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Forget The Second City Shtick, Birmingham Is Better Than That

Stop. Stop now. If you were going to describe Birmingham as the second city, suppress the urge. Simply don’t.

Birmingham has to work on its branding, and Digbeth could lead the way.

Ahead of the Bisnow Birmingham State of the Market event on 1 May, one of the biggest names in Digbeth real estate explains how it can be done. Industriousness, infrastructure and tech are the keys.


According to Oval Real Estate co-founder James Craig, it is time to abandon the old tag line and come up with some new branding that actually says something positive.

Craig, whose business owns an expanding chunk of the hyper-busy Digbeth district, says the city should instead concentrate on its industrious future and its fantastic diversity.

“Birmingham is the second largest city, not the second city,” Craig said. “The thing about Birmingham is not the second-to-London thing, but that it is an exemplar of what modern Britain is today. It doesn’t make sense to brand it as frankly an outlier for London. It is a very different city.

“We have thought long and hard about how you brand the city, and in the end I think it comes down to its industry, its infrastructure and a willing local council. Fortunately, we hear the ‘second city’ line increasingly infrequently, because it’s not something I subscribe to.”

Oval own a growing estate in Digbeth, which includes the Custard Factory and Fazeley Studios and was extended last year to include The Bond Co., immediately opposite the studios. The next phase of refurbishment will see Oval proceed through its 150K SF plans in the direction of Floodgate Street. Ten buildings will be redeveloped from July 2019.

According to Craig, Birmingham as a whole could learn from Digbeth’s rebranding.

Digbeth High Street

Digbeth appeals to the creative industries because of its exceptional connectivity, and its good value, which attracts raw talent. We’ve 500 tenants, making us proably the most eclectic landlord in the city. And what we say about Digbeth is that it was once an industrial landscape, but is now industrious, which includes everything up to today’s skills like coding."

People respond well to Birmingham’s history as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, there is an extraordinary heritage, and Birmingham should feel confident enough about promoting its industriousness, Craig said. The city really needs that confidence.

“Linked to that is the infrastructure," he said. "There’s a superb airport, HS2 is on its way, soon it will be easier to get to Birmingham from Central London than it is to get from Central London to Twickenham. So we have to stop promoting Birmingham as some kind of island, and look at where it is.”

The city’s transport links are key to successful marketing, both citywide and in Digbeth. But there are also a range of good housekeeping issues that can help burnish the Birmingham brand.

“In Digbeth we need better transport links, more street lighting, and a genuine will on the part of the city council to see change, which I think they absolutely have and are extremely keen,” Craig said.

Watching events in the Jewellery Quarter, where concerns are mounting that the city council is wedded to the idea of manufacturing in a district now dominated by office and residential use, Craig warns that Digbeth must not fall into the same trap.

“Today you can get anything made in Digbeth, but the truth is that those uses are better suited to different types of property,” Craig said, pointing to other areas of the city.

Faster progress on the Metro tram link to Digbeth would win massive applause, but the scale of recent achievements should not be underestimated.

“The Commonwealth Games will make a difference, because it shows a city on the way up. But step back from the second-city nonsense and look at the last 10 years of achievement. We have a £1B railway station, a metro, a fantastic new library and a very interesting West Midlands mayor. That is 100 years of development crowded into 10 years,” Craig said.

Birmingham Tram

Can the industrious/infrastructure branding work? Craig insists that it can, and that Birmingham should not be overwhelmed by rivalry from the North.

Manchester had a good 1980s and 1990s thanks to football and music, and that has been the spur of its boom. But today Manchester only has an opportunity to slide back. Birmingham has the opportunity to move forward,” he said.

“The culture and the arts we are lucky enough to have in Digbeth and the city are the fun element in the Birmingham branding. Unlike Manchester in the '80s, we do not have a music revolution going on right now, but we do have a tech revolution, and Birmingham is riding on that.”

To join the conversation at the Bisnow Birmingham State of the Market event on 1 May click here.