 10. Too few of these jobs have been replaced. And where they have they are mostly low wages, low skill and low security. To make matters worse, Birmingham is a young city with nearly half of the population under 30 years old.
And there is Brexit. We’ll be one of America’s worst-affected areas, admits Remainer Street, a proud Remainer. Had I been an MP I would have been one of 21 people who lost the whip, he said. He mentioned the removal of the MP against the no-deal Brexit.
You don’t think of Birmingham in the top 5 struggling places. If Birmingham is struggling, it will affect the country as a whole. City Center CEO Andrew Carter
Birmingham’s big bet over the past decade has been retail. The Bull Ring was rebuilt around the new Selfridges, and Mailbox brought Harvey Nichols to the city and created a new shopping center above New Street station five years ago with John Lewis as anchor tenant. After hitting the city’s iconic blow, the department store recently announced that it would not open again after closing during its first closure. Street, who has been the managing director of the retailer for nine years, admits that he felt rotten when it was announced.
The closure of John Lewiss had a tremendous impact on the rest of the shopping complex, which was considered the city’s colorful new heart. It was almost empty a few days before Birmingham was sealed off along with other parts of England. Some small shops are also permanently closed. Others were painted with signs proclaiming 30%, 50% and 70% off sales. Several cafes and restaurants were not open during lunch time. Electronic billboards that once advertised the fall/winter range on Selfridges or the latest version of the iPhone switched between messages promoting social distancing and testing and tracking messages. John Lewis isn’t the only big name for packing. The Gap giant Bull Ring store advertised closing sales. Currys / PC World is already gone.
Some of the smaller outlets that rely on big stores to attract crowds were naturally struggling. In an empty hairdresser, the barber scrolled through his cell phone, waiting for the first customer of the day. After going down a few doors, the clothing store assistant admitted that he had sold a pair of pants all morning.
The eye-catching Birmingham Library in Centenary Square, which opened in 2013. Tickets priced at 180 million meant cuts to local libraries across the city. Photo: Andrew Fox/The Observer
Before the pandemic, Birmingham was making steady progress, said Andrew Carter, chief executive of the city center think tank, gained momentum as the city center was reborn as a place for businesses and people to live.
The unemployment shame surprised Carter. You don’t think of Birmingham in the top 5 struggling places. Numbers don’t only matter to those who live here. Birmingham affects a wider area while small towns affect its population. If Birmingham is struggling, it will have a greater impact on the country as a whole.
This is a crisis, but oddly enough, it is a silent crisis. Greater Manchester’s mayor Andy Burnham rarely came out of the press, but Andy Street suffered a quiet epidemic. Few media outlets nationwide have noticed the crisis in Birmingham. It is no surprise that there are no correspondents in the national newspapers. Birmingham is being ignored, Carter says. It worries me.
Now I’m less worried about the streets that led me through the city center to thriving cafes. Swiping with a code to colleague Andy, he says he’s less inclined to rush into the microphone and prefers to call Matt, who mentions his health assistant. If you appear on television that always criticizes people, he says, you can’t expect to be treated well and that your judgments will be considered. I think it’s really important that the person who advocates the region should have such a relationship with the central government.
Druid Heath in a suburb of Birmingham, six miles south of the city center. Photo: Andrew Fox/The Observer
Criticism of some of the city is not that the street has anything to do with the central government, but that it has nothing to do with the less attractive areas of the city. It’s easy to be optimistic about the city center. But the crisis in Birmingham is felt deeper elsewhere.
Bus 50 departs from the city center outside the Selfridges building. If traffic is normal, travel south through Balsall Heath, Moseley and Kings Heath for 20 minutes, then head out to the edge of the city and end at Druids Heath.
The highest point to the east here is the Ural Mountains. Also, the poorest ward in the city is poorer. The initial light of the new building, built around a series of 16 tower blocks in the 1960s, has long since vanished.
Residents say the two towers have already collapsed and the rest are poorly maintained. Jayne Murray, an artist working in the area, says it’s a community and people support each other. But the employment rate is low and people are really struggling.
The community Murray refers to is difficult to maintain when there are few common areas. All three pubs at Druids Heaths are closed. Gladiator is now a protected house, Maypole is Halfords, Cartland Arms a McDonalds. Lots of green space, but no playground. Internet access is restricted. Smartphones and laptops are not common.
The only secondary school in Druids Heath, Baverstock Academy was closed in 2017. Photo: Andrew Fox/The Observer
There are three primary schools, but the only local secondary school, Baverstock, was closed in 2017. This means that every child at Druids Heath has to attend middle school elsewhere.
A generation ago, Baverstock would have been saved. Local education authorities would have understood the damage done to communities without secondary schools. But Baverstock was an academy. When the academy chain gave up, the government insisted that it could only be opened when looking for a new sponsor. Not surprisingly, there is no academy chain that thought schools struggling in poor areas were worth investing in. In the past three years, the school has been abandoned. There was an intrusion, broken window, and last month arsonists were concerned about burning. The city council spent $120,000 a year for 24-hour security, but no one found any money to pay for the actual training.
Murray was on the edge of the city. People feel forgotten.
Druids Heaths Labor MP, Steve McCabe, is investigating the economic crisis engulfing the city and is concerned where it will lead. I worked in Wolverhampton in the late 70s and early 80s. It was an era of riots. I was going back to exactly that situation. We are very close to the limit.
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