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On reflection: Birmingham, ‘readying for the restart’

sunset

As Birmingham begins to emerge from lockdown and the infrastructure and construction sectors ramp up activity, Joseph Moore, Senior Account Executive at Copper Consultancy, delves into how the second city can respond to the challenges of ‘restarting’ the city’s post-COVID-19 economic growth and what the future holds for the city’s development plans.

The city of Birmingham is at a critical juncture in its development. Prior to the introduction of lockdown measures on 23rd March 2020, the city was steaming ahead – preparatory works were underway for the delivery of HS2’s Curzon Street Station, the construction of Arena Central and the Paradise development was in progress and the city’s plans to roll out the Midland Metro were on track. That was until the outbreak of COVID-19 forced the suspension of work on sites across the UK.

Copper Consultancy recently brought together Jane Findlay (Director at Fira Landscape Ltd), Dan Griffiths (Director of Transport, Midlands and East, at Stantec), Monique Royle (Divisional Director at Fleurets) and Rob Valentine (Director for Birmingham at Bruntwood) for a webinar discussion on the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic to development in the city of Birmingham.

The road to recovery

Throughout the event, attendees from the infrastructure and construction sectors were asked a number of poll questions, which provided an interesting overview of the situation in Birmingham. For example, of those polled 44 per cent believed that the infrastructure sector in Birmingham will experience an immediate bounce back, with a further 44 per cent arguing that the industry will recover to pre-COVID levels in 6-12 months’ time. A sense of pessimism was evident in some of those polled, as 11 per cent were concerned that the recovery could take more than five years to achieve – a definitive step back for the city should this be the case.

Reinvigorating economic activity in the second city was a hot topic throughout the webinar discussion. There was a clear consensus on how to promote activity with 64 per cent stating that a combination of public and private investment would reinvigorate the city. 16 per cent of those in attendance saw government investment as being the key to promoting economic activity and with Rishi Sunak due to unveil a July stimulus package focusing on infrastructure, this perception could be bearing fruit.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to reverberate throughout the infrastructure and construction sectors for years to come. With the industry still reeling from the scars of the financial crisis and the collapse of Carillion, it is little wonder that 56 per cent of attendees believed that there would be a greater focus on economic efficiency in supply chain networks, with a further 18 per cent perceiving environmental considerations as being of lesser importance than the cost of materials.

The future of the industry

In a sign of the times, technology is now playing a greater role in the minds of those in construction and infrastructure. Eight per cent of those polled saw a role for real-time data analysis and monitoring in reinvigorating economic activity. As our most recent webinar with data-specialists, CKDelta, revealed, meaningful data is increasingly directing business and planning decisions.

The pandemic does however look set to instil positive change within the industry. 28 per cent of audience participants stated that there would be significantly more attention paid to earlier supply chain engagement in the design and planning process. This could result in reduced carbon emissions owing to more detailed logistical planning and greater efficiency as teams look to reduce the economic costs of projects and programmes.

Digital engagement

As lockdown measures are eased across the UK, it is becoming increasingly evident that the nature of stakeholder communications and engagement has turned a corner. Lockdown brought about an end to face-to-face engagement leading to a rise in digital engagement. 24 per cent of those polled during the webinar believe that there will be greater emphasis on digital engagement following lockdown. A further 24 per cent of attendees saw communities as being even more important in a post-COVID age. With communities now firmly at the forefront of the infrastructure and construction sectors, digital engagement has the potential to reach new audiences who may be inclined to become advocates for development in their area. This untapped knowledge and advocacy should be harnessed as we emerge from the pandemic.

At Copper, we champion the value of stakeholder and community involvement at every stage of the development journey. This value has not diminished in the face of the pandemic, rather it has adapted and we have responded, by bringing digital engagement to the fore to ensure that we continue to guide the public and stakeholders along through the stages of development, from planning and consultation through to construction.

Forward

The ‘city of a thousand trades’ is facing a serious threat to its economic development and infrastructure future. Since 1839, Birmingham has looked to its single-word motto for inspiration: ‘forward’. Rounding off the panel session, Copper asked each panellist to provide one word to describe their view on the city’s future.

“Invigorating,” said Jane. “We have a unique opportunity to shape and mould our future. I’m incredibly optimistic about where our city is headed”.

Summarising his thoughts, Dan chose “agile….It’s important that as we look to the future we are focused on making the buildings of tomorrow agile, while ensuring the way we travel is adaptable.”

Monique echoed the voices of residents throughout the city with her choice of “resilient…. We are resilient, the city is taking a tremendous hit, but we will bounce back even stronger than before. We will not be down for very long.”

Finally, Rob opted for “opportunity….The city may well experience a few difficulties over the coming months; what we need to focus on is a future packed full of opportunity. We cannot dwell on the challenges, we must look to the future.”

Talk of the pandemic has dominated the news cycle, but as the infrastructure sector in Birmingham begins to find its feet in a new world, we must look to the future, beyond lockdown.

The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games motto is: Are you game? Here at Copper, we certainly are.

If you want to find out more about how Copper can generate social advocacy for your schemes, and support your digital engagement efforts, please contact Fiona.woolston@copperconsultancy.com.

(Image courtesy of Joseph Moore)

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