Is the government ignoring the ‘screaming needs’ of West Midlands' night life?
Plus: A delicious guide to the region's Dhabas, and Carl Chinn on the Peaky Blinders
Good evening readers — welcome to your Monday briefing.
First, a clarification from me on the Birmingham roads story we’ve been following. On Friday, I reported that Birmingham Labour is saying the government has “betrayed” the city by cancelling its £50 million a year Private Finance Initiative (or PFI) contract for road maintenance. For the background, read this recent piece.
A £50 million grant has been committed for 2024-25 (the end of the current spending review). The government will decide at the next spending review how much it will give again, and so on. Bear in mind, a General Election is expected next year so it might well be a Labour government making that decision. The other change is that instead of going through the private sector, the money will be paid directly to the council. It is expected to be paid via the West Midlands Combined Authority. Birmingham Labour is angry the PFI has been axed, and leader John Cotton described it as a “disgrace”. Birmingham Tories have accused Labour of being “not transparent” in their messaging.
Our weekend read touched on some of the issues with the widely adopted, clickbait-dominated model of doing local news which I’ve already highlighted in these pages. Check it out here:
Our subscriptions and pledges have supercharged since publishing this piece. From the messages people have been leaving, it has chimed with readers who are frustrated by the ad-laden local journalism that has become the norm. And I’m glad I was able to get across my argument clearly. Thanks to Andy for this message:
☔ Tuesday: Showers and cloud early on, then clear skies and sunshine. Max 5C.
☁️ Wednesday: Cloudy with bright spells. Heavy winds and rain overnight. Max 3C.
🍃 Thursday: Windy and unsettled with light rain. Max 8C.
☂️ Friday: Light rain and a gentle breeze. Max 9C.
☂️ Weekend: Drizzle and a gentle breeze. Max 9C.
We get our weather from the BBC but do let us know if there’s a local forecast service we should be using.
Photo of the week
The big story: Is the government ignoring the ‘screaming needs’ of West Midlands’ nightlife?
Top line: The West Midlands’ Night Time Economy (NTE) — the umbrella term for pubs, clubs, music venues, and other places that we typically visit in the evening — is struggling. If we want to keep Birmingham partying into the small hours (and keep the many, many jobs the industry supports), something has to give.
A disappointing budget: Jeremy Hunt’s recent Autumn statement prompted criticism from West Mids NTE figures. West Midlands Night Time Economy Advisor and restaurateur Alex Claridge described it as “deeply frustrating” and said “logical intervention from government” was needed. Lyle Bignon, Night Time Economy Ambassador for Birmingham, said frustrations would be reflected at the ballot box in next year’s Mayoral and General Elections.
Context: England’s NTE has a very challenging tax regime — it is the most taxed in Western Europe in fact. Businesses here pay 20% VAT whereas in other Western European countries, the rate hovers around 10-12.5%. But the problems aren’t just fiscal, the NTE also faces the following challenges:
Varying approaches to licensing by different local authorities
A higher cost of living means people are spending less money
High energy costs
A ‘Not In My Back Yard’ (NIMBY) approach by politicians
A reluctance among politicians to engage in practical responses to drug misuse
People perceive the industry as unsafe which puts them off
A very West Midlands issue: In this region, poor public transport also plays a big role. Services can be unreliable, especially after about 8pm. One source says this has a clear negative impact on venues as potential gig-goers are put off because they don’t know if they will be able to get home in time. (And if you live in elsewhere in the West Mids, and want to get home from a late night screening of Napoleon or the Tenacious D: The Spicy Meatball Tour show at the NEC, then good luck: only two trains leave the city after shows — one at 11.05pm and one at 12.15am). Employees working in the NTE also often struggle to travel home from late night shifts.
Data check: 223,329 people are working in Birmingham’s NTE — more people than at any point in the last 10 years. This accounts for all people working in such businesses at any time of the day, not just in the evening. That’s a significant proportion of employed people in the city — 20% to be exact. (Although this is lower than Manchester’s 31%.)
A collaborative approach: The Dispatch caught up with Bignon and Claridge to ask them what needed to change. Bignon said there is a lot of potential in Birmingham’s NTE industry, and the responsibility to improve conditions lies with the council, the WMCA, the police, the West Midlands Growth Company, and the industry itself. He said:
The current feeling amongst the city’s night time economy community is best described as one of major anxiety.
In the current climate, as we contend with a city council that is effectively bankrupt and a police force in special measures, we need leadership, reassurance and investment to allay fears for the future or risk business closures, job losses, lower social cohesion and a poorer national and international standing.
A ‘screaming need’: Claridge pointed the finger of blame squarely at the government. He pressed for meaningful change and engagement with the sector. He said:
It continues to feel like this is a government that overlooks the screaming needs of vast swathes of the Night Time Economy to enable it to survive and thrive. We are going to continue to push for meaningful tax reform to give businesses a fair chance to build and grow. We do not live in a time when the answer is just to pass the punishment onto the consumer. The reality is many consumers are already deeply stressed, deeply concerned, and rightfully so are having to make choices around how they spend their income.
