Published on 22/12/20

Mike Best, Chair of The Future Business District Steering Group for Colmore BID, reflects on the reasons for this unique research project.

Blog – bestlaidplan

 Mike Best, Chair of The Future Business District Steering Group for Colmore BID, reflects on the reasons for this unique research project.

I’ve worked in Birmingham City Centre for over 25 years, a quarter-century which has seen its gradual and remarkable recovery from a low-point in the mid-1980s, which coincided with my arrival in the city as a town planning student (but I hasten to add, I take no credit!).

City Centre then and now

Back then, the city centre was bleak, through a combination of the demise of West Midlands industry that left a population suffering high levels of unemployment, and two decades of a misguided ‘rebalancing’ policy which had limited office development in the city centre, slowing the growth of business and professional services. Add to that the hollowing out of city centre retail that then happened as the ‘out-of-town’ boom took off, the early 1990s was ground-zero.

The City Council, however, had begun the fightback with the Highbury Initiative of 1988, an international symposium of experts held at the home of Joseph Chamberlain that led to the City Centre Design Strategy of 1990, strongly influenced by the late Francis Tibbalds. This sought to dismantle the ‘concrete collar’ of the Inner Ring Road and expand into a series of ‘quarters’ in an enlarged Central Area, starting with Broad Street where the Council had begun the construction of Centenary Square, the International Convention Centre and Symphony Hall, the new performance home to the CBSO, which opened in 1991. Birmingham’s cultural revolution had begun.

Three big regeneration projects also took centre stage in the 1990s:

  • Brindleyplace, a new canalside quarter to the west of the ICC which attracted Deutsche Bank and BT
  • Bullring, the wholesale replacement of the tired 1960s shopping centre which opened in 2003 with new Selfridges and Debenhams department stores; and
  • Millennium Point, comprising the relocated science museum called Thinktank, a large-screen IMAX cinema and multi-purpose education building which opened in 2001.

These three took almost a decade to come to fruition but became the hallmarks and landmarks of Birmingham City Centre’s urban renaissance. With new offices, apartments, retail offer and cultural attractions, the city centre was drawing in young professionals not just to work but to live and socialise. This was also the start of the burgeoning food and drink scene, which for the property world at least had started with the Metro Bar & Grill in Cornwall Street and Bank at Brindleyplace, and who could forget Bill Clinton having a pint at the Malthouse during the G8 Summit in 1998.

The next task was to transform public transport, as the city was being let down by the universally despised New Street Station. It’s worth remembering too that Snow Hill station had been closed from 1972 to 1987, with the later addition of the Midland Metro tram terminus from Wolverhampton in 1999.

The revival of New Street between 2010 and 2015 at a cost of £750m, with the extension of the Metro in 2015, meant a radically improved journey to work for tens of thousands of city workers and the 46.5m users annually (making it the fifth busiest station in the UK and the only non-London station in the top 10).

New Street Station was just one of five Areas of Transformation identified in the Big City Plan of 2011, along with the Snow Hill District, Westside, Eastside and the Southern Gateway. Over the past decade, much progress has been made on all although with much still to be delivered:

  • The Snowhill development is complete and permission has been granted for residential development at Great Charles Street, but plans for the station revamp are at an early stage
  • Paradise is well advanced with the new Chamberlain Square buildings and public realm reconnecting Victoria Square to Centenary Square, the Library of Birmingham, Arena Central and a series of tall residential buildings along Broad Street
  • HS2 has started construction of Curzon station with the Metro extension due to start, and permission has recently been granted for Martineau Galleries; and
  • the Council has just announced the conclusion of its deal on Smithfield, the largest development opportunity of them all, which will open up the city centre to Digbeth where proposals are emerging for the land around Custard Factory and Typhoo Wharf.

I may have missed a few things out on my whistle-stop tour of the past 25 years, but most would agree Birmingham city centre was in a much better place before the pandemic hit.

The business district

One of the other features, certainly of the last decade or more, has been the emergence of city centre BIDs (Business Improvement Districts) of which we have five in Birmingham, including Retail, Westside, Southside, Jewellery Quarter and Colmore Business District, on which I’ve served as a board director for 11 years.

Colmore Row has been the historic heart of our business, professional and financial services sector (BPFS) for over a hundred years, and the past decade has seen the revival of the central business district (partly in response to the expansion of the central area prompted by Highbury) with new office developments and refurbishments contributing to what is now home to over 500 businesses and in excess of 35,000 workers.

A significant part of that revival has been the growing hospitality industry, from fine dining (with two Michelin star restaurants) to craft beer and cocktail bars, from sandwich shops to coffee houses, with a high degree of independents. We’ve celebrated this each summer at our Colmore Food Festival, which regularly attracts over 30,000 visitors and has made international news.

In addition, the BID has championed public realm improvements at Church Street Square and Colmore Square, and through the Snow Hill Interchange Plan which has secured almost £10m funding. It has curated photographic exhibitions (most notably with the late Pete James) showcasing local photographers (the award-winning Brian Griffin) and local history (from Nicklin Unseen to Thresholds, both award-winners in their own right), and usually held outdoors where they can be experienced by the widest possible audience.

And we’ve held Community Games and Craft Markets, and multiple events which supplement the buoyant networking scene in the city centre.

All of this has been to create a sense of community that city workers and visitors can enjoy, so that their time in the CBD is not just about a single purpose but gives them lots of reasons to come to and stay in the city centre.

Our Ambassadors and Security team are there to make people feel safe, direct them to where they want to go and, on occasion, help those in need on our streets to find support and accommodation.

‘Colmore Life’ has become the sum of the parts, making the business district an attractive, vibrant and highly productive place to be. And through collaboration with our other city centre BIDs, making the connections that ensure workers and visitors take advantage of the retail offer, the culture and hospitality across the city centre from Broad Street to Digbeth High Street, and from Hockley to Hurst Street, with easier walking and cycling routes and better wayfinding.

In these ways, successful city centres harness ideas and collaboration, innovation and enterprise, with a clustering of businesses and interaction between business people that fuels the economic engine.

On almost every metric, Birmingham has been improving its performance in inward investment, business start-ups, job creation, entrepreneurship and graduate retention. The city centre and the business district in particular has played a big part in that. The Council should take credit, and so should the business community and its representatives like the Chamber of Commerce.

The pandemic

The business district is facing a potential existential crisis because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is evident globally and across UK cities. Birmingham is no different.

The first lockdown from March-to-May 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 retail and hospitality still 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. Our cultural venues have largely remained closed particularly in higher tier areas.

By August, we had Eat Out to Help Out and there was short-lived encouragement of a return to the office, coinciding with the new academic year at schools and universities. Even theatres began thinking of the return of audiences, with the Hippodrome organising its Van Gogh immersive exhibition.

Many businesses and office buildings geared up for Covid-Secure operation; however, the second wave which arrived in October saw local restrictions imposed in most major cities which continued to defer a significant move back to central business districts. Government advice then switched back to work from home where possible and we went into second lockdown in November.

Figures from Centre for Cities’ High Street Recovery Tracker show that footfall in Birmingham city centre had only recovered to 31% of its pre-pandemic levels by early December with expenditure at 17% (the lowest of any city in the UK).

The Worker Index (a more accurate reflection of what’s happening in the business district) was as low as 7% at the start of December from a ‘high’ of around 15% during the summer. Either way, these are figures that cannot sustain any of the supporting businesses which make up the ecosystem of a business district.

This picture is similar in all English core cities, along with Glasgow, Belfast and Edinburgh, whilst for some reason Cardiff and other Welsh cities are faring better.

The longer the pandemic goes on – and even with a vaccine rollout in 2021 most people of average working age are looking at the second half of the year before they can get back to anything like ‘normal’ – our current working arrangements start to feel like the new normal. Combine that with a host of paradigm shifts that are going on in the background like climate change and Brexit, it’s less and less likely that the new will feel like the old.

The future business district

Of course, once this is ‘over’ there will be a bout of what analysts have called ‘revenge’ spending, or just a good old-fashioned ‘spree’. But how long will it last when we’ve got so used to online. And we will react to remote working by coming together in offices, networking like mad, going to award dinners we had tired of, do working lunches, and any excuse to meet up socially to support our favourite bars and restaurants, maybe to visit BMAG or the Rep, and yes, even to “Save Pret” if that was your sandwich of choice before you succumbed like I’ve done to artisan bread from the local bakery and homemade tuna mayonnaise.

However, where and how we work has become a matter of choice, for businesses and individuals, who have proven that remote working can be productive and suit both lifestyles and family circumstances.

There are downsides, inevitably as we’ve all found, but the future of work and the role of offices are now front-and-centre of many business continuity strategies – why go back, rather than when and how will we use them?

This has huge potential consequences for business districts. Blended working is likely to mean we only need to attend offices for some of the time, when it is most effective, particularly for collaboration, but even that can be replicated online more efficiently when people from multiple locations are involved.

Conferences will almost certainly have ‘livestream’ options to attract more people and ‘onboarding’ of new staff is often cited as an example of where you ‘can’t-substitute-the-office’, but plenty of global businesses do that successfully across continents and across the ether.

For everyone who says you can’t survive without an office, you will find someone who shows that you can. It isn’t and shouldn’t be a test of loyalty. But we need to understand how offices will be used, who is most likely to need them, and how they will interact with that ecosystem of other businesses and service providers that surround them – the conference venues, networking clubs, office suppliers, couriers, caterers, recruiters, trainers, hoteliers, retailers, bar and restaurant owners. Will those who attend offices disproportionately generate more business in the area than those who can more easily work from home?

We have to reinvent city centres and business districts as we did thirty years ago, to confront the challenges we face now. The future business district has to make good business sense for companies as a place to co-locate, whether they are a large corporate, an SME or a small independent, and for individuals as a place to work at least part of the time.

And that future has to embrace climate change and all it brings in terms of how we choose to travel, the need for clean air in our city centres, and our long term commitment to zero carbon.

For me, I started my working life driving to work every day, then had the luxury of a company car, fuel card and parking space – so why wouldn’t you?  Nearly twenty years ago, at the time Masshouse Circus was being demolished and my journey was made less convenient, I switched to a season ticket for my commute and have used the train ever since.

Eight years ago, I gave up my own car and relied instead on car clubs, occasional car hire and just borrowing my wife’s. I have cycled to work, but it’s not a great experience and I don’t mind using the bus. We can change our ways, and learn to live and work differently.

The Future Business District is a research-driven study commissioned by the BID with support from partners including the City Council, WMCA, GBSLEP and the other city centre BIDs. It will draw on support from the Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and Centre for Cities, working with our research partners City-REDI from the University of Birmingham which is backed by UK Research and Innovation, and seeking input from a wide range of stakeholders representing our diverse city and its business community.

My hope is that it will draw together many strands to plot a course for us to follow as we reinvent the business district.

Mike Best is a Senior Director at national planning consultancy Turley and a board director of Colmore BID.