The Economist magazine paid a visit to Birmingham last week and concluded in its article headlined ‘Second City, Second Class’ that we are falling behind.
Reporting Birmingham’s modern history always presents a choice. Celebrate what has been achieved in the last 30 years and build confidence in what is possible or remind us about what is still left to fix, creating insecurity and doubt? Your view on the article will depend on where you are on this spectrum.
What is accurate, however, is the high level of unemployment among Birmingham residents. However, those benefitting from Job Seekers’ Allowance (the method used for tracking unemployment on a monthly basis) account for 10.8 per cent of the working age population, rather than the 14 per cent unemployment figure quoted in the Economist.
But the article is accurate in highlighting some wards where the numbers on JSA exceed 30 per cent. There are, in fact two – Aston (30.7 per cent) and Washwood Heath (30.4). Others near the mark are Lozells and East Handsworth (28.5), Nechells (27.1), Sparkbrook (26.1), Ladywood (25.1) and Soho (24.5).
The consequences for society of unending inequality of opportunity are predictable. We should use the Economist essay to strengthen our resolve on two things. Bringing to fruition the recommendations of the Heseltine Review so that Greater Birmingham has much more direct control over how resources are raised/spent in the city region and secondly, improving the skills of Birmingham residents.
Solving unemployment will not happen by simply building infrastructure in our neighbourhoods. On the surface, it is a seductive proposition. Contrast the shiny canyons of the city centre with the physical decay still to be found in parts of the neighbourhoods and surely, the answer is obvious?
A massive demolish-and-rebuild campaign. History tells us otherwise. Physical infrastructure is vital but buildings only come alive when they are filled with people creating ideas and products/services people want to buy and enjoy. Homes flourish when families are engaged in the community and this includes having breadwinners in work.
Despite the hundreds of millions of pounds spent in our neighbourhoods during the boom years, deprivation levels have not shifted. Indeed, they remain as they were 30 years and more ago.
Which is why I think the long-term solution lies in skilling-up our residents. Real change comes when individuals are in the position to take control of their own lives. Knowledge is power. It is the power to start a business; to create wealth and create control over your future.
All of us (business/academia/local authorities/voluntary sector/faith communities) need to redouble our efforts to make this happen.
There are encouraging signs. The excellence in provision that comes from the King Edward’s VI schools is actively being targeted at our most deprived wards. If you are a really bright child with academic potential but no family money, the message we need to get out is that these schools can be for you too. King Edward’s has also buddied-up with Sheldon Academy so that children here can benefit from King Edward’s experience.