Backdrop to The Future Business District

Mike Best and Kevin Johnson set out to explain the background to the Study.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, many people and businesses have been required to work from home rather than the office. The sudden shift away from working in the office has significantly impacted the Business, Professional & Financial Services (BPFS) sector.

Lockdown in March 2020 resulted in a sudden switch to remote working and online shopping as our city centres emptied overnight.

With the easing of restrictions from June, limited re-opening of the retail and hospitality sectors saw drastically lower footfall as most offices remained closed as ‘work from home if you can’ and ‘avoid public transport’ continued to be Government advice.

By August, there was encouragement of a return to the office to coincide with schools re-opening. Many businesses and office buildings are now geared up for Covid-secure operation; however the spike in cases in early Autumn, local restrictions in major cities like Manchester and Birmingham and fears of a second wave continued to defer a significant move back to central business districts.

Government then switched advice to work from home where possible. The evidence appears to suggest that smaller towns and suburban centres have benefitted, whilst city centres and specifically business districts have suffered the most.

Where to work has now become a matter of choice, for businesses and individuals, who have become used to and proven that remote working can be productive and suit both lifestyles and family circumstances.

There are downsides of course, but the future of work and the role of CBD offices are now in the news and front-and-centre of many business continuity strategies – why go back to the office, rather than when?

Less well debated is the future of business districts themselves – the places where offices locate together with the supporting infrastructure of business networking, conferencing, hotels, retail, hospitality and cultural attractions and in close proximity to town halls and the corridors of power.

These areas of our major city centres should be considered as having a value beyond supporting six Pret-a-mangers. They are an ecosystem of large corporates, SMEs and small independent businesses that have historically thrived by each other.

The questions now are why do we need business districts and how can we ensure they remain successful as places to attract businesses and people post-pandemic?

The Birmingham Story

Over the past twenty years, most UK city centres have gradually recovered from the era of business parks and out-of-town retail and leisure which had hollowed out many.

The story of Birmingham’s city centre remains a living case study.

In recent decades, the story begins at the Highbury Summit of 1988 through the development of the ICC and Brindleyplace;
retail revolutions of the Bullring, Mailbox and Grand Central; the Big City Plan giving rise to Eastside, Paradise and Smithfield and the transport investments of New Street Station, HS2 and the Metro which will link Snow Hill and Westside.

Birmingham’s three flagships of the Bullring, Brindleyplace and New Street Station/Grand Central, all built since the millennium, demonstrate the importance of a strong retail offer, high quality office environment and excellent public transport hubs.

Colmore Business District, the historic heart of our business professional and financial services sector (BPFS) for over a hundred years, has also revived with new Grade-A office developments, the refurbishment of many older buildings and an explosion of food and drink, from fine dining to craft beer and cocktail bars.

The growth of Birmingham’s BPFS sector has not simply been due to smarter offices and sandwich shops. A successful city centre is one which harnesses ideas and collaboration; innovation and enterprise with a clustering of professionals and firms which fuel an economic engine. It is an environment which is liveable and attractive, highly productive and vibrant.

Eleven years ago, Colmore Business District became the UK’s first predominantly office-led BID, encompassing over 700 businesses and 35,000 employees. Today, it forms part of a mosaic of five city centre BIDs including Westside, Retail, Jewellery Quarter and Southside working closely with the City Council and other agencies to manage the city centre environment and foster its continued success, raising in excess of £4m each year through levies for business-led initiatives.

Colmore BID has helped foster a sense of community; Birmingham’s heritage has inspired a new generation of ideas and innovation and the district’s firms have benefitted from a young and diverse population, attracting talent from all over as well as increasing numbers who have been educated at leading institutions on our doorstep.

The promise of Paradise to the west and the Curzon HS2 station area to the east, connected by an extended Metro network and high quality public realm, will create an arc of business activity across the city centre, alongside build-to-rent residential which is emerging as a key driver of the next wave of development. Much of this emerged from the Big City Plan a decade ago, which is about to be reviewed in the context of the Council’s Route to Zero (R20) strategy.

There is a spectrum of data, trends, analysis, commentary and ideas to call upon. National and global perspectives will be useful, but Colmore Business District has a unique positioning and will need to assess issues and opportunities which are specific to the nature of our levy-paying community and the economic and social functions that may be required of Birmingham’s commercial centre in the years to come.

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