Goodbye West Midlands, hello Greater Birmingham
Sep 9 2008 By Jonathan Walker, Political Editor
The West Midlands should re-brand itself “Greater Birmingham” to promote itself and attract investment from across the world, according to an influential thinktank.
Business leaders in New York, Madrid or New Delhi are never going to understand the difference between Dudley, Solihull and Birmingham - no matter how much effort is put into publicising them, a report published warns.
Instead, the region should unite around a common identity to ensure it makes the most of increased opportunities for foreign trade.
The findings come from the think-tank the Centre for Cities, an offshoot of the Institute of Public Policy Research with has close links to the Labour Party.
The report warns that no region of the United Kingdom outside London has successfully marketed itself across the world, but the growing importance of global trade made it essential they improved their efforts to promote themselves.
Hannah Brown, the report’s author, said: “If you are trying to attract a global investor in Chicago or Shanghai, the chances of them knowing the ins and outs of the West Midlands, or the difference between Solihull and Dudley, are probably low.
“So you need an easy-to-understand brand. This could be Greater Birmingham. It could be something else, but a single identity is more likely to be successful.
“It does seem that in the West Midlands conurbation, there are a lot of cities which would be more successful if they clubbed together more than they do.”
The report highlights the example of Greater Manchester, which includes the city of Salford as well as towns including Oldham, Bury and Bolton, as a successful brand.
The question of how far the region should go to unite itself has sparked lengthy debate in recent years, but few answers.
Last night Mike Whitby, leader of Birmingham City Council, downplayed the importance of the region’s name.
He said: “The international brand that is most widely recognised is Birmingham. But whilst branding is important, it is what the city region does rather what it is called that really counts.”
Hazel Blears, the Local Government Secretary, revealed earlier this year that she was considering proposals for “city region” mayors who would represent multiple towns and cities.
A report published by the Government in 2006 referred specifically to a potential “Greater Birmingham” region, but this led to protests from Black Country politicians who feared being swallowed up by their larger neighbour.
Such is the sensitivity about the name that when local councils decided to work more closely together in a loose alliance, they chose the unwieldy name “Birmingham, Coventry and Black Country City Region” to avoid offending anyone.
Even the term West Midlands, which is often used to refer to Birmingham, Solihull, Coventry and the Black Country, can cause confusion, as there is an official West Midlands region, which takes in Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and Herefordshire.
The Centre for Cities report warns that the UK as a whole gains from global trade, but while cities like Reading and Milton Keynes have grown, traditional industrial areas such as the West Midlands are not benefiting as much from the global economy - and could stand to lose out further during the tough times ahead
However, the findings were dismissed by Black Country MP John Spellar (Lab Warley) who said: “If you look at the investment coming into the Black Country and into Birmingham from German firms at the moment, they are not worried about structures or names.
“They want to know that we have the skills they need to produce and sell products. There’s still room for improvement there, certainly, but it’s not about creating new structures.”
Peter Mathews, president of the Black Country Chamber of Commerce, said the business community already recognised the importance of co-operation across the region and between the cities of Coventry, Wolverhampton and Birmingham.
“We need to be mature enough to work more closely together. If the three cities do this, we will all benefit.”
Coun Whitby, Tory leader of Birmingham Council and chairman of the City Region Board, said: “A city region inward investment plan is currently being rolled out.
“It will target a range of globally strategic companies, with tailored marketing propositions to attract them to different parts of the city region.
“The whole plan is built around close co-operation between our eight local authorities and Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency.”