Soapbox article first published in the Municipal Journal (26 March 2014)
I recently took part in a debate hosted by one of our Universities about whether or not Birmingham is “second city or second best”. Against a backdrop of Peaky Blinders, Benefit Street and Mind the Gap, it seems to me that the media pundits have conferred with each other and agreed to pose just one lazy default question: “where’s better – Birmingham or Manchester?”.
This is hugely annoying and, much more importantly, not a little disrespectful to all the other wonderful cities we have across the UK. Whether you are a Core City, a Key City or any other permutation, I don’t think any of us consider that what we do is some kind of local government equivalent to Strictly Come Dancing.
Rather, our collective aim is ensuring that, as the nascent economic recovery takes hold, there is benefit spread from this to all our communities – urban, suburban and rural. If national and LEP-level economic and industrial policies and strategies are effective then, firstly, we will ensure that there is more than enough good growth to go round – automatically making competition subordinate to complementarity and collaboration; and, secondly, we can set about effecting the much-needed re-balancing of the economy so that all our communities get their fair share of the growth and jobs.
Such common purpose doesn’t mean that we’re not proud of the places we serve; indeed, we shouldn’t be ashamed to boast about them. But for the chattering classes to keep harping/carping/barking on about who’s top dog (forgive my mixed metaphors but Crufts has just been to the NEC) is to miss the point – and, worse, potentially misdirect effort.
If we have to be subject to comparison then let’s at least use benchmarks that are meaningful and personal to the people we’re here to serve. For Birmingham this means being a city where the pursuit and achievement of Prosperity, Fairness and Democracy are the goals. We know that our citizens and communities want – and are entitled – to help shape a future city in which the rhetoric of an equal chance to fulfill potential becomes a reality. People want to share in the kind of growth that reduces, for example, the still unacceptably high levels of youth unemployment, or enables the unskilled or wrongly skilled to access the new and emergent labour markets.
We also know that our cities need to have a rounded and bespoke offering. Securing good growth and attractive, well-paid jobs are crucial, but so is sustaining a differentiated educational, sporting, cultural, retail, food, public realm, etc, etc offer. And, beyond their economic role, councils need to ensure the provision of great services (albeit far fewer of them delivered differently), working hard to maintain some focus on prevention and early intervention, challenging the education system to be the best it can, whilst still safeguarding and empowering the most vulnerable.
So, let’s stop asking the wrong question. Or, more importantly, let’s stop answering it. If Birmingham – whether that be the council, its LEP, the Health and Wellbeing Board or whatever – is to be subject to some kind of ranking, then it should be on the basis of setting and achieving relevant, stretching targets that mean something tangible for local people. In this way, each city needs to have its own agenda based on its uniqueness, whilst simultaneously benefiting from the common objective of securing more than enough growth to go around.
So, let me hear no more of who’s second and who’s second best. I’m focused on delivering a city that’s first rate – as are all my peers.