Our council leader has been involved in the regeneration of Birmingham since the 1980s. In this exclusive interview, he tells Jon Card about his vision for the city’s future
Sir Albert Bore has been at the forefront of change in Birmingham for more than two decades. He served as council leader between 1999 and 2004, during a period when the regeneration of Birmingham City centre was really taking shape. It was a plan he’d been involved in since the 1980s, known as the ‘Highbury Initiative’ – named after Highbury Hall, Moseley where the plan was formulated. Highbury advocated the growth of the city centre and the demolition of the old concrete collars. It paved the way for the construction of the new Bullring. It made walking around the city possible or even desirable. Crucially, it reinstated the idea that Birmingham was a place to invest and do business in; all policies he backed as chair of Birmingham’s economic development committee and later as council leader.
”It all came from a meeting in 1988, the Highbury Initiative, which I ran,” recalls Bore. “We brought some people from the city and beyond, broke them into groups and told them to walk the city centre.” Back then Birmingham was not a sight for sore eyes. International delegates were appalled by the bad planning, lack of regulations and lousy architecture. One recalled peering over a wall to see the city’s lost river, the Rea.
The delegation was then ‘locked up’ in Highbury Hall, Moseley to brainstorm and answer the question “what would they do to regenerate Birmingham”. The plans set the stage for one of the biggest redevelopments in European history and it was a watershed for Birmingham. Bore is proud of its achievements but wants more. “They said ‘expand the city centre because Birmingham City Centre is too small and constrained by the inner ring road’,” says Sir Albert. “I’ve yet to win the argument I’ve been making for the last 20 years which is to breach the ring road at Great Charles Street, turn it into a boulevard, and link the Jewellery Quarter to the city centre.”
Bore was once again made leader of Birmingham City Council last May, replacing the Conservative leader Mike Whitby. During his time out of office, the council released its Big City Plan. “The Big City Plan represented development opportunities, but it didn’t ask the question of what Birmingham was going to be 25 years on,” says Bore. “What we are trying to do now is steer that development and give it some focus.”
CAPITAL OF THE REGION
Back in office, Bore scored an early success by getting a City Deal approved with central government. The deal has led to the creation of an enterprise zone (a series of tax breaks and allowances, plus high speed broadband) in Birmingham city centre, designed to attract greater investment. Any uplift in business rates will be shared by city and government; this can be borrowed against and used to invest.
Initially the investment will be in Birmingham and is already being used in the redevelopment of Paradise Circus. However, other areas such as Bromsgrove, Lichfield and Tamworth will also get money out of the pot at a later date for capital investment, and the councils in these areas had to give the plan their backing. Bore says it was in their interests and the deal cements the city as the region’s capital. “The region is going to succeed if Birmingham succeeds,” he says. “It’s taken us a long time for neighbouring areas to understand the importance of Birmingham. Birmingham is the hub of the region; it’s the capital of the region. The job opportunities for people in Bromsgrove, Lichfield and Redditch are going to be in Birmingham. If you look at the travel to work patterns you see that many people who are living in these areas are travelling to Birmingham.”
HUBS AND CLUSTERS
Indeed the city centre is already a hub for professional services and home to the likes of Wragge & Co, KPMG and Deutsche Bank. However, the city needs more than offices filled with accountants and lawyers. Bore and others want Birmingham to once again become known as a city which makes things and he says this reputation is growing. The growth and international success of Jaguar Land Rover has him almost jumping out of his seat. “We now export more to China than we import from China. Why? JLR!” he laughs. “But a Jaguar Land Rover built now is not the same as one built in 1980 – it’s not a metal bashing industry anymore, it’s a technology industry.”
The city is now investing £20m into an advanced manufacturing hub in Aston to encourage investment from international firms interested by JLR and others. “Companies that manufacture elsewhere in the world will want to come into Birmingham. But what you want to do is to create the conditions for them. An advanced manufacturing hub will be a place for them to expand out. Birmingham can once again be known as a manufacturing city, but an advanced manufacturing city.”
Similarly, Bore sees life sciences as a great industry for the city to focus on, citing the area near to the University of Birmingham, the Queen Elizabeth hospital, the National Institute for Health Research and the growing number of companies and facilities clustered there. Furthermore, he has backed a plan to build an Institute for Translational Medicine and has secured a £12m grant and the land to build it. The centre, which is set to be open by 2014, will then be followed by a Life Sciences park. “It’s about taking research from the bench to the bed. Bringing together clinical trials, with research, the ITM and the park, further encouraging investment and creating a life science economy.”
MORE HUBS, MORE IDEAS
More hubs are to follow including a food hub, an environmental enterprise district and an IT park at Longbridge. Bore says all the hubs are interconnected and that businesses are already in discussions about moving in. “We are not just saying we are going to pull investment and regenerate the city in a haphazard way; we are talking about a real vision for where Birmingham is going.” In many cases the hubs are connected to industries which are already here, and with nurturing, could grow. Other ideas seem far-fetched, such as turning Birmingham into the ‘Green Capital of Europe’. I put it to him that this is still essentially a car city and far from green. “Why can’t Birmingham be a green city?” he responds. “Try telling JLR it isn’t a green company.” Well I suppose it depends on your definition of green.
Sir Albert has a plan for jobs and growth, and as someone who has remained with the city for decades, you can’t doubt his commitment. Much of his vision has now become a reality and would have got here sooner if it weren’t for the UK’s cumbersome planning laws. Bore is also right about the Jewellery Quarter – it should be connected to the city centre. But as one who has seen such monumental changes to Birmingham during his career, how does he sum it up? “A city that knows where it’s going,” he replies.