Management / How Birmingham could soon eclipse London as the UK’s number one city

How Birmingham could soon eclipse London as the UK’s number one city

Birmingham is often considered the UK’s second city – although it’s hardly alone – but there is never any argument about London being number one. Even if we suddenly shifted our capital elsewhere, it would still take some beating. Of course, even Rome fell, so how could Birmingham push itself into pole position?

birmingham (CC)

Photo © Cristian Bortes (CC BY 2.0). Cropped.

Interestingly, the process has already begun.

London’s loss is Birmingham’s gain

The Office for National Statistics tracks internal migration within the UK, meaning it is possible to see where people move to and from. This map by Urban.co.uk puts the data into age groups and it is immediately clear Birmingham is very popular. It is in the top ten in all age groups, while coming first for the 30 to 64 age group.

This is important because this age group is full of people starting families, settling down and getting stuck into their careers, which is excellent for a local economy. In fact, population growth usually brings urbanisation and this is strongly linked to economic prosperity. According to the World Bank, no country has seen high income levels without high levels of urbanisation.

This age group is not only contributing to population levels itself, but having kids too. Of course, if this is happening in London as well, what difference does it make? Well, unfortunately for London, it saw more than 273,000 people leave compared to 204,000 arriving in the year ending June 2014. This net loss of 68,000 was far more than any other region. And, by the looks of things, younger Londoners are being drawn to the Midlands specifically.

With this in mind, London’s loss of people should be a cause for economic concern. The question is, why are people leaving the capital in their tens of thousands? One of the main reasons is coincidentally an explanation for Birmingham’s draw.

Photo © Ben (CC BY-SA 2.0). Cropped.

Photo © Ben (CC BY-SA 2.0). Cropped.

The capital’s soaring cost of living

Unless you have been particularly unobservant, you will know London is expensive and continues to get dearer as time wears on. Whether it is a pint, a house or a burger, London is not the place to be thrifty.

Aside from the fact that houses for under £1 million are disappearing, the day-to-day costs get to people’s wallets too. It is particularly rough for those living on salaries below the capital average – even more dire for the part-timers and unemployed. Take a look at these comparisons from Numbeo.

Clothing, groceries, transportation and restaurant costs are all significantly higher in London. A monthly travel pass is 136 per cent more expensive in the capital, which is massively important when people have to commute into central London from the outer boroughs. It is no surprise these commutes are a necessity when rent costs increase towards the city’s centre.

When it comes down to it, according to government data, the average rent price in London is £1,676 per month. The West Midlands is just £595, by comparison. According to home.co.uk, Birmingham itself sits at just £726 per month.

With many people worrying about how to afford a home in the future, it is no surprise they are turning their backs on feeding their paycheques to landlords and heading elsewhere, where they can rent and save at the same time. Living in London is becoming financially unfeasible for many, and without a solution it will become the ‘playground of the rich’ that it is often touted to be – something that is not financially sustainable on its own.

Photo © Partin Pettitt (CC BY 2.0). Cropped.

Photo © Partin Pettitt (CC BY 2.0). Cropped.

Birmingham means business

Although this piece mentioned that urbanisation is linked to economic prosperity, this is not a given. There is nothing to stop a large urban area seeing economic stagnation or decline – Detroit is one of the more tragic examples. Birmingham’s economic picture is mixed, but there are signs it is set to improve dramatically in the near future.

The city’s real GVA per head – the value of goods and services produced per person and adjusted for inflation – has barely changed since the recession. It fell by 0.9 per cent between 2009 and 2014, which is not good news considering London saw its own grow by 3.5 per cent. Still, this is not the whole picture and we cannot expect Birmingham to suddenly surpass the capital in an instant.

For a start, Birmingham’s unemployment rate of 4.2 per cent is below the national average, while it has fallen by 0.3 per cent compared to last year. Meanwhile, the city’s median annual wage has increased too, and its construction, information and communication and business services sectors also saw healthy growth between 2009 and 2014. These are all strong, positive signs for the future.

Meanwhile, this new influx of young people to Birmingham should help to push the statistics up. Why? Because of who the average entrepreneur is these days. Those under 35 are starting more businesses than ever and Birmingham is a favourite destination for them. According to Investopedia, this can only be good news for the local economy as a whole.

Photo © Lukes_photos (CC BY-SA 2.0). Cropped.

Photo © Lukes_photos (CC BY-SA 2.0). Cropped.

Culture war

There is no denying London has a long cultural history in everything from food, to music, to architecture. The same can be said for Birmingham, too, even if it is not as well-known for it. Edward Elgar and Felix Mendelssohn wrote for the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival, while the city also produced bands such as Black Sabbath, the Electric Light Orchestra, The Beat and The Streets.

Great writers like Samuel Johnson and J. R. R. Tolkien have roots in the city, while comedians like Sid Field and Tony Hancock hailed from the area. With a swathe of galleries, theatres and events, Birmingham continues to cement itself as a cultural force – one that does not seem to be waning. And we cannot have an article on Birmingham that does not mention the beautiful canals spread across its cityscape.

On the other hand, to many, London’s cultural energy is near spent. Increasing amounts of square-footage are being transformed into sanitised ‘public’ spaces that in actual fact are owned privately, cookie-cutter restaurants and cafés spread outwards from the places where they were once unique, while the best innovation the artists and hipsters can summon amounts to twins ripping you off for some childhood nostalgia.

Of course, there are still many hard-working, talented and unique artists roaming the streets of London, but it is nothing you cannot match or beat in Birmingham. And this becomes truer with every new young person who heads to the Midlands brimming with ideas.

London has often been the cultural centre for the UK, giving birth to mods, punks and the Swinging Sixties. But ever since the days of the Hacienda and ‘Madchester’ it has been clear the capital holds no cultural monopoly.  As London becomes richer, more uniform and more homogenous, cities and towns elsewhere have their chance to shine.

When do we crown Birmingham?

London is not dead yet, obviously. Cities like that rarely see a quick end unless they are invaded and burnt to the ground, although maybe the Brummies have thought of that once or twice. But it is obvious to see that London has trouble ahead.

Birmingham, on the other hand, is laying strong foundations to go from strength to strength. An increasing number of the bright and young, an economy improving and shaking off the last dregs of the recession, and a long held cultural scene are already pushing things forward.

As they say: as one star sets, another rises.

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