Ian Mulcahey, Gensler, discusses the exciting future of the Midlands region, as the ‘engine’ comes alive with prospects brought on by development.
In the UK, London and the South East have for many years been the focus of the nation’s conversations around economic development and prosperity. The government’s devolved arrangements are now delivering huge economic growth opportunities in other areas.
The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and the ‘Midlands Engine’ are both emblematic of the enormous interest in the economic and human potential of the UK regions. With Birmingham being the UK’s second city, the Midlands in particular, is brimming with prospect. Stretching from Shropshire to Lincolnshire, with the M1, M6, and most of our major railway lines running through it, the Midlands sits at the very heart of the UK economy. It is also a gateway to the global economy, boasting Birmingham and East Midlands Airports alongside key ports such as at Grimsby and Immingham. As a region, it generates 13 percent of the UK’s income from goods and services and its £209 billion economy is larger than countries such as Ecuador, New Zealand and Croatia.
The region has much potential, but there’s more that needs to be done to harness this to help deliver the future we want for our country in this rapidly changing global market. Earlier this year, the government launched a strategy, investing £392m in local transport and £20m to help upskill the region. There is also £250m to help small businesses expand. The strategy sets out concrete actions to address productivity barriers across the Midlands, enabling businesses to create more jobs, export more goods and services, and grow its productivity.
However, if the region is to capitalise on the benefits to be gained from this opportunity, it needs to consider its biggest challenges:
The Midlands’ population is growing fast. It will require around 165,000 new homes over the next 15 years to keep up with demand. But in the pursuit to meet this demand, developers and local authorities must appreciate that the onus should be on creating communities, not just building houses. You can’t have strong, stable economies without having strong, stable communities; the two are inextricably linked.
The region’s development strategy must also ensure that the quantum of recreational and green space needed to cope with population growth is addressed in line with housing demands. In this digital age, people value physical interaction more than ever, so creating places and spaces that allow for these interactions is crucial. As the UK moves, for the first time in a generation, to full employment, the challenge for successful business is attracting and retaining talent.
A good house and an attractive high-quality place to live are a prerequisite of a successful economy.
Transport across the Midlands is not well equipped to deal with current demand, and as a region, it is very car-orientated.
It’s historically been one of the biggest car manufacturers in the world and remains in the top five. Swathes of the region are only reachable by car. Several train lines run within and between its cities, but the network is far from extensive, and overcrowding is a significant issue at rush hour. The challenge is to use the impetus created by HS2 and repurpose some of the old inner-city capacity to create a proper integrated metropolitan commuter network for the region. This will ensure a transport system that supports economic growth and regeneration, underpins new development and housing, and improves air quality, the environment and social inclusion.
Brand + Culture
The Midlands has a solid opportunity, now more than ever, to rethink its brand and cultural offering, not just on a UK wide scale, but internationally too. It’s a place steeped in heritage, with buzz and individuality and a real diversity of space. The challenge now is how it exploits these traits to create appeal. The wellbeing and satisfaction of its citizens and visitors will be strongly influenced by this. Thus, its branding must be concerned with how its culture and history, economic growth, social development, infrastructure, architecture, landscape and environment, among other things, can be combined into a saleable identity that is acceptable to all.
There are a number of other challenges, which must be addressed, too. The region needs to ensure it has a ‘jobs rich’ industrial strategy and that it prioritises support for disadvantaged groups. As well as capitalising on its strong manufacturing base, it should look to expand into areas such as high-value services like insurance and financial services.
Although the Midlands has a substantial economy, there is still a gap in productivity between it and the rest of the UK. Despite the fact that 31 percent of the population is under 25, and that its 27 universities produce over 100,000 graduates each year, too many graduates leave the region after university, one in eight people in the West Midlands have no qualifications, and poor transport links between areas means ‘the whole sometimes adds up to less than the sum of its parts’.
So, it is vital that the Midlands utilises the ‘human goldmine’ of its large student population. Improving its graduate retention rates by attracting knowledge jobs to the region would boost productivity and create spill over benefits for local non-graduates too.
It’s an exciting time for the Midlands and for other regions in the UK too. Bringing together each part of the UK through robust urban strategies that are connected, resilient, sustainable and inspiring will help unlock tremendous potential for the UK.