The announcement that John Lewis is to open its largest department store outside of London at a revamped Pallasades shopping centre in Birmingham is a rare piece of good news to brighten the icy depths of economic gloom.
Not only will the new outlet broaden the high-end retail offer, it will also play a significant role along with a refurbished New Street Station in transforming a rather down-at-heel part of the city centre by delivering good pedestrian links between the Bullring, Mailbox and the retail markets area.
Recognition should be given to Birmingham City Council for having the foresight to buy the Pallasades, enabling the local authority to push forward with New Street Gateway which, as this newspaper has always recognised, is far more than a simple railway station improvement scheme.
When blue chip partnerships such as John Lewis elect to invest millions of pounds in new ventures, it is fair to suggest that this represents a vote of confidence for the growth of the local economy. Birmingham, in common with all major cities, may be suffering at the moment as a result of the national downturn, but the good times will return eventually and perhaps more quickly than is predicted.
But, and there is always a but at times like this, while the city centre can afford to breathe a sigh of relief times are far from good for Birmingham’s suburbs, or vibrant urban villages as the city council insists on referring to them.
The end of the Government’s £115 million Working Neighbourhoods Fund is having a serious impact on Birmingham in many ways. With no chance of replacing WNF money from other sources, the council has decided it can no longer afford to employ town centre managers in areas as diverse as Kings Heath, Erdington, Moseley, Acocks Green, Harborne and Sutton Coldfield.
This is a great pity, since the managers have been responsible for delivering something of a suburban renaissance for Birmingham and in several cases have spearheaded the formation of Business Improvement Districts.
The council is insisting that supporting individual town centres remains a high priority and alternative methods to protect services are being considered. It would appear inevitable, however, that without dedicated town centre managers Birmingham’s villages are bound to be less vibrant in future than they are now.
It is interesting to note that some Members of Parliament are lobbying to revive what they call the “golden era and the high street” and to fight the rise of retail parks.
Good luck in this venture to Erdington MP Jack Dromey, who is calling for a change in law to enable councils to discriminate in favour of high streets when considering planning applications.
It should be noted, however, that previous governments, including Labour, have shown little enthusiasm for taking on the multi-national retail giants, hence the inexorable growth in out-of-town shopping parks.
The question of how to go about revitalising Birmingham’s suburbs, both in retail and employment terms, has been high on the political agenda for at least a decade with council leaders pondering about ways of cascading out the success of the city centre.
With public money likely to be tight for many years, we must look to the private sector for investment. Sadly, at the moment, significant growth appears to be limited to the city centre.