Birmingham must be bold and ambitious if it is to secure the 2026 Commonwealth Games , says Steve Beauchampé.
Last week’s announcement by Birmingham City Council that it was commissioning a feasibility study into whether to bid to host the 2026 Commonwealth Games was as surprising as it was welcome. Although council leader John Clancy had stated in May that he was open-minded about allowing the city’s name to go forward, there was little expectation that in a period of unprecedented cuts to council services and substantially diminished central government grants, the local authority’s previously stated position that a bid was not viable would alter.
So what has changed? Several things perhaps: Chancellor George Osborne’s departure from office, which has seen his Northern Powerhouse project downgraded, or at least reconfigured as a more balanced national approach to devolution; that new Prime Minister Theresa May’s chief advisor Nick Timothy is from Birmingham, which might result in the city receiving a fairer hearing in Whitehall than was previously the case. And although Liverpool recently announced that it too is considering a bid, Cardiff decided against making one in July, removing a potentially serious obstacle to Birmingham securing support in Westminster.
More decisive however is likely to have been the backing of the recently established West Midlands Combined Authority, as well as that of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership, with both of these organisations potentially able to access the sizeable funding streams necessary to develop the infrastructure improvements required to put on a high profile global event and deliver substantial economic regeneration as a consequence.
And with final parliamentary approval for HS2 Phase 1 expected soon, the efforts of Clancy and his colleagues to entice overseas investors, particularly from China, to finance major regeneration schemes planned to compliment the line’s opening, have boosted the city’s ability to leverage the monies that might be required to stage such a prestigious event.
Yet this will not be solely a Birmingham bid, but one involving the wider conurbation of Greater Birmingham. The city’s own credentials are strong, but not necessarily outstanding, and while its track record in staging major international events is good its sporting infrastructure has fallen behind that of several other UK cities and regions in recent years, with fewer high profile national and international tournaments and championships being attracted here than in previous decades.
Nor should anyone underestimate how strong a bid Liverpool (or more accurately Merseyside) might assemble. After defeating Birmingham to be named European Capital of Culture in 2008 the city can boast a range of museums, galleries and theatres which puts Birmingham to shame. With its rich musical and sporting heritage and the ongoing regeneration of its waterfront, assuming that Liverpool confirms a bid, Greater Birmingham will need to muster all of its forces just to secure the tacit support of central government and then the nomination of Commonwealth Games England.
So Birmingham must be bold and forget the notion of an ‘austerity’ Games involving making the Alexander Stadium in suburban, out of the way, Perry Barr the centrepiece, undertaking incremental improvements to the venue and installing thousands of temporary seats. Instead the Games, and the physical legacy they leave, must be tangible, its focal point both visible and accessible from the city centre. And whilst most of the facilities required already exist, albeit with some needing to be adapted, expanded or upgraded, several new venues and facilities will both be required and desirable (including a competition standard 50m pool, a velodrome and an athletes village).
But to extract maximum benefit from hosting what is the world’s third largest multi-sports event (and arguably the most prestigious and significant occasion the West Midlands will have ever witnessed), the region’s history and culture – sporting, artistic, ethnic and otherwise – should be mined and celebrated both in advance of, and during, the ten day spectacular of competition. And there needs to be imagination in each aspect of how the event is conceived and delivered, and in how its benefits are to be maximised and secured afterwards. A Greater Birmingham bid needs to show how the region would advance the concept of what the Commonwealth Games can be as successfully as London 2012 did with the Olympics.
As Birmingham’s interest in staging the 2026 Commonwealth Games was unveiled, much was made of the positive impact on Glasgow of hosting the 2014 Games. Yet it is to Manchester, hosts in 2002, that Birmingham would do better to look. The benefits there have been almost incalculable, and are ongoing, with the city long ago stealing Birmingham’s mantle as Britain’s foremost city of sport. Manchester did not see staging the Commonwealth Games as the end of a process, but merely the beginning. It’s an approach and a mindset that we too should adopt.