The West Midlands hasn’t exactly been quiet or inactive over the last decade with some of the most significant projects and achievements in its modern history underway or already delivered.
We need only say High Speed 2; Midland Metro; Coventry UK City of Culture 2021; Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games to know this statement is true – we read and hear the seemingly never-ending announcements of new developments and infrastructure projects and dare to think ‘could this really be our golden decade’.
I have taken a ‘placemaking’ lens to this thought piece as I like to believe that my work is all about ‘making places’ – but importantly, making places that improve quality of life.
Places impact on the quality of people’s lives. Whether a park, a building, a town or city, people and communities thrive when the spaces in which they live, work, move and play are designed and managed in a way that best meets their needs.
I wrote this paragraph, in the middle of 2019, as a foreword to Arcadis ‘Placemaking Report – Liveable Places.’ The report, released at the start of 2020, was the result of extensive research, consultation and engagement with a wide stakeholder group involved in.
At the time we recognised that the traditional approach to Placemaking was not working. It seemed the most important aspect of a place – how it enables people and communities to thrive – was somewhere near the bottom of the list of considerations. Yet we knew, and research had proven, that there was a direct link between the quality of a place and its impact on people’s health, wellbeing, life expectancy, education, economic outcomes and overall quality of life.
Fast forward a pandemic (we hope) and this topic is still the number one discussion in the real estate sector. Whether local authority, developer, housebuilder, investor, consultant or commentator – COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus the importance of Placemaking. Several years, if not a decade, of change happened in a few months, and the question is no longer whether the way in which we plan and deliver places needs to change, but rather; what does change look like and how do we do it?
My Ambition for a Golden Decade (and beyond)
My hopes for this ‘Golden Decade’ are simple but ambitious. We become a truly Global Region, instantly recognised with a profile and place on the world stage. We are seen as a beacon of best practice, global leaders in our chosen fields and sectors.
That our region is Equitable, opportunities exist for all, everyone can meet and exceed their potential and has the chance to realise their goals – critically though, those goals must be higher than they are now; it is not enough to merely enable people to realise low expectations, that have been shaped by the environment they live in. We want to raise aspirations, raise people’s goals and then enable them to get there.
Our region is net zero carbon, making no contribution (other than a positive one) to climate change. And we are resilient to withstand some of the inevitable shocks that we are to experience as a result of the climate change that has already and is taking place.
The West Midlands is a major positive Contributor to UKPLC ‘putting in’ more than we ‘take out’. Through a combination of revenues, contributions and leadership the region is making ‘credits’ to UKPLC, giving us a strong voice, leverage and an ability to secure what we want and what we need from central government to drive what we know the people and businesses of our region need to succeed.
We have an unrivalled quality of life, a first choice for people and business looking for a place to live, work, learn and play. Shaped by its high quality built and natural environment.
What do we need to do differently to the last decade (or so)?
The good news is there is a lot we have been and continue to do right.
We should be proud of what has been achieved, the funding secured, investment attracted, projects in flight, infrastructure delivered and under construction, global profile and brand we are building. All the catalysts for the Golden Decade are in place – but more must be done to make sure we maximise the benefits that get delivered and importantly that those benefits are felt more equitably throughout our communities.
I think it has been recognised and bought sharply into focus by the pandemic, that our past successes haven’t always seen the benefits generated shared as equitably as they should have been. This is not a criticism. Far from it. That we have achieved so much is fantastic. But the ‘trickle down’ effect seems to have eluded us. As the region has prospered overall, inequalities have worsened.
We need to ‘reset’ the measures of success. We need to proactively and positively manage the benefits flow to have a bigger impact where greatest need exists – but importantly, if we do it well, it will pay us back, in spades. Better education, eradicating poor housing, increasing skills, improving air quality and health outcomes, young people in work or training – every single one of these makes a positive contribution to our region, to people lives, allowing people to live longer, healthier, more productive, fulfilling lives and that in turn costs ‘the state’ less that managing the poor outcomes experienced by far too many people in the region. Total Place, The Big Society, Place Based Approaches, we can call it whatever we want, the principles of prevention being better and cheaper than cure are known and proven – now let us hardwire them into our Placemaking activity.
How do we do it?
I have always believed that in order to achieve what we set out to do we need a clear Vision, a set of ambitious but realistic objectives, a compelling reason for what we are doing and a robust delivery plan. With these four simple sounding elements in place, all embodying the new measures of success, and enabled by aligned committed and strong leadership we will have the foundations to move forward with confidence.
It sounds easy, but of course it is not. I have lived and worked in the region for over thirty years and to my recall don’t think this has ever really been achieved. With a golden decade ahead of us the easy option is to pretend what we have is good enough, to make a few tactical decisions and put in place some levers to increase the ‘social value’ commitments of the private sector, to turn up the rhetoric and increase the ‘bingo’ count in public speeches. In ten years time the region will have grown, improved, be a better place to live – we will feel and look good – but our dirty secret will be – we could have done so much more!
So, let’s redouble our efforts, lets put the time and work in now and set ourselves on course to raise our collective ambitions, realise our goals and unlock our true potential.
• Choose your partners wisely: look to work with partners and collaborators who are there for the long term, who recognise true value is generated over time and can be measured as more than money and levels of profit. This includes small, medium and large organisations, those wanting to invest for a long-term lower level of return and those who, due to their scale, are looking for single development deals with commensurate levels of return. There is a place for all, but what we must avoid is short term, high return, speculative organisations that seek nothing but profit at the expense of quality and who, through their actions, avoid making a long-term sustainable contribution to the region and its people.
