Birmingham City Council was passing through one of its pretty regular states of anxiety when this column began 10 years ago.
There was a general feeling as the new millennium broke that the city was in danger of losing its way, was punching below its weight and at risk of being eclipsed by upstart rivals such as Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Glasgow and Bristol.
Radical regeneration projects, including the National Exhibition Centre, the ICC, Symphony Hall and Brindleyplace, had helped to deliver an extraordinary cultural turnaround, but the NEC in particular was beginning to look dated and in need of fresh investment.
There were a great many unanswered questions about the next phase of Birmingham’s renaissance.
On paper, it looked promising. Redevelopment of the Bullring and pedestrianisation of the central retail area had begun. Land at Eastside was being cleared and the Masshouse Queensway “concrete collar” ring road demolished, to facilitate major expansion of the city centre.
The former Royal Mail sorting office at Suffolk Street was to be turned into an up-market shopping centre, anchored by the BBC and Harvey Nichols. Plans were launched for a £1 billion redevelopment of Paradise Circus, which would involve a new library at Eastside.
Land occupied by the former Central Television studios at the foot of Broad Street had been earmarked for the Arena Central project, based on what would be one of the country’s tallest buildings, soaring into the sky as a shimmering symbol of Birmingham’s economic recovery and new-found confidence.
And yet, in 2001, there was already an unmistakable edginess about this city’s future prospects.
The then Labour-led council was concerned that the great wealth generated by the city centre was not being cascaded out into the suburbs. Unemployment remained depressingly high in inner city wards; in fact Birmingham had some of the worst deprivation and jobless figures anywhere in the country.
To describe the social services and housing departments as basket cases in 2001 is putting it mildly. Both were close to being taken over by Whitehall, with under-performing schools and the benefits service not far behind.
Birmingham’s business community was growing increasingly concerned about the city’s future direction and the difficulty of working with a plodding, bureaucratic city council, overseen by a split and impotent cabinet that spent most of its time plotting to overthrow the council leader.
The Labour Government’s proposals to introduce elected mayors were beginning to generate a ripple of interest among forward-thinking councillors and business leaders, who recognised that more of the same would not deliver the generational change required to transform Birmingham into a major European city.
Ten years later, sadly, Birmingham continues to punch below its weight. The inner city wards are among the poorest parts of Britain with systemic unemployment and a poorly skilled workforce, children’s social services are failing and remain under Government special measures.
Most of the grand regeneration projects – Arena Central, Paradise Circus, Martineau Galleries, the British Land Tower – are yet to emerge from the drawing board.