No matter whether you are from Dudley, Darlaston or Dorridge, we naturally take much of what the West Midlands has to offer for granted. It is not in our nature to be loud and proud about our creative industries, or shout about our history.
This is what makes our region the unsung cultural hotbed of the UK. Perhaps we are too modest, perhaps we are too bashful. But to outsiders, the image of the West Midlands is always vivid. Now is the time to capitalise on the fact we are a region of industrial makers and creators.
I grew up in Solihull and went to school in Birmingham. Following university, I applied unsuccessfully to become a social worker at Birmingham City Council before joining John Lewis. The West Midlands of 1985 is unrecognisable from the West Midlands of 2018. These changes are speeding up for the better, but our roots have not been lost.
From the foundries of the nineteenth and twentieth century, to the creative and digital hubs we have today, people are sometimes surprised to hear the West Midlands has produced diverse talents such as Benjamin Zephaniah, Lenny Henry and Jorja Smith, and it is of course home to the world-famous Peaky Blinders. We are hungry to keep in tune with the times and embody the best and latest our country has to offer on the world stage.
Peaky Blinders is a series in which seemingly the world comes to Birmingham, despite many of the scenes being filmed from the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley. Steven Knight, its renowned creator from the West Midlands, has rightly talked about how others may make louder noise, but Birmingham has a better story to tell.
Naturally, that’s a big part of my job. The role of Mayor is to champion the interests of the region, both around the country and around the world.
Globally, the most ambitious cities are those who showcase their rich cultural heritage. I recently arrived back from New York where I discussed with other mayors what ‘cultural capital’ brings to regions. We have a history and story of reinvention they’d give anything for, but there is so much more we could do to tell our story. Birmingham is twinned with Chicago (an American jazz mecca) and Coventry is twinned with Bologna (home to one of the oldest universities in the world). Awareness of these cities is heightened by how they can craft stories about these assets on the grandest of stages, including in film, theatre, TV and literature.
It is possible to change. When Liverpool was given the European City of Culture in 2008, the attention on the city’s transformation was elevated. The city has been celebrating its successes ever since.
It is examples such as these that get me very excited about where our region is heading, and I genuinely feel as though we are on the cusp of something special. Injections of cultural capital are what make these places cities people want to live in and become the subjects of great stories. This is why I believe our region is about to go global.
And it is all starting on a great platform of fresh ideas and creativity. Together with being the most diverse region beyond the M25, we are also the youngest region in Europe. Forty per cent of Birmingham’s population is under 25 and forty-six per cent of Coventry’s is under 30.
We have showpieces to look forward to and momentum is already building. I’m pleased to say the latest figures show the West Midlands enjoyed its fifth consecutive year of record-breaking visitor numbers, with a record number of visitors coming to the region, of which an impressive 40% were for business.
Coventry will be the country’s Capital of Culture in 2021. The successful bid was largely framed around changing the reputation of the city and its ability to consistently reinvent itself. From the cathedral, to its famous sons such as Philip Larkin, to its museums, this richly deserved recognition will be a great opportunity to celebrate what the city currently has, and what can be achieved in 2021.
The Commonwealth Games in 2022 will follow soon after. It’s a massive opportunity to showcase our region to the rest of the world and demonstrate that we have the cultural capital to compete with Berlin, Boston and Barcelona. It’s the second-largest sporting event in the world in terms of number of athletes (up to 5,000) and number of countries (71 countries and dependent territories) taking part and will put Birmingham in front of a global television audience of 1.5billion people. The justification for investment is not just clear, it is hugely exciting. Very recent research has shown that the event will provide an economic boost of at least £1.5billion in the first year for the West Midlands economy, with further benefits each year beyond.
The West Midlands is a region with endless opportunities. I invite you all to come and surprise yourself.
Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands