ust 15 months ago Birmingham council leader Ian Ward was in Hong Kong at the MIPIM Asia event (the Oscars of the Asian real estate world), trumpeting the virtues of his city. It was, he believed, the ideal inward investment location for Chinese and Asian investors due to the HS2 high-speed train link and the 2022 Commonwealth Games on the horizon.
Today, however, “it’s like chalk and cheese”, says one senior council official. The city centre resembles a ghost town with the heart of the showcase Bullring retail redevelopment gutted by the permanent closure of key anchor stores, John Lewis and Debenhams. The empty office blocks cast doubt on future plans for city centre redevelopment. “It feels like we’re back to the 1980s.”
The city is certainly in need of a pick-me-up. The Covid pandemic has devastated the local economy. By the end of 2020 more than 80,000 people were unemployed. The city’s unemployment rate of over 15 per cent is double the UK average, while its youth unemployment rate is hovering around 20 per cent. The council official told The Independent that their focus at the moment is “just on business survival”. More than 100 council staff are dealing with the grant applications that have come in from businesses in the city, working out the variations that arise from five different grant regimes set up by the Treasury. The green shoots of recovery cannot come fast enough – and perhaps they are beginning to show.