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city's public relations, insists that incredulity at Birmingham's fitness to stage the summit is based on a hopelessly outdated image of the city.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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
A poster by Durham Constabulary
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Emily McDowell Card that reads:
artCancer survivor Emily McDowell kicks back at the clichés
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvBadalamenti on board for third series
Life and Style
Standing room only: the terraces at Villa Park in 1935
Ben Stokes celebrates with his team mates after bowling Brendon McCullum
sportEngland vs New Zealand report
Amal Clooney has joined the legal team defending 'The Hooden Men'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine