They say that a city the size of the proposed Greater Birmingham area, with a population of 2.4 million, would counterbalance the might of London, and thus help rebalance the UK economy.
The new region would incorporate Birmingham city itself, along with Wolverhampton, Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Solihull – though each borough would retain its administrative independence. The area would cover what is currently known as the West Midlands conurbation, but not necessarily all parts of the county of the West Midlands, such as Coventry.
One of the campaign’s chief backers is Andy Street, the managing director of John Lewis and chairman of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership.
He points out that:
* Exports from the West Midlands have grown by 30 per cent in 2 years, compared to 2 per cent nationally;
* The region boasts a trade surplus with China;
* More businesses were created in Birmingham last year than any city outside London – more than 16,000 in total.
Writing in The Telegraph on Sunday, Mr Street says: “Greater Birmingham does not wish to be 'second’ in anything. Instead we wish to play, and be recognised for, our role as a competitive UK city-region on a worldwide basis.
“And that’s not just dreams. Our regional economy was hurt at the onset of the recession, but we are emerging more strongly than elsewhere, and steadily a new industrial and commercial powerhouse is taking shape.”
John Lewis is planning to open a flagship 250,000 sq ft store next to Birmingham’s New Street rail station next year. The store will be the second largest outside of London.
Mr Street described the plans as “a striking architectural statement which will catalyse the regeneration of the city”.
Once considered an economic powerhouse of the British Empire, Birmingham boasted thousands of small manufacturing firms, so much aso that it became known as the 'city of a thousand trades’, with guns, tools, jewellery, locks and cutlery made across the city. But as industry and engineering declined during the seventies and eighties so did Birmingham’s fortunes, leaving it with a legacy of crumbling warehouses and industrial wasteland.
The campaign has also won the support of Mike Wright, the Executive Director of Jaguar Land Rover, one of the most important employers in the region.
He said: “Greater Birmingham is at the very heart of Jaguar Land Rover’s global business. We design and engineer all of our vehicles here, and from our manufacturing plants at Solihull and Castle Bromwich we export to more than 170 markets worldwide. The region boasts a hi-tech supply chain and world-class R&D (research and development) expertise. Today’s car industry is led by advanced engineering, design and technology and the West Midlands is now at the very centre of UK and global automotive research.
“The greatest opportunity for the Greater Birmingham is that we grasp the chance to become, once again, a world-class centre for engineering, for research and development, and for manufacturing excellence.”
But it is not only economic potential which the region has in its favour. Backers of the Greater Birmingham initiative point out that it has the youngest population of any major European city, with four in 10 inhabitants aged under 25, and is one of the most diverse cities in the world, with 124 languages spoken by our 78,000 bilingual residents.
The city boasts a world famous symphony orchestra, a world class ballet company, a resident repertory theatre and Europe’s largest library. It also continues to have a vibrant music scene, with The Twang, The Streets and Laura Mvula, following in the footsteps of The Electric Light Orchestra, Black Sabbath and Dexys Midnight Runners.
It is also know for its Jewellery Quarter and the Curry Mile, with its range of Balti restaurants and has four Michelin star restaurants, and while a shadow hangs over its football team, Birmingham City – following the jailing of its owner Carson Yeung in Hong Kong for money laundering last week – the region does - for the moment at least - have two Premiere League football teams; Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion.
Little surprise perhaps – except to those whose view of Birmingham is still coloured by the creaky sets and script of Crossroads – the daytime soap opera set in a motel in the city – that in a recent survey it was rated the most attractive UK city for quality of life.
Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield and former Cabinet minister said: “Greater Birmingham is the home of a second industrial revolution. The people I represent are keen to play their part in showing why the region is rightly on the global map as an industrial and commercial powerhouse.”