Insight 7 | Why Fox News got it all so wrong.
Birmingham may be a no-go area for Fox News commentators, but it is a must-go area for British property buyers. Last year, it was the top destination for Londoners aged 30-39 leaving the capital, according to the Office for National Statistics, with 5,480 moving there.
It’s an ugly-duckling success story for a city often mocked as a modernist disaster, stereotyped as a drab concrete jungle of ring roads, roundabouts, flyovers and subways with no there there, thanks to a 1960s Le Corbusier-style planning debacle. Its bleak reputation was cemented in the 1970s and 1980s, a period of industrial decline, unemployment, an IRA bombing and race riots. Southerners also mocked the local accent. More fool them.
In fact, that architecture is sorely underrated. Its eye-catching spectacles are becoming as well known as its grim tower blocks, from Future Systems’ blobby, silvery Selfridges building to Mecanoo’s metallic wedding cake of a library. Modernism has acquired cred, and Brum’s concrete a whiff of Jetsons-style cool.
The spacy 1960s Rotunda tower has been turned into stylish flats by Urban Splash, and arty graphic posters now celebrate Spaghetti Junction, although John Madin’s brutalist central library is about to be torn down — sad, because Birmingham without brutalism would be like Miami without art deco. It’s part of its character.
There’s gorgeous old stuff, too: grand neoclassical buildings in the business district (the former stock exchange is now the elegant Old Joint Stock pub), lots of dreaming spires and a red-brick Georgian square in the historic Jewellery Quarter. Old warehouses along the canals are being spruced up, salvaging romanticism from the industrial past and adding a heart to the city. The towpaths are now buzzing with bars and restaurants.
The biggest revelation, however, is the wealth of Arts and Crafts architecture in the suburbs — Birmingham should be as well known for half-timber and leaded windows as it is for flyovers. Appropriately, the heart of the chocolate-box fantasy is Bournville, the Cadbury estate, built for the workers in the 19th century, but now an idyllic middle-class suburb where you can smell cocoa in the air from the factory.
Job prospects are once again as big a draw as the (relatively) cheap property. Many businesses are relocating here, with costs 60% lower than in the capital, and strong links to the rest of Britain and the world: China is a huge foreign investor. A 20-year urban revitalisation plan, launched in 2010, also helps.
The biggest employers are in banking, law, insurance and accounting — Deutsche Bank has a 2,000-strong office, and the big four audit firms are here. Next come life sciences (the University of Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital has the biggest care centre for injured military personnel in Europe), food and drink (all those motorways make distribution easy for Kraft and Cadbury), engineering (aerospace and automotive, with Jaguar Land Rover alone employing 9,400), academia (there are 18 universities within an hour’s drive) and IT (12,000 jobs).
The fastest-growing sector is digital and creative, with 22,800 jobs. Many of the start-ups are in the poetically grungy industrial wasteland of Digbeth, which will be home to the HS2 rail station when it opens in 2026. The area is a portrait of gentrification in action: at the old Bird’s Custard Factory, now painted in lurid pink and purple hues, hipsters type on their MacBooks beneath bare light bulbs in cafes, or work in the vintage clothing, decor or record shops.
The city also has world-class cultural institutions: the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Birmingham Rep, the Walker Art Gallery, Birmingham Royal Ballet and the new Library of Birmingham, the biggest public library in the UK.
It seems that property snobbery is alive and well in Birmingham, but it’ll cost you a lot less to keep up with the Joneses here than in London.
Inspired by Hugh Graham, Sunday Times, 25th January, 2015.