​we choose birmingham: the cultural renaissance of the uk’s second city

Continuing our series looking at opportunities beyond the capital, we look into Britain's second city, Birmingham.

by Jez Collins
06 July 2015, 10:10am

Last year, more 25-30 year olds left the capital than ever before and for many it was Birmingham that they headed for. Whilst newspaper reports attributed this to the rising house prices in London compared to the (relatively) cheap prices in Birmingham this doesn't tell the whole story.

The change from a manufacturing base (Birmingham was the city of a thousand trades) to a service industry economy has brought change to Britain's second city. As firms relocate or open national headquarters, they demand rich and varied cultural attractions. Whatever the debates raging about bankers, investors or lawyers, one thing is certain, they like to spend money in, and on, cultural activities, be that buying up new works of art, dining out in one of the four Michelin starred restaurants or attending any number of the plays, gigs or dance events that happen every night of the week.

Corporations such as Microsoft and the BBC are investing in the city, attracted by the 6000 tech firms located in Birmingham who employ 40,000 people, figures that are set to grow as digital clusters develop and mature. The New Library of Birmingham is the 10th most visited building in the UK, new galleries are springing up in the plethora of city quarters being redeveloped and the city now has the best street food scene in the country. Allied to this are more mundane things like the development of a better-integrated transport system, twenty-year city master plans and the ubiquitous city living; boring but necessary infrastructure that underpins the development of creative communities in our ever growing urban environments

Birmingham is also a truly multicultural city that has the youngest population in Europe, bolstered by a huge student population with Birmingham City University's Faculty of Art, Design and Media producing some of the most exciting fashion and textile designers (check out Rose Perkins' amazing designs at Fashionsistas), architects, actors, and artists in the country, as well as a slew of music, TV, radio and games producers. This vibrant community is firmly settling itself in the city, starting their nascent business and careers in the affordable warehouses, co-working spaces and artist co-habs dotted around Birmingham.

And yes undeniably, what you might pay for a one bed flat in London will get you a whole house in one of Birmingham's best suburbs within easy striking distance of the compact city centre or if you want to reconnect to nature, some of the best countryside in the country.

Perhaps the best illustration of the current London to Birmingham zeitgeist is Tom Cullen, ex Editor of Shortlist.com who has returned to his home city. Tom is the editor and founder of the aptly named I Choose Birmingham a weekly, straight into your inbox, e-magazine that reveals the best in culture, food, bars, films, entertainment and exhibitions, in and around Birmingham.

It's hard to imagine that such a resource was absent for a city of the size of Birmingham but Tom identified the gap and has seen his business grow and gain widespread critical acclaim. A simple idea maybe, but it helps demonstrate the range of opportunities available in Birmingham for those creatives who choose to work, and play, in the city.

We asked three Birmingham-based creatives what makes Birmingham, well, Birmingham.

Tom Cullen: Editor and founder of I CHOOSE Birmingham

Why did you return to Birmingham?
London is an insanely competitive place. You might have a superb idea, but without an extremely fat wallet it's hard to be heard above the noise. In Birmingham your budget doesn't need to be astronomical - if you're doing something fresh and interesting people take note. Which means organically it grows rapidly. There's also the housing issue. I was looking at crappy flats in half decent areas of London or half decent flats in crappy areas of London and then it occurred to me that I didn't need to compromise.

Do you need to be in London to 'make it' in the creative/cultural industries
Yes. I've only made it in Birmingham thanks to London. I took what I learned from the best in the business out of a saturated market and applied it to a huge city, that's on the move. On top of that, the competition in Brum isn't as great. What I do I do very well. In Birmingham that stands out. In London, less so. London's an incredible city and everyone should live there once, but don't be fooled into thinking you have to stay.

What's the best thing about Birmingham?
That's an incredibly tough question. The food offering is insanely good. From street food to Michelin stars, the city has awards coming out of its ears, but I guess the best thing is the city's aspiration. It's not the finest city in the UK, but it wants to be. And I get to contribute to that. Stand still in London or get pulled along with the tide in Brum. That's how I see it.

Name one thing to check out in Brum?
Track down street food god Andy Low N Slow. His barbecue ribs, pulled pork and brisket are stunning, even by London standards. And these days he's working with top Brum chefs to refine his skill. This guy is at the top of his game and should have a city centre restaurant, immediately. People would travel from miles and miles to dine there. I'd live there.

