x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Birmingham could teach Abu Dhabi a thing or two

The startling announcement of a memorandum of understanding between Abu Dhabi and Birmingham will be worthwhile if Abu Dhabi can learn from Birmingham's mistakes.

The startling announcement of a memorandum of understanding between Abu Dhabi and Birmingham, Britain's second city and the capital of the industrial West Midlands, formalises an intriguing partnership, but if Abu Dhabi can learn from Birmingham's many mistakes then it will be a worthwhile endeavour.

Let me tell you a little about Birmingham. When I was growing up, Birmingham was the nearest big city, the destination for shopping trips to Rackham's department store, and maybe a trip to McDonald's as a treat. It's where I got my first job, too, working on the cash desk at a multi-storey Goth emporium called Oasis.

Birmingham was derided across the country for its brutalist architecture, abandoned industrial wastelands and unworkable road system, and we were perversely proud of the fact that it had more miles of filthy canal than Venice, saw the birth of the Industrial Revolution and was home to the Cadbury's factory, the first spaghetti junction and the Balti Triangle. It is also reputed to have provided inspiration for Tolkien's sinister Lord of the Rings locations the Old Forest (Moseley Bog) and Two Towers (Perrott's Folly and the Edgbaston Waterworks Tower).

Though the Prince of Wales decried Birmingham Central Library as "looking more like a place for burning books, than keeping them", its 5,000 visitors a day do, at least, contradict the assumption that the Brummie accent denotes stupidity and criminality (a survey in 2008 concluded that Brummies would be considered more intelligent if they didn't speak at all).

And then there's the town planning. As if the destruction of much of the city by German bombers during the Second World War hadn't wreaked enough damage, the post-war fashion for utilitarian, modernist blocks saw the bulldozing of many of Birmingham's 19th-century buildings to make way for buildings such as the dank, concrete New Street Station, as well as the Inner Ring Road - now known as the "Concrete Collar": a mugger's paradise thanks to the dark, graffitied pedestrian underpasses.

But here's the thing: the past 20 years have seen an incredible change. It all kicked off with the opening of the Symphony Hall, an acoustically spectacular home for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which was then under the direction of a young conductor called Simon Rattle (catch him on November 9 with the Berlin Phil at Emirates Palace).

It was a musical venue to match the splendid 1885 Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, with its world-class collection of Pre-Raphaelite art, and its success prompted 20 years of regeneration that have turned the former capital of industry into a cultural hub. Public art was commissioned (Antony Gormley's Iron: Man and Dhruva Mistry's River, otherwise known as the Floozie in the Jacuzzi).

Landmark buildings, such as the amorphous Selfridges Building, sprang up. Old areas, such as the jewellery quarter, were restored. Birmingham City Council (the largest council in Europe) learnt its lessons the hard way. That is a misery it can help Abu Dhabi to avoid.