Alex de Ruyter (professor at Birmingham City University and Director of its Centre for Brexit Studies) shares his thoughts on the 2022 Commonwealth Games and the potential for the one-time ‘Workshop of the World’ to truly reinvent itself as a 21st century equivalent – or Global Brum, as it were.
Major sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games have been seen as vehicles to help drive regeneration in deprived city areas suffering from post-industrial blight. The debate on such event-led regeneration is also intimately linked to discussions on public-private partnerships, the link between policy networks and policy success and in turn wider issues around regional governance and development.
As such, the forces unleashed through globalisation and technological change have combined to effect structural changes to economies, cities and regions traditionally reliant on manufacturing. These have particularly struggled to overcome the effects of plant closures over the past 30 years. Moreover, the impacts of these forces have been felt unequally across the UK, with London and the South-East, and some “Core Cities” (e.g., Bristol) generally benefitting.
However, other urban areas, particularly in the Midlands and North of England, have felt “left behind”. This in turn has reinforced calls by academics and commentators to embrace urban revival, reiterating the point above of the potential catalytic effect that major sporting events can have on cities.
To these tumultuous changes have been added the severe, dramatic impact of the current Covid19 pandemic, which has severely disrupted supply chains and now casts a shadow over the longer-term viability of public (mega) events.
For Birmingham and the Midlands, these ructions are particularly pressing, as the city is hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games. In the context of Brexit, the Games had been seen by many as an opportunity to showcase the region to the wider world, and therefore add some substance to nascent claims of a “Global Britain” aspiring to reorient itself to a wider world beyond the (rejected) embrace of the EU.
Suffice to say, the Brexit result poses a major challenge to conventional narratives that would posit the city-region made up by the individuals and groups within it as the pre-eminent conceptual unit in the global economy (such as that of the “post-industrial city”), and downplay the significance of the nation-state.
Regional stakeholders experience particular challenges having to operate between competing national agendas on the one hand and differences of opinion amongst their own constituencies on the other. Brexit has thrown these tensions into sharp focus here in the Midlands, with bodies such as Chambers of Commerce, Local Authorities and Higher Education Providers seeking to fulfil their core missions amidst conflicting views on the result amongst their own members and constituents.
The current Covid19 pandemic further complicates any such analysis along these lines, with the UK amongst the worst affected countries in Europe. Naturally, the impact upon the events and hospitality sectors has been devastating, with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics postponed alongside hundreds of other sporting events. Within the UK, during the second quarter of 2020, the hospitality industry saw an estimated 87% fall in sales.
However, just what is it that we imagine that the Commonwealth Games would act as a spur to growth for? In looking at Birmingham’s actual industrial composition, today, in common with other core cities, central Birmingham is a regional hub for a host of professional services firms, notably in law, accountancy and architecture. This is responsible for around 6% of the city’s economy.
Perhaps less widely appreciated is the fact that financial services makes up over 9% of the city’s economy (ibid.), having seen rapid growth over the past decade with HSBC’s UK headquarters as well as a significant insurance and pensions sector (mostly actuarial services). Education makes up approaching 8% of the city’s economy, anchored by its universities (ibid.).
Away from Birmingham’s centre and prosperous southern fringes, manufacturing continues to play an outsized role, making up 14% of the city’s economy, compared to just 3.4% in Manchester, 5.9% in Leeds and a mere 1.8% in London (ibid). This is predominantly accounted for by metalworking and automotive, legacies of the city’s industrial heritage.
For me then, this is promising. It suggests that Birmingham and the wider West Midlands are not merely prisoners of their past industrial heyday but are actively engaging with contemporary sectors of the economy. Indeed, it posits that the one-time ‘Workshop of the World’ can truly reinvent itself as a 21st century equivalent. Or ‘Global Brum’, as it were.
Why do I say this? First of all, I do think that come 2022 we will have a showcase opportunity. Whilst Covid19 has been hugely disrupting, I do not to seek to diminish the tragedy of the scale of the pandemic as a human catastrophe. But that said, as an epidemic, it will come to pass and as such, we most likely can expect a situation of at least “near normal” to resume over the next 12 months.
I do have confidence that with appropriate physical distancing and hygiene measures in place, that the 2022 Games will go to plan. I also think that international travel will have started to recover by 2022. Even so, media coverage will be more pivotal in this regard, and will more than offset any lingering physical travel restrictions, I think.
So, to conclude, I think that the presence of significant Commonwealth diaspora communities in the West Midlands gives us a modicum of cultural capital in exploiting potential increased links with their ancestral countries. However, it is the corporate presences of key companies that are owned by individuals with Commonwealth connections that I think gives us additional mileage to build links.
In this sense, the presence of Jaguar Land Rover – owned by Indian firm Tata Motors, and HSBC, with its Far East connections, that I think serves as a springboard. Not so much in terms of expanding trade from these existing entities per se, but rather in that being emblematic corporate labels, they showcase the appeal of the Midlands for other emergent investors from India, East Asia, and elsewhere in the Commonwealth (not least my home country, Australia).
For the Region, then, the 2022 Commonwealth Games are everything to play for…
 Fothergill, S. (2009), ‘The Impact of Recession on Industrial Britain’, Industrial Communities Alliance: Barnsley.
 Van Winden, W. (2008), ‘Urban governance in the knowledge-based economy: Challenges for different city types’, Innovation: management, policy and practice, 10: 197-210.
 Vines, R. (2020), ‘U.K. Hospitality Industry Sales Slump 87% as Coronavirus Lockdown Bites’, Bloomberg (28th July 2020), accessed on 28th July, 2020 at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-27/u-k-hospitality-industry-sales-slump-87-as-coronavirus-lockdown-bites
 Office for National Statistics, (2019), ‘Regional gross value added (balanced) by industry: all NUTS level regions’ accessed on 28th July 2020 at https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/grossvalueaddedgva/datasets/nominalandrealregionalgrossvalueaddedbalancedbyindustry
About Professor Alex de Ruyter
Alex de Ruyter is a professor at Birmingham City University and serves as Director of its Centre for Brexit Studies. He brings a wealth of research experience and academic engagement in the areas of globalisation, regional economic development, labour market and social exclusion issues. He has published over 60 academic outputs in leading national and international economic journals and has been the recipient of research funding, including work for the West Midland Combined Authority on understanding the supply chain implications of Brexit on the Automotive and Aerospace sectors in the Midlands.
Professor de Ruyter has undertaken numerous media interviews and is currently researching on working in the “gig economy”. He is also a Board member of the Regional Studies Association.
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