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Brum scrubs off the muck to reveal EC brass: No expense is being spared to impress the summiteers, due to arrive in Birmingham this week, Mary Braid reports

POOR old Birmingham, said the southern cynics. The week before the city hosts the European summit, its councillors were caught pleading (in vain) with estate agents to take down a forest of 'For Sale' signs lest the European ministers rumble the recession.

Other attempts to prettify the city include politeness seminars for taxi drivers and a 'Bin it for Birmingham' campaign, allowing every Brummie to do his bit by picking up litter. Poor old Brum, they said, out of her depth, her league and perhaps even her mind. What, they wondered, possessed John Major to choose such a godforsaken spot for the conference?

The city council denies it is trying to create a false impression. The saleboards were simply untidy, and what is the matter with a city putting on its best clothes for important visitors?

Certainly, this weekend parts of the city centre resemble a building site, with council workmen on overtime laying new paving, planting flowers and scrubbing graffiti from the underpasses. But Sir Richard Knowles, leader of the Labour-controlled council and a committed federalist, is in buoyant mood. An old-fashioned socialist, he believes Birmingham can spend its way out of recession. And it is Europe's money he is spending. The EC has provided pounds 200m in grants in the last eight years. London's surprise at the Birmingham summit is sour grapes, he says. 'Who wants to run an exhibition these days in those old clapped-out concrete sheds down in London?'

Vincent Hanna, the television journalist recently recruited to overhaul the city's public relations, insists that incredulity at Birmingham's fitness to stage the summit is based on a hopelessly outdated image of the city. Those who still consider it the victim of the worst excesses of 1960s planners and more recent urban decay have not visited Birmingham in the past few years. It is not just the English who take such a view. Last year the French newspaper Le Monde claimed that Birmingham children steal cars in much the same way as their fathers once made them.

So tomorrow when the first of 3,000 specially-designed 'EC-Birmingham' flags is hoisted, the city will be seeking to change that old-fashioned perception and show off a new Birmingham - one made possible by the EC money. The summit, which begins on Friday, is being held in the new pounds 160m convention centre and symphony hall at one end of Centenary Square, an impressive open space which is the focus of the restyled and pedestrianised city centre. The largest indoor athletics arena in Britain, costing pounds 51m, is the latest addition to the city centre.

Graham Allen, the council's assistant director of public affairs, said: 'The council has played the Euro- game better than any other city in the UK and has made a lot of money.'

Mr Hanna agrees. 'It is Europe which has put money into Birmingham. The British Government has done sod all for the city.'

The message has already started to get home. Birmingham was apparently chosen for the summit thanks to the favourable impression formed by the former Heritage Minister, David Mellor, who brought the EC's culture ministers to the city recently.

But Mr Hanna says the quality of facilities and the high security offered by the new Birmingham were crucial considerations. The pressure of time was also a factor. 'Nobody else could have pulled this off in 23 days.'

Of course, the summit is a chance for Birmingham to make money. Seventeen hotels are already fully booked and the whole event is expected to bring in pounds 750,000 in three days. Terry Higgs, secretary of the Taxi Owners Association, says that his members are less than impressed by the politeness seminar, but that they 'will be most interested in how much money they can make while these people are over here'. The city will present the 2,000 visiting journalists with bronze medals, presumably in gratitude for their coverage and their cash.

To the council, it is the greatest confirmation so far that its multi-million- pound regeneration strategy is working. With unemployment at around 17 per cent and the release last week of one of the gloomiest-ever economic surveys in the West Midlands, it has to. The strategy is based on the assumption that improving an ugly city centre and building state-of-the-art conference facilities is a pre-requisite to economic renaissance.

Local people seem to be proud of the new facilities, but there are barbed observations about the gap between image and reality: 'They have prettied up the walk between New Street Station and Centenary Square so your eye is guided away from the ugliness,' says one man. 'It is OK as long as you stay on the beaten track.'

A woman in a smart suit smiles at the temporary building site that was Victoria Square. Here Britain's largest civic fountain is being erected. Unlike much of the work, it won't be finished in time for Friday. 'That does not matter,' she says. 'The European ministers will not see that.'

Council officials seem just as aware of the gulf between image and reality. Many of the 3,000 'EC-Birmingham' flags are being used to improve the look of the roads from the airport to the city centre. For security reasons, the police will not tell them which route will be used. But the council is covered. 'We are decorating four or five possible routes,' said Mr Allen.

(Photograph omitted)