Bottom line: One source told me businesses will inevitably close next year as a result of the pressures facing the NTE in the West Midlands. This means a loss of livelihood for business owners and employees alike — and as we have seen, a huge proportion of our population works in the NTE sector. There is also clearly a lot of pushback coming from within the industry. And two major elections next year are likely to influence whether or not things improve.
Brum in Brief
🚨 A Sikh activist in Birmingham was being threatened by Indian police for months before his sudden death in June, a Guardian investigation has uncovered. Avtar Singh Khanda — said to have died of acute myeloid leukemia — was thought to have been closely associated with the Sikh separatist movement calling for the establishment of an independent Sikh state in India. Associates of Khanda claim West Midlands Police did not thoroughly look into his death, something the force denies. Khanda’s friends, family members, and fellow activists argue a deeper investigation is needed which takes into account “India’s alleged involvement in a global campaign of transnational repression aimed at Sikh separatists”.
👮 46 Legia Warsaw fans have been charged by police following disruption at a UEFA Europa Conference League match between the Polish team and Aston Villa on Thursday. 43 have been charged with a public order offence, two with assaulting police officers, and one with possession of a knife. The Guardian reports: “West Midlands police said five officers, two police dogs and two police horses were injured when missiles were thrown by visiting fans during the Europa Conference League fixture.”
🚑 Five ambulances dedicated to mental health emergency responses have been introduced in the West Midlands. The ambulances will be based in Coventry, Hollymoor, Shrewsbury, Stoke-on-Trent, and Worcester, the BBC reports, while the Black Country is set to launch its own service.
🏉 Rugby league player Kevin Sinfield completed an ultra marathon in Birmingham yesterday to raise money for a Motor Neurone Disease (MND) charity. He has raised £8 million since 2019 to raise awareness of the condition. The BBC reports: ‘"For decades, families have been ravaged and left behind closed doors in many sad, terrible, circumstances and felt ashamed to leave the front door because people just didn't know what MND was," he said.
⚽ Tom Hanks revealed that he supports Aston Villa on The Graham Norton Show on Friday. On discovering the team, he said: “Aston Villa. Well that sounds like a lovely little place. And it turns out it’s in Birmingham, it’s a fabulous place. Villa Park is a magnificent stand to go to.” Hopefully he makes a better celebrity patron than David Cameron, anyway.
Home of the week
This two-bedroom flat in Digbeth has secure underground parking and a private balcony overlooking the city. It has just been reduced to £170,000.
Our media picks
📰 This gorgeous piece in Vittles about Birmingham Dhabas went out at the weekend and is essential reading. Dhabas are roadside restaurants in India, serving local, unfussy but delicious food to fill empty bellies fast. Gurpreet Jivan has treated readers to a feast for the eyes with her sumptuous descriptions of the dhabas that proliferate especially in North West Birmingham.“The pakora khadi is a delight: a thick yellow sauce made sour from yoghurt and pungent from methi (fenugreek leaves), curry leaves and cumin seeds, it leaves a coating around your mouth that can only be soothed by the soft, fried pakora sunken at the bottom.”
🎧 I often check out the History West Midlands podcast and this episode with local historian Carl Chinn gets into the story of the real Peaky Blinders gang which has become so associated with our region. Whether you are a fan of the TV show or not, it’s a fascinating bit of social history and Chinn — who is descended from a Peaky Blinder — contextualises the violence.
📻 Stuart Large is an ex-Birmingham Mail and Post journalist specialising in music, art, and social history. His podcast Soul Unlimited -How Barry White Changed Music charts the career of the iconic soul artist. Large weaves in previously unheard interviews with the legend himself as well as commentary from recognisable Midlands voices including journalist Adrian Goldberg and folk singer and songwriter Pete Williams.
Things to do
🌞 Empowered community group Civic Square is hosting an event on solar power and how it can be harnessed for the collective good of the neighbourhood. 6pm-8pm.
Symphony Hall is screening Love Actually with a live orchestra playing scores by Craig Armstrong. The show starts at 7.30pm. Tickets from £33.50.
💍 For any aspiring jewellers, the British Academy of Jewelry is holding an open day on Wednesday. You can chat with students and staff, take a tour, and join in a workshop to get a feel for the school. 10.30am-noon.
🎤 Lovers Rock legend Carroll Thompson will perform at The Jam House on Wednesday at 7pm. Tickets cost £22.
🗣️ Meet new people and practice speaking another tongue at the Birmingham Language Exchange’s weekly get-together. 7pm at The Good Intent.
🎭 For readers with little ones, the Rep’s Christmas production of Little Red Riding Hood opens on Thursday and is suitable for kids aged three to six.