• Build in quality: the impact of ‘quality’ in how places are made should never be underestimated. Well-designed, well-constructed, well-maintained places deliver value in many forms, from enhancing the activity they are created to support; enabling people to easily access work, education and services; creating a sense of wellbeing; contributing to the ‘feel’ of a place that then translates into monetary / asset value (£); reducing carbon and climate impact and enhancing biodiversity; having lower total life costs. We must use statutory tools and develop levers so we can accept nothing less than the creation of high quality, value adding places.
• People at the heart of places: it starts, and it ends with people. Our citizens, our communities, our visitors, our working population. Putting people at the heart of placemaking from the outset with an ongoing role and stake in shaping a place so it addresses not their needs and ambitions. Community engagement is not just a box ticking exercise, it is an integral part to placemaking
• Together we are stronger: does anyone really have all the answers, hold all the cards? In the fast-evolving digital sector it has long been recognised the answer is no! Whilst our perception is one where a handful of tech giants are seemingly taking over the world the reality is the digital revolution is being driven by countless organisations and individuals coming together forming eco-systems that agglomerate their collective strengths to solve problems and develop solutions. We should learn from this and apply the approach to our future placemaking activity. Public, private, third sector, community, individuals – bring together these partners and stakeholders, break down the traditional barriers, enable them to collaborate, play to strengths, dare to think differently; only by adopting this approach will we create places that really meet the needs of the people who use them.
• New deal structures: the key to a ‘good deal’ is about getting the balance right. Where does the risk sit, who takes the reward, who has the skills, where is the expertise, who owns the assets, where is the funding coming from? All the right questions and yesterday there was often only one right – but certainly not perfect – answer. Today the dynamics are different, today there is no right or wrong answer, no one size fits all. Today, to deliver our ambitions, we need partnerships, joint endeavours, shared success measures and a deal structure that places these ‘values’ at its heart and sees the ecosystem of parties come together to collectively and jointly deliver with an arrangement that is fair and equitable.
• Scale up: we are the second largest city region with a population of 4.7 million people. We are home to some of the UK’s and the world’s leading businesses. Birmingham is the UK’s most investible City (2020). Our economy is worth over £100 billion. These are the numbers that make headlines and attract interest. We are a place of a scale that can grab the attention of investors and governments. Whilst we recognise this, is it really presented as a ‘compelling’ and ‘why wouldn’t you invest’ proposition? Do we all share a narrative? Could we each sell the others place and the overall regional ambitions? If not, and I suspect that to be the case, then there is work to be done.
• Get the basics right: having done all the really hard work, the heavy lifting, it would be negligent to fail because the things that should just happen didn’t! Spend time understanding and testing the basics of getting things done. Capacity of local authority departments, supply chains, governance and decision-making arrangements, controls and monitoring, scenario testing, third party stakeholder’s capability and capacity. Simple stuff often overlooked but fundamental to success.
So how are we doing?
Quite well actually! Nothing I have highlighted in this piece would be a surprise to other commentators and actors in the region, in fact I would expect to see a lot of nodding and general agreement. As always though, the devil is in the detail. For example, many of our planning authorities will point to very high scores in terms of determining applications in the statutory time frames, the development community would however say those might be the statistics, and they would not dispute them, but the experience was not exactly five star or a smooth and well managed process – and it must be going forward – provided of course the development submissions are meeting our new high quality standards!
Another example being measurable high levels of consultation undertaken with communities – but did it happen early enough? Did it reach the citizens where the biggest difference can be made? Did we really interpret the responses without that confirmation bias we know is within all of us and the current process? Probably not and I wager we couldn’t answer those questions with any certainty anyway.
Detail aside though, let us also look at some of the really positive things happening.
Birmingham City Council’s new city masterplan – Our Future City Plan. The work that will guide the development of the city for the next twenty years is underway. An excellent document was published last year and consulted upon. It places citizens at the heart of the process, it has net zero carbon and wider sustainability drivers in its DNA, not as a bullet point at the end of a list of ‘things to do’; and it is ambitious, setting out a new level of expectation on those looking to work with the city and its partners in those wanting to join Birmingham on its very exciting journey.
The three Cities is a bold initiative where Coventry, Wolverhampton and Birmingham Councils have come together to collaborate in areas where the power of three is greater than the sum of the individual parts. They have recognised that scale and leadership supported by a compelling investment case in areas such as energy transition, retrofit and new build, modern construction techniques and battery technology can raise global interest and potential investment and this in turn will lead to further and better opportunities for our regional population.
Inclusive Growth has become the narrative for the West Midlands Combined Authority and the regional local authorities, and it is more than words. Dedicated experts focused on skills, training, learning and partnership working. Taking investment decisions on devolved funding based not just on the financial return that can be realised but on wider ‘bucket’ of inclusive growth measures.
The appetite for new deal structures is there. A recognition that profit for the private sector isn’t a dirty word, but that all the risk cannot be placed with the public sector, it needs to be more equitable and balanced. Examples such as the GBSLEP funded Paradise scheme are a good example. A different structure to what had gone before enabling a world class mixed-use development on a particularly constrained site to come forward.
Summing it up
I have had the privilege to have been born and spend my entire career in this West Midlands region. I am inevitably biased. As I look forward to the Golden Decade ahead I reflect that we have done well (we could have done more) – I am proud to have been part of what we have delivered (but it could have been better) – but I can’t help but feel we have been half a step from true greatness and really unlocking the potential of this region and its people.
So now is our time. It is our Golden Decade. Let’s redouble our efforts and accept nothing less than what we have been working so hard for. We must be ambitious; be bold, be brave (feel uncomfortable), accept we won’t get it all right all the time (it is ok to fail, provided you learn).
Let’s improve the quality of life for everyone in our region in a fair, equitable and inclusive way, creating a region we can be proud to call home.