Birmingham needs to spread its wings and sell itself to the world, a top Midlands architect has warned.
And Graham Cartledge CBE, chairman of Benoy, the practice which designed Bullring and The Water’s Edge in Brindleyplace, called for better marketing of “brand Birmingham” and greater “one world thinking” by business leaders.
His comments came in an address to the annual lunch of the Midlands region of the Investment Property Forum.
With its headquarters in Newark, Benoy has a turnover of around £40 million, employs 500 people, and has bases in London, Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, Mumbai, Beijing and Singapore.
He said: “We have lots to be proud of in the Midlands.
“But I wish you had voted for an elected mayor for Birmingham because you need someone shouting loud and clear that Britain is not just London.
“The regions need to come on board. There needs to be more one-world thinking by business. Companies can become complacent – they need to get out of that cocoon of comfort.
“There needs to be a strategy for the Midlands. Start to sell brand Birmingham.”
There remained considerable admiration for Britain around the world – transparent government, the legal system and all the country stood for, Mr Cartledge said.
But the regions had to do more if they were to attract the world to them – too often visiting delegations from the Far East never saw the need to venture outside London.
In particular, Mr Cartledge highlighted the limited services available at Birmingham Airport – work on the new extended runway is underway.
He charged: “I spend far too much time at Heathrow. I want to fly to China and India. But the Midlands is very poorly served – why can’t I leave from Birmingham or East Midlands?
“Why aren’t there flights from China straight into Birmingham?
“It is about Birmingham getting connected. If we want to engage as a country with the growth countries of Asia we have to be more than just London.”
Seventy per cent of Benoy’s turnover came from Asia in 2011.
Phil Clark, IPF chairman and head of property investment at Kames Capital, warned that the level of debt left with the sector following the recession and banking crisis could take many years to clear.
He told the 500-strong gathering at the International Convention Centre: “Debt is the single biggest issue of our time and has a particular impact on our industry.
“The scale of the issue remains immense. Outstanding property loans are still approximately £300 billion. On average, 17 per cent of all UK loans outstanding in 2007 were to commercial property, a high sectoral allocation for an illiquid asset.
“Even if we put aside the far bigger issues around the Eurozone, it will still take many years to gradually decrease banks’ exposure to commercial property – in large part because there is almost no new debt to refinance the many loans due to be repaid in the next three to five years.”
Equity, he noted, was also scarce.
The property sector needed to be sure their business model had future, not past, market conditions in mind.
And firms needed to look at opportunities which in the past they might have ignored.
“Many people thought retail warehouse parks were a fad when they were first created but they are now considered mainstream investments,” said Mr Clark.
“Similarly, in 1999 I managed a fund that invested its first £12 million in nursing homes which most had no interest in because it was not retail, office or industrial.
“Now, elderly care homes is one of the only property sectors with increasing occupational demand as we all live longer, and offers 35 year leases with annual uplifts linked to RPI – investors are now keen to invest.”
And he added: “One banker recently received an application to convert a secondary shopping centre with very little retail demand into a school – another good example of innovation for which our industry has a long tradition.”
IPF Midlands chairman Simon Robinson said the organisation was in good health and continuing to grow in numbers.