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Young, Skilled, Sustainable, Diverse: Call Birmingham Whatever You Like But Never Say 'Second City' Again

It's time to chuck out the old Birmingham brand as England's second city, and focus on what really matters.

That means the city's property business has to get to grips with a young, diverse, inclusive and sustainable future and build the homes and workplaces it will need.

A panel including Lendlease Chief Operating Officer Bek Seeley and Oval Real Estate co-founder James Craig set out the route map at the Bisnow Birmingham State of the Market event.

Argent's Rob Grove, WSP's Rachel Skinner, Lendlease's Bek Seeley, Oval Real Estate's James Craig and Malcolm Hollis partner Chris Sullivan (moderator)

Birmingham is one of the youngest cities in Europe with under-25s accounting for nearly 40% of the population.

According to Seeley, that youthfulness will be the key to the new Birmingham brand.

“Birmingham is a great international city, and there’s an opportunity for us to look up and to look out, and not to worry about being the second city, but to be a great city on the international stage,” Seeley said, revealing plans to extend Lendlease’s workspace offer in the city.

Far from second place, Birmingham’s appeal transcends London’s for Oval Real Estate.

“We see no reason to invest in London, and lots of reasons to invest in Birmingham,” Craig said. “Office occupancy is among the best I’ve known in my career, and when office buildings in Birmingham have struggled it is because they delivered the wrong product.”

Picking the right product can be tricky though, as demands shift rapidly.

“What people want is changing so fast as a function of technology, changing working patterns, gender in the workplace, there are so many parts to this,” Craig said.

“The old marketing strategies no longer work. We now think whatever we do won’t be quite right, because occupiers want flexibility,” Seeley said. “Buildings have to need and evolve to keep occupiers, and for occupiers the key word is how it feels. That is really, really important. Feel, confidence, buzz — these are the key words, and for occupiers looking for new workspace it is no longer about ticking boxes like it was five years ago. Instead they are asking themselves how it feels, will we enjoy working here? What Birmingham has is a great feel.”

Lendlease is now working up £1.5B plans for the 41-acre Smithfield site close to the new HS2 station at Curzon Street, whilst also building the Commonwealth Games athletes village. It is keeping the youth in mind as it builds and designs.

“One of the things we are definitely looking at for the future of investment in Birmingham is that it is the youngest city in Europe, and one of the most entrepreneurial, and it would be good if the occupiers of the future were the young people of today, those starting out in Birmingham now, and that there were places for their businesses to grow — places for new businesses to be little, places for them to grow, a real mix of spaces to allow the progression of talent in the city,” Seeley said.

Don't Become Bland

The international sports event space at Lendlease's Smithfield scheme

But to be young is not enough: Birmingham must also be diverse. Asked by panel moderator Malcolm Hollis partner Chris Sullivan how Birmingham redevelopment avoids inflicting a bland and uniform template over its many idiosyncratic districts, panelists said the city's diversity of offerings would be its saviour.

“Birmingham’s workspace market is not just about rents, it’s about the staff. Local recruitment matters, and I hope that whilst we’ll see newcomers expanding in the region, we also see existing firms grow, and that is about the quality of life here,” Argent Regional Director Rob Groves said. “Occupiers like Deutsche Bank said, when they first moved to Birmingham, they missed the range of independent bar and restaurant operators they had in London. They wanted a choice of independents. But since then we’ve seen a massive transformation in the city’s leisure offer, which is what people want. That diversity is one of the things that matter.”

In a rapidly changing workspace market, developers have to focus on maintaining affordable prices to support a diverse customer base, Craig said.

“The property industry’s job is to make sure we don’t price people out of Birmingham workspace. That is a responsibility of development to make sure Birmingham’s affordability continues, so that Birmingham can attract a wide spread of people.”

Does this put areas like Digbeth at risk? Sullivan asked.

According to Craig, it need not.

“We all know how change can bring value for some people, and stress for others, and we know there is a lot of responsibility. We see Digbeth as an antidote to the city centre; it is the antithesis of everything you find on Broad Street and at Brindleyplace, it’s a very different part of the city,” Craig said. “As landlord to 500 tenants in Digbeth ranging from international design agencies down to someone who makes sculptures out of old taxis, I am aware of that difference and it brings a grain to what we do and will inform how we work in Digbeth over the next 10-15 years.”

“Gentrification should not be at the expenses of locals, and we shouldn’t get too expensive so it threatens tenants who have been there for a long time. I feel those responsibilities very acutely in Digbeth.”

Seeley agreed that avoiding harmful gentrification is a challenge, but one that can be overcome.

“We take a similar view,” she said of Lendlease’s growing involvement in neighbouring Smithfield. “There are tensions but they need to be discussed and worked through, which is down to issues of good governance, and cities with good governance work well.”

Sustainability Matters

Digbeth High Street

Groves suggested Birmingham learn lessons from the M-city, and step back from anything that looked bland or unsustainable.

“Regeneration relies of the public sector to deliver the infrastructure, but that is not just trams and roads, it is also schools and education, and the challenge for Birmingham is to make sure is doesn’t become another Jewellery Quarter, which means providing the right kind of housing for everyone. It also means learning the lessons of cities whose regeneration timing has been in advance of Birmingham, and make sure we get the right policies in place, the right infrastructure, and the right schools.”

Yet Birmingham’s infrastructure will have to adapt fast, as will its property market, to changing approaches to sustainability.

WSP Head of Transport Rachel Skinner said its 700-strong Birmingham team was showing the way on office occupancy trends, but that a new tipping point could change everything.

“Birmingham already has the feel of a high-quality place, and it’s a grown-up brand. Some of what is missing in infrastructure we can fix, some will have to be an evolution, because we are entirely reliant on the infrastructure of yesterday, but with a digital overlay which will effect things in ways we can’t imagine. We need to think hard about how we go forward, and one aspect of that that is coming through really strongly is the carbon-neutral agenda. We must look at the design and building of property, but also at the property life cycle. I think we are at a tipping point now, this year, on carbon issues and maybe the property industry has paid lip service to it for a while.”

The new Birmingham brand will embrace youthfulness and enterprise, diversity and infrastructure. And if it works, the city will be second to none.