Andy Street: How cultural renaissance in the West Midlands is driving economic growth

Andy Street is the Mayor of the West Midlands and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

Creativity has always been at the heart of the West Midlands’ success. It was our creative spark that fired the industrial revolution, igniting a thousand trades where, alongside the furnaces of heavy industry, skilled local artisans fashioned jewellery, coins and trinkets that sold across the globe.

In the West Midlands of the 21st Century, culture and creative are critical, rapidly-growing parts of our economy. They not only define what a place is like to live in, they drive innovation and future jobs, and form a key part of our Local Industrial Strategy. The creative industries are growing at three times the national average.

Under a Conservative mayor we are seeing a cultural renaissance that is driving economic growth, equipping younger people with vital new skills, enticing tourists and uniting our communities by tapping into their diversity. Through targeted Government support and local leadership, once again that creative spark is lit – but this time it is illuminating new opportunities as well as powering industry.

We also want it to fire young imaginations, giving students the skills they will need to flourish in the constantly-changing cultural economy. This week, for example, two pioneering new free schools in the West Midlands were announced by the Department for Education.

In central Birmingham, a free school is being founded by BOA Stage and Screen Production. This will be an exciting 16-19 specialist college, set up by the Birmingham Ormiston Academy, backed by a number of industry sponsors and partners including Birmingham City University. It will offer a range of vocational and high-level technical qualifications for students wishing to enter TV, Film or Theatre professions.

In Sandwell, in what is believed to be a world first, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is partnering with Shireland Collegiate Academy Trust to create the Shireland CBSO school. This non-selective, non-fee paying school will admit its first cohort of pupils in September 2021, at the end of the orchestra’s centenary celebrations.

The home of the CBSO – Birmingham’s Symphony Hall – will also be opening up its doors thanks to funding that aims to turn it into community arts space akin to the Southbank Centre. With support from the Arts Council’s Capital funding programme, the venue has been awarded £4.5 million of National Lottery money which, with funding from Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership, will update Symphony Hall’s foyers, create new learning and participation spaces.

While Symphony Hall, one of Brum’s best modern buildings gets a new lease of life, across the city centre a cultural icon built by our Victorian forefathers is also looking to the future.

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery are to launch a £40 million fundraising appeal to create new galleries and a separate cultural exhibition centre in the east of the city. The grand old museum wants to redesign its galleries and exhibition spaces, including the creation of a new children’s gallery to inspire youngsters.

Much of our cultural renaissance has been funded in this innovative way, with local businesses and charitable trusts providing backing alongside central funding. One great example is the Black Country Living Museum, the huge open-air site most recognisable across the UK as one of the regular backdrops for TV’s Peaky Blinders.

A cultural enterprise with an annual turnover of £6.2m, the museum’s annual surpluses are reinvested into caring for its impressive collection of buildings, vehicles and local artefacts.

Now the Dudley site is aiming to attract 500,000 visitors by 2025 as part of an ambitious expansion project, which will see an entire new town built, highlighting Black Country history through the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

It has secured £9.4 million from the National Lottery Heritage to reach the £23 million needed to complete the expansion, with work expected to be finished by Spring 2022.

More than a dozen charitable trusts, including some bearing famous local names such as Owen and Cadbury, have contributed to this grand scheme, alongside support from Midlands Engine and the Arts Council for England.

This approach ensures the tax-payer does not bear the entire financial burden of cultural improvements, while encouraging local ownership and investment in them.

Elsewhere across the region, areas once synonymous with industry are being reborn as creative quarters that are regenerating neighbourhoods and driving economic growth.

In Birmingham, Digbeth’s Custard Factory – once the home of Birds custard – is a creative hub surrounded by challenging and innovative street art, while the city’s Jewellery Quarter has become one of the UK’s most vibrant cultural communities, and a highly sought-after place to live.

Devolution has made much of this possible, with local decision making building cultural networks that feed creativity.

Under my leadership, the West Midlands Combined Authority is setting up a network to help the film and TV industry engage with the West Midlands. The Screen Industry Body will be an agile, responsive regional network, reflective of the rapidly-changing nature of the screen sector, and creating a single point of entry.

Elsewhere, a new region-wide Culture Board is linking up with organisations across the West Midlands to strengthen the sector, and ensure that investment in areas such as housing and transport facilitate culture – by placing art in railway stations, for example, or along new sprint bus routes.

Martin Sutherland, Executive Director of Coventry  City of Culture 2021, is chairing this new board to ensure our region links up to the festival, which is our most important creative and cultural event by far. It will be the crowning glory of the West Midlands’ cultural renaissance.

The City of Culture will provide a vehicle to showcase just what the region has to offer, and Coventry is rising to the challenge. Excitement is growing not only among the public but throughout the business community in Coventry and Warwickshire, where the level of support from commerce and the community is setting a new standard for the region.

Curated by Cultural Director Chenine Bhathena, the festival will not only celebrate the wonderful creative side of Coventry, the programme of events will also address many of the social issues facing the city, using culture to reach out to diverse communities.

Finally, Creative industries in the West Midlands will benefit from a £1.2m boost from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport as part of the ‘Creative Scale Up’ programme.

Launched by Creative Industries Minister and Stourbridge MP Margot James, the money will be used by the WMCA to link creative companies to investors.

From region-wide networks to grass-root festivals, from pioneering schools to reimagined museums, the West Midlands is experiencing a cultural renaissance that is not only complementing our economic growth, it is actively driving it.

There is one other benefit, and that is how our region is perceived around the globe. With investment in transport networks and improved air links, we are becoming a tourism hotspot.

The Boston Globe recently described Brum as ‘visionary’. The New York Times says the Second City is “England’s heartland metropolis: big-shouldered, friendly and fun.” Tourism has become a vital part of our economy. Birmingham alone welcomed 41.8 million visitors in 2017, a 6.9 per cent increase from 2016 and generating £7.1 billion worth of economic benefit.

The vibrant culture of the UK’s most diverse region is taking visitors by surprise. With the Commonwealth Games in 2022 we can look forward to an influx of visitors hungry to discover more. By working closely with Government to target investment, we have rekindled that creative spark that is one again catching the eye of the world.

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Author: Andy Street


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