'We just don't want to be front and centre of it'
Plus: Get into Blue Nose Day
Good morning readers and welcome to Friday’s Dispatch.
Our Brum in Brief today includes the welcome news that Network Rail has started the process of implementing a major rail revamp to make journeys faster and more frequent. There are also some bargain books and a festive light show in our recommendations.
After that, a little follