It is 21 years since the Custard Factory first opened its doors and kickstarted the regeneration of Digbeth as Birmingham’s creative and digital quarter. Owner Lucan Gray , who renovated and launched The Custard Factory with his father Bennie Gray in 1993, looks at Birmingham’s opportunities to become a world-class creative city.
“In the early 1990s when, we first began work on the Custard Factory, Digbeth was the epitome of post-industrial urban decline – a sprawl of beautiful but derelict historic buildings next to the city centre, which were being considered for demolition.
“My father Bennie knew there was something special about the buildings the moment he saw them. He came up with the madcap idea to create a new place for creative and artistic people to set up in business. This was much to his bank manager’s horror.
“Luckily, he ignored the man in the pinstripe suit and got stuck in. He engaged Glenn Howells as architect and charged me with getting it all built. Glenn and I worked intensively for a year and in August 1993 the Custard Factory was launched. It was full before the marketing brochures were back from the printers.
“Over subsequent years, further phases were added and the working community grew and grew. It also morphed to address the changing creative economy – digital became a bigger and bigger part of everything. In 2008, I launched Fazeley Studios specifically to cater for ambitious high growth creative and digital companies.
“Today, Digbeth is home to the largest cluster of creative and digital businesses outside London, with 400 businesses employing 2,000 people in the creative and digital sectors, ranging from innovative start ups and SMEs to established companies such as Maverick TV and North One TV and global brands such as ASOS.
“Maverick is interesting – it started in the first phase of the Custard Factory and now employs people in London and Birmingham and produces programmes we have all seen.
“This isn’t even mostly down to Digbeth, it is of course down to the brilliant people like Jonnie Turpie who founded and led the business, but I like to think having the Digbeth working community as its context has played a part in the process.
“Soon, BBC Birmingham will also launch its ‘Guerilla Unit’ in Fazeley Studios, which will use the most cutting edge technology to invent new ways to take BBC content to audiences, working on projects with BBC brands from 1 Xtra, Radio 1 and BBC Three to CBBC and BBC News.
“So what’s next for Digbeth and for Birmingham?
“Over the next decade, I hope Birmingham will invest and build upon its reputation in the creative industries and be a globally competitive creative and digital city.
“It is a real, achievable goal for the city which will create thousands of new jobs and attract inward investment in a short timescale. Importantly, it can transform the often unfair national media perceptions of Birmingham and make us into a city with a story.
“The creative and digital sector provides very strong growth opportunities. It gives Birmingham a way to tap into new international markets. Moreover, the creative industries have a far wider impact than its direct economic benefits. Research shows that clusters of creative businesses foster innovation and collaboration, which has a knock on effect for many other industries, and they transform the perception and profile of an area.
“Digbeth has already transformed from an area in decline to a cultural and creative hub, with the city’s largest collection of independent shops, galleries, cultural venues and annual festivals, providing for the creatives already in the area and attracting new ones to locate there.
“People are often surprised to find out what there is in Digbeth – things like the brilliant modern art gallery Eastside Projects run by Gavin Wade and Ruth Claxton.
“We have an outstandingly innovative, strong creative community in place which has continued to thrive and grow even through the depths of the recession.
“Birmingham’s talent pool is outstanding. Greater Birmingham now produces more graduates in creative disciplines and has more young people taking part in creative apprenticeships than anywhere else in the UK outside London.
“This is one of the key factors that helped us to win ASOS’s first regional office outside the capital, now based at the Custard Factory. Creative, innovative companies are as good as the people they employ and ASOS saw the city as a great untapped opportunity to recruit the best new staff to drive their next phase of growth.
“There is still a lot more work to do. Birmingham has no major production facilities for example, no home for its strong but now itinerant TV and screen industries workforce since the closure of BBC and ITV facilities.
“Birmingham also does not have a strong united voice and, although national media perception is improving, it is often influenced by outdated and unfair perceptions of the city.
“In order to address this, the city needs to be bold. We need distinct and recognisably ‘Birmingham’ projects.
“Most of all, we need the confidence and the cohesion to shout together about what we are doing as a creative city with the potential to grow and attract the best businesses and the best talent in the world.”