Birmingham City Council’s love-hate relationship with global property experts Cushman and Wakefield will be put to the test again later this month when the annual league table of the best UK business cities is published, explains Public Affairs Editor Paul Dale.
A decision in 2006 to rank Birmingham as the best place outside of London in which to locate a business and the 19th best European destination was greeted in triumphal tones by city council leader Mike Whitby, who described the announcement as a clear vote of confidence in the future.
For the best part of a year, Coun Whitby’s speeches routinely paid tribute to Cushman and Wakefield’s “prestigious” UK and European Cities Monitors - studies which he said were used by developers the world over when looking for suitable locations for investment and employment generation.
But last year Cushman and Wakefield’s UK Cities Monitor saw Birmingham lose its runner-up spot behind London to arch-rivals Manchester.
The league table, based on interviews conducted among chief executives from 200 leading companies, recognised Manchester’s high quality of life and value for money, while criticising Birmingham’s shortage of quality office space and poorer quality of life.
Weeks later, Cushman and Wakefield’s European Cities Monitor - based on the views of senior executives from 500 top companies - saw Birmingham drop from 19th to 21st position - again at the expense of Manchester, which managed to climb from 21st to 18th place in the table.
Coun Whitby (Con Harborne) reacted by suggesting that Birmingham was a “victim of its own success”, while also drawing attention to the “subjective” nature of the views of the chief executives questioned by Cushman and Wakefield.
The two monitors, which had been accepted and praised by the council without question a year before, were quickly dismissed as misinformed pieces of work based on individual views rather than facts.
And to be fair to the authors of the two tables, even Cushman and Wakefield admit the studies have little scientific merit since they rely on the perception of business leaders rather than hard data.
It is undeniable, though, that perceptions about the image of a city, however unfair, often play an important part when inward-investment decisions are being taken by major companies and it is certain that this month’s announcement will be watched very carefully by council politicians and officials.
Following last year’s demotion, the council did not have to look very far to discover other more studies far more favourable to Birmingham.
Coun Whitby immediately switched the emphasis, airbrushing Cushman and Wakefield from his speeches.
The new consultants of choice became Mercer, whose 2008 quality of life index ranked Birmingham 56th in the world - one of only three UK cities included.
The council leader declared it his personal ambition to see “our great city elevated to the top 20 best cities to live in over the next 20 years”, adding that this vision would be helped by the £17 billion of regeneration currently taking place across Birmingham.
He was also able to take comfort earlier this year in the European Cities Entrepreneurship Ranking, a study based on the views of 1,600 businesses across 11 countries which saw Birmingham beat London, Paris, Rome, Madrid and Berlin to be named the best business environment in Europe.
Clive Dutton, the council’s strategic director of planning and regeneration, said the executives whose views informed Cushman and Wakefield’s UK Cities Monitor must have “struggled with their perceptions of reality”, while pointing out that Manchester only managed to overtake Birmingham by the narrowest of margins.
Newspaper reports detailing Manchester’s rise and Birmingham’s fall were described by Mr Dutton as over the top and potentially damaging to private sector confidence in Birmingham as a business centre.
“It clearly follows that if you keep talking the city down in a dramatic and persistent fashion then people’s perceptions will be affected as sure as night follows day,” Mr Dutton warned.
He expects the recent growth in high quality office accommodation in Birmingham - projects include Colmore Plaza, Baskerville House and Snow Hill - to influence the judges more positively this time.
Birmingham will discover on September 23 whether it has regained its second place spot after London as the best business city when details of Cushman and Wakefield’s UK Cities Monitor are revealed at a breakfast presentation at the city’s Opus restaurant. The company has recently opened new headquarters in Birmingham at Colmore Row, where it employs about 40 people.
All of the signs are hopeful, since Coun Whitby has accepted an invitation to deliver a keynote speech at the launch, while sources close to his office say it is noticeable that Cushman and Wakefield - for 12 months a name not to be mentioned in Coun Whitby’s presence - is now being talked about with new enthusiasm.
The odds are on Birmingham overtaking Manchester once again which, if it happens, will certainly propel Cushman and Wakefield back onto the council leader’s Christmas card list.