The BBC managed to perfectly describe the nation’s prejudices against Birmingham – and Brummies like me are sick of it

Birmingham has more canals than Venice and more parks than Paris, but as companies look to leave the London bubble the city has been repeatedly neglected

Rebecca Took
in Birmingham
Monday 27 July 2020 10:57
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Birmingham and Afro-Caribbean accents face worst bias in UK, study finds

Last week, BBC Archive tweeted a video of the Birmingham bid for the 1992 Olympics with the sneering and incredulous comment: “Birmingham was bidding to host the 1992 Olympic Games. Yes, Birmingham. Yes, the Olympic Games.” The remark was met with condemnation, with West Midlands mayor Andy Street denouncing it as a "silly, smug post". The hashtag #BirminghamYesBirmingham started trending on the social media platform in response, with many sharing photographs which showed their city in a more flattering light.

Birmingham has more canals than Venice, more parks than Paris and is famously the birthplace of the beloved balti. It has the youngest population in Europe, and one of the most diverse, and is home to world-leading scholars, scientists and singers alike. So why does such a dismissive and distorted perception of Birmingham persist?

The impression of the city as a grey, faceless wasteland seems to have been informed by the view from the A34 flyover. Though I wish the city planners of the 1960s hadn’t been so zealous in demolishing iconic Victorian buildings such as the original Central Library, Birmingham’s reputation as a concrete jungle is deeply unfair. We have almost 2,000 listed buildings, many dating from the 14th and 15th century, and while in Birmingham brutalist architecture is denounced as monstrous, the same structures in London are celebrated.

Is Birmingham’s poor reputation influenced by the Brummie accent, which according to surveys of popular opinion makes us sound less attractive, less intelligent and more likely to be found guilty of a crime? While the distaste for the Birmingham dialect is rooted in a classism no longer typically tolerated against other regional accents, mockery of Brummagem is water off a self-deprecating duck’s back.

Unfavourable perceptions of the city are not a new phenomenon, either. In the novel Emma, published in 1815, Jane Austen writes: "They came from Birmingham, which is not a place to promise much, you know, Mr Weston. One has not great hopes from Birmingham. I always say there is something direful in the sound." However, the fact that these words are spoken by Mrs Elton — a caricature of ignorant snobbery – is, even then, intended as an indictment of those who hold such views rather than of the city itself.

BBC Archive has since deleted the tweet and apologised for its tone, but the incident shone a light on the derisive attitudes which aggravate systemic underfunding and underinvestment in the city of Birmingham and its surrounding regions. Just 1.9 per cent of the BBC’s annual budget was spent in the Midlands in 2017-18, despite the area being the largest of the seven English regions and contributing £900m a year to the corporation.

For 35 years, Birmingham was home to the BBC’s Pebble Mill Studios, the broadcaster’s largest production base outside of London. The relocation of BBC Birmingham to The Mailbox complex in 2004 initiated a series of redundancies, and it was recently announced that 91 per cent of jobs at the Birmingham-based online editorial hub are to be lost in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Yet regional cultural investment is not only necessary for employment and educational opportunities, but enables more voices - and Brummie accents - to participate in the conversation.

As more companies look to leave the London bubble, drawn upwards by the promise of the "Northern Powerhouse," Birmingham has been repeatedly neglected. Last year, Channel 4 moved its headquarters to Leeds and opened "creative hubs" in Bristol and Glasgow. Greater Manchester’s MediaCity is home to several BBC divisions, as well as ITV Granada and ITV Studios, while the publishing company Hachette recently announced the creation of five new regional offices, in Edinburgh, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and Bristol. The geographic diversification of media and the creative industries is necessary and welcome, but creating a vacuum in the Midlands will not solve the gross disparity between north and south.

As part of the Northern Powerhouse plan, £15m has been invested in cultural regeneration projects. However in the last five years, while employment in the north has grown by around 7 per cent, child poverty has increased by a third. This distorted economic profile suggests that equitable devolution cannot be achieved by simply transplanting companies from London to the north.

The 1945 Distribution of Industry Act attempted to redevelop the regions hit by post-war unemployment and economic migration by forcing industry out of Birmingham, in an attempt to regulate the dominant manufacturing hub. Although some jobs were created, the majority of economic growth following the policy was in the Home Counties, and Birmingham’s power over its own future and prosperity was explicitly restrained.

The 1965 Control of Office Employment Act later prevented the financial and service industries from developing in the city for nearly two decades, further driving the city of a thousand trades to become overly reliant on one - the motor industry - and economically vulnerable. Since the 1960s, Birmingham has gone from having an average household income 13 per cent higher than the national average, to having a child poverty rate of nearly 37 per cent.

The common contempt for Birmingham exposes an ignorant snobbery bolstered by decades of systemic underfunding and underrepresentation. You can mock our accents, but Birmingham is tired of your underestimations.

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