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Regional Renaissance: Fuelling the Midlands Engine in England

Birmingham and the West Midlands are being transformed. Image Courtesy Luke Matthews, Unsplash

The UK, London and the South East have, for many years, been the focus of the nation’s conversations around economic development and prosperity. The Northern Power House and the Midlands Engine are emblematic of the enormous interest in the economic and human potential of the UK regions. The rise of global investment interest and the ever-faster transformation of manufacturing as digital technology permeates every level of the supply chain are transforming Birmingham and the West Midlands.

I recently gave a keynote address at the West Midlands Forum for Growth, speaking about the evolution of the West Midlands and its intrinsic relationship between its transport connectivity and its industrial evolution. Dramatic innovations in modes of travel both by canal and stagecoach in the late 18th century and perhaps more significantly by rail during the 19th century really defined the region. And now, the advent of the HS2 rail symbolises another step change in this process of economic modernisation; fundamentally altering the relationship between the West Midlands and the rest of the country. However, if the region is to capitalise on the benefits to be gained from this opportunity and it needs to consider its biggest challenges.

1. Housing

The West Midlands’ population is growing fast. It will require around 165,000 new homes over the next 15 years to keep up with demand. But in the pursuit to meet this demand, developers and local authorities must appreciate that the onus should be on creating communities, not just building houses. You can't have strong, stable economies without having strong, stable communities – the two are inextricably linked.

The region’s development strategy must also ensure the quantum of recreational and green space needed to cope with population growth is addressed in line with housing demands. In this digital age, people really value physical interaction more than ever, so creating places and spaces that allow for these interactions is crucial. As the UK moves, for the first time in a generation, to full employment the challenge for successful business is attracting and retaining talent. A good house and an attractive high-quality place to live are a prerequisite of a successful economy.

A good house and an attractive high-quality place to live are a prerequisite of a successful economy. Image courtesy Unsplash

2. Transport

Transport across the West Midlands is not well equipped to deal with current demand, and as a region, it is very car-oriented. It has historically been one of the biggest car manufacturers in the world and remains in the top five. There are swathes of the region which are only reachable by car. Several train lines run within and between its cities, but the network is far from extensive, and overcrowding is a significant issue at rush hour.

To resolve this, the mayor will have to deliver new transport links and improvements alongside the development of HS2. This will ensure a transport system that supports economic growth and regeneration, underpins new development and housing, and improves air quality, the environment and social inclusion.

3. Brand + Culture

The West Midlands has a solid opportunity now to rethink its brand and cultural offering, not just on a UK wide scale, but internationally. It’s a place steeped in heritage, with buzz and individuality and a real diversity of space. The challenge now is how it capitalises on these traits to create appeal. The wellbeing and satisfaction of its citizens and visitors will be strongly influenced by this.

Thus, its branding must be concerned with how its culture and history, economic growth, social development, infrastructure, architecture, landscape and environment, among other things, can be combined into a saleable identity that is acceptable to all.

There are a number of other challenges which must be addressed, too. The region needs to ensure it has a ‘jobs rich’ industrial strategy and that it prioritises support for disadvantaged groups. As well as capitalising on its strong manufacturing base, it should look to expand into areas such as high-value services like insurance and financial services. It’s vital that the West Midlands utilise the ‘human goldmine’ of its large student population. Improving its graduate retention rates by attracting knowledge jobs to the region would boost productivity and create spill-over benefits for local non-graduates too.

When addressed together, these challenges will help push the West Midlands to share in the country’s prosperity and enable its citizens to thrive across their lifespan. It’s an exciting time for the West Midlands and for other regions in the UK too. Bringing together each part of the UK through robust urban strategies that are connected, resilient, sustainable and inspiring will help unlock tremendous potential for the UK.

Ian, Managing Director of Gensler’s London office, oversees projects across the UK, Europe, and the Middle East. He is passionate about solving complex urban problems with a particular expertise in the integration of infrastructure with urban growth and regeneration, and he's been at the forefront of growing the firm’s global planning and urban design practice. As a regular speaker and panellist both in the UK and at global property conferences, Ian is often called upon to help define the future direction of urban growth and transformation. Contact him at ian_mulcahey@gensler.com.