Allison Sadler: Alongside husband Christian Sadler, the designer/maker duo behind lifestyle shop People in Birmingham

Why have you chosen to stay in Birmingham?
We stayed in Birmingham because there's no place like home! We are both Brummies born and bred and feel a strong sense of belonging and connection to our city. The culture is diverse, the people are warm and friendly and there's a real sense of community here, even in a city this size.

Do you need to be in London to 'make it' in the creative/cultural industries?
Absolutely not! With the power of the internet at your fingertips, you can 'make it' anywhere in the world! Social media has been a great tool for us to engage and connect with a much bigger audience and we have a huge and loyal online presence and following - in return we have used this to open up many different doors and embrace opportunities that would have otherwise been impossible. You can create the 'magic' wherever you are based.

What's the best thing about Birmingham in your opinion?
It has got to be the passion and the energy - I think for a long time we've been dedicated to proving a point, we want to win and as a result I think we've worked twice as hard to put this city right up there on the top of the map as a city full of diversity, culture and creativity. I think finally we are gaining the recognition we've worked so hard to achieve together. Collaboration opportunities are all around - work together with like minded people to build stronger communities - go and create the connections and don't sit back and wait for them to come to you

Name one thing to check out in Brum?
There's way too many to name just one! Be proud and loud! And keep it real. I've been taking a little piece of my Brummie magic to Blogtacular in London lots lately, and I've been surrounded by thousands of folks on my Instagram #makeitsewcial community who have been soaking up my passion, authenticity and attitude towards living a creative lifestyle. It's honest, unpretentious and full of heart and soul.

John Fell: Event Manager (Lunar Festival // Mostly Jazz Funk & Soul // Moseley Folk) and Singer (Goodnight Lenin)

Why have you chosen to stay in Birmingham?
Leaving Birmingham for London was never really something I wanted to do. Birmingham has a great way of being, it's a lot more laid back than most cities. I think at times Brummies can come across as quite self-deprecating when discussing our city but I think it's more to do with the fact we aren't trying to compete. Most Birmingham based people I know adore this city, which has pockets of creativity all over the place. Apart from the obvious reason of not wanting to leave friends and family behind I've always found that Birmingham has been able to offer what I need in this respect. You've just got to look for it more and work harder towards what you want to achieve, as there are fewer bigger opportunities.

Do you need to be in London to 'make it' in the creative/cultural industries?
In truth, I think it helps but it's a case of being a smaller fish in the ocean if you make the jump. There are naturally bigger opportunities in London but you can certainly stay in Birmingham whilst "dipping in and out" of the capital. From the events management point of view there are very few positions but I firmly believe if you work hard you'll find something that will help you climb the ladder. Birmingham is awash with creative people and as the attention shines more brightly on the city I think this will become more apparent.

From a musician's point of view it's potentially more difficult. The music Industry is bombarded with requests from artists so coming to Birmingham isn't the most attractive notion for the industry. Especially when they can put a show on for that artist in London so they come to them so to speak.

That said Birmingham has a music heritage to be proud of and despite the landscape changing if something is good enough and unique enough it will shine through eventually. The light has definitely shone over Birmingham in the past few years with the likes of Peace, Swim Deep and Superfood breaking through.

What's the best thing about Birmingham in your opinion?
I'm sure everyone will say the same thing here… The people! As I've mentioned we don't try to compete on the national scale. We just try to make the most interesting and exciting events we can. If these events put us on the map then that's great. It's done in a very honest way which is certainly a Brummie trait. Promoters often look to each other for help when trying to reach new audiences. I think in general the Birmingham music industry is collectively looking to create something we are proud of and contribute to the city as a whole.

Name one thing to check out in Brum?
Flatpack Film Festival - omitting our own festivals I would recommend Flatpack Festival. It's the perfect blend of interesting, fun and quirky, which sums up the Birmingham spirit. There is an amazing array of things happening over 10 days or so which would make any outsider fall in love with the city a little bit more!

Jez Collins is a popular music historian and founder of the Birmingham Music Archive.


Text Jez Collins
Photography Elliott Brown