On reflection: Birmingham, ‘readying for the restart’

Copper Consultancy

As Birmingham begins to emerge from lockdown and the infrastructure and construction sectors ramp up activity, Joseph Moore, Senior Account Executive at Copper Consultancy, delves into how the second city can respond to the challenges of ‘restarting’ the city’s post-COVID-19 economic growth and what the future holds for the city’s development plans.

The city of Birmingham is at a critical juncture in its development. Prior to the introduction of lockdown measures on 23rd March 2020, the city was steaming ahead – preparatory works were underway for the delivery of HS2’s Curzon Street Station, the construction of Arena Central and the Paradise development was in progress and the city’s plans to roll out the Midland Metro were on track.

That was until the outbreak of COVID-19 forced the suspension of work on sites across the UK. In Birmingham, Lendlease – the main contractor for the 2022 Commonwealth Games – downed tools, while housing developers such as Persimmon and Redrow suspended construction across the country.

Copper Consultancy – specialists in communication and engagement – recently brought together Jane Findlay (Director at Fira Landscape Ltd), Dan Griffiths (Director of Transport, Midlands and East, at Stantec) and Monique Royle (Divisional Director at Fleurets) for a webinar discussion on the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic to development in the city of Birmingham. 

The grass is greener on the other side

The lockdown measures have necessitated time to pause and reflect on existing design and delivery principles. “The dream of city centre living has been shattered. Once desirable flats and apartments have become near-prisons for tenants with little to no access to a balcony or outdoor space which are vital for mental and physical wellbeing,” comments Jane Findlay. “The issue is not confined to the city centre. Built-up housing estates offer almost no access for residents to outdoor space. We need to focus investment on publicly-accessible green spaces and design properties that support general wellbeing.”

Mental and physical wellbeing has, all too often, found itself sidelined as developers concentrated on economic efficiency, focusing on reducing the square footage of homes to expand the return on investment in a given plot. Monique Royle says, “Cities across the country have struggled to adapt to this new way of living. We are not a nation of homeworkers, and with more of us squeezed into our towns and cities, they are increasingly feeling cramped and congested.”

“This is a dilemma that can be overcome,” says Monique. “We need to create communities that are not single-use, such as those which are predominately housing-oriented. What our communities need is balance, to incorporate leisure, housing and open space that contributes to emotional and physical wellbeing through design.”

The pandemic has changed the way we travel and will contribute to changing commuter patterns as we move out of lockdown – but it also could reduce how often people travel. Dan Griffiths comments, “There is a fundamental need to reallocate space in our urban environments. Space that was once the preserve of the car will need to be given over to more active modes of transport such as cycling and to find means for public transport to be safe for drivers and passengers. We’ve already sein this change in Kings Heath and Erdington as streets are widened and pop-up cycle lanes spring up across the city.

“To unlock the potential of greener, more sustainable methods of transport, the Birmingham Transport Plan focuses on using public transport and cycling to travel around Birmingham. By drastically reducing the use of private vehicles throughout lockdown we have reduced air pollution – we are now at a turning point and people will not want to return to polluted air and mass congestion but expect better places and a better work-life blend.”

Keep moving forward

Throughout the pandemic there has been a commitment by Birmingham City Council and developers to keep the wheels turning on the city’s expansion plans. Jane agrees, saying, “We’ve got to make sure that we keep development moving forward. However, this must not come at the expense of carefully considered design and considerations for wellbeing. We have an opportunity here to think outside of the box.

“Development should not just focus on Birmingham city centre. We can lead a renaissance in local towns such as West Bromwich to encourage more of us to shop locally and to prevent an overreliance on travel into Birmingham – which ultimately leads to crowding and congestion,” Jane adds.

Moving forward requires us to rethink and re-evaluate how we undertake business and assess plans for development. “We are already seeing businesses adapt to a new climate and a new way of working,” remarks Monique. “As a city, we have been quick to adapt, finding new ways of reaching out to residents and customers and it is increasingly evident that technology will have a greater role to play in this.”

“I agree,” says Dan. “Investing in technology such as digital ticketing technology will – in the short term – help us to adhere to social distancing requirements, but in the future it has the potential to unlock a streamlined and more efficient transport network.”

An engaging future

In June 2019, Copper Consultancy released the Is Birmingham Booming for Everybody? report in conjunction with professional services provider, Turner & Townsend. The report found that 50 per cent of local people in the UK’s second city did not feel they were being engaged with about development in their area. The panelists at the ‘Readying for the Restart’ event were unanimous in their belief that engagement with communities is vital for building a city that booms for everybody.

“Early engagement with communities to ensure they are included and listened to is critical for future developments,” says Monique. “We should be empowering local communities to engage with development plans and proposals. After all, they are an untapped resource. No one knows these areas better than the people who call it home. Once residents know how a development may benefit them, you could well find that you have a group of local champions supporting your development bid.”

The key is engaging early to include residents in the initial discussions. “It’s imperative that we gain the views and opinions of residents,” comments Dan. “They’re a valuable asset and their knowledge can help to shape the conversations that are had behind closed doors. For instance, there may well be a lack of communal spaces in the development area. Residents can convey this and help to shape the solution to this challenge.”

“Post-lockdown, engagement with communities will become even more important in shaping how we live, work and play,” remarks Jane. Consulting with communities to understand their needs and wants in the local area will open up new possibilities and create advocates for sustainable development throughout the city.”

The ‘city of a thousand trades’ is facing a grave threat to its economic development and infrastructure future. Since 1839, Birmingham has looked to its single-word motto for inspiration: ‘forward’. Rounding off the panel session, Copper asked each panelist to provide one word to describe their view on the city’s future.

“Invigorating,” said Jane. “We have a unique opportunity to shape and mould our future. I’m incredibly optimistic about where our city is headed”.

Summarising his thoughts, Dan chose “agile….It’s important that as we look to the future we are focused on making the buildings of tomorrow agile, while ensuring the way we travel is adaptable.”

Monique echoed the voices of residents throughout the city with her choice of “resilient.... We are resilient, the city is taking a tremendous hit, but we will bounce back even stronger than before. We will not be down for very long.”

An engaging future

At Copper, we believe that growth in Birmingham will continue. Commercial offices will continue to add character to the city’s skyline, while new residential developments and high-rises will deliver much needed housing in the city centre and surrounding suburbs. To ensure the continued success of projects and programmes of work, Copper champions stakeholder and community involvement at every stage of the development to create local advocates.

This creates buy-in from neighbouring communities and gives developers an opportunity to demonstrate the social and economic value of their planned schemes of work – ensuring that no one feels left behind in the redevelopment of their community.

Development is a journey. Copper helps developers to proactively communicate and engage with stakeholders and communities from the consultation stage, through to the unveiling of the finished development. Birmingham is at its best when it’s booming for everybody. Copper Consultancy sees proactive engagement as the first step to building a city of local advocates.

If you want to find out more about how Copper can generate community advocacy for your schemes in Birmingham and the wider region, please contact Fiona.woolston@copperconsultancy.com.

Joseph Moore
Copper Consultancy