The standard image of Birmingham is big but boring; motorways, urban sprawl, industry, sixties concrete. Not in the top twenty UK places to visit, and that hurts particularly as there is a lot of great museums, architecture and spaces to visit. But Birmingham is changing. Concrete is crumbling, cars tamed, the permanent city-centre bus jam has been banished and several billion pounds on urban regeneration.
New Street is the main arrival point and was the weakest link with dingy platforms and a bare concrete concourse stuffed under an insipid shopping centre. So what does £750m buy you? The new soaring curvy atrium is definitely second-city, with plenty of space, and a ginormous Pret-a-Manger. But nothing has been spent on the platforms, still hidden in their hole and accessed through colour coded lounges that are neither coloured nor lounges. I don’t know about you, but I have some seats and a sofa in my lounge. And some colours too. And I can find my toilet, a task that was beyond me at New Street. And don’t even ask about left luggage – perhaps they could find some space under the stairs. On arrival there are no street maps, no local public transport information, and generally no-one around to help. I’m not sure which way to go, and only find the exit I want at the second attempt.
Finding the station on the way back is almost as difficult, unless you follow signs for the shopping centre. The old station was buried under a shopping centre but is now promoted to be part of the ‘new’ Grand Central shopping centre. Time to rename New Street as ‘Grand Central’?
What about the services? Pick a German city at random and find a unified suburban train network integrated with central tunnels. But Birmingham has unaccountably split theirs by diverting trains to Snow Hill, a decent walk away. The new trams link the stations, but wind at walking pace through precious city space and turn up apologetically at the side entrance to New Street. Plans for a new HS2 station will fragment the train network further. Surely a priority must be a proper cross city tunnel for trains and trams?
Of course every German city has integrated fares for all public transport too, but our expectations are so low I’m not surprised New Street has no sign of where to catch a bus or how I buy a ticket, or if I can buy one that allows me to use trams and trains too. As if to emphasise the lack of integration, I enter a ‘Travel Shop’ near New Street and ask for a public transport map. The staff look confused. Apparently they work for a bus company and they send me back to the station.
So we’ve made it outside, what to see? Birmingham has an impressive Town Hall, Art Gallery, etc., together with some opulent pubs, banks and shops which show how rich and important Victorian Birmingham was. But sixties carmageddon and concretopia (also the name of a surprisingly readable book) has eliminated most other evidence. Some nice old buildings survived around Gas Basin on the Worcester and Birmingham canal: the remnants have been used as a backdrop for regeneration and I head off there. The walk from New Street takes you through the bland, lumpen Mailbox (a former sorting office converted into upmarket shops) to the Cube (ditto). Gas Street Basin itself is actually quite small. And the quality of the new stuff is shocking. The Premier Inn is awful beyond belief, blank brick walls, privatised space, clumsy fire escape, looming like Mordor in Lord of the Rings. Even worse is the lumpen Crowne Plaza behind. Between this and the canal there are plans to squeeze another 1.2 million square feet of mixed office, flats, leisure, retail etc. The artists’ impressions look ominous and desperate. All around are weeds, litter, random car parking and underused buildings. It's clear that Birmingham still doesn’t really understand people.
Out in the Jewellery Quarter things look up. Despite a general air of decay, many of the buildings have character. At the centre is the slightly shabby neoclassical St Paul's church in a square of interesting buildings housing independent businesses. Organic growth has produced real regeneration and real local jobs. Walking back past Snow Hill, a solitary baroque terracotta archway with a Great Western Railway Crest stands defiant against the monstrous blank wall of a car park.
So what did I learn? New New Street looks nice, but the result of £1 billion is disappointing. How can you spend this much without touching the platforms or providing space for HS2? Or somewhere to sit? Big cities desperately need to think bigger and integrate their trains. And maybe integrate fares too. There are some good regeneration projects, but still too much reliance on ‘icons’. But the spirit of enterprise is there, pushing Birmingham to tear itself down and build itself up again. I just hope it lasts longer than the 1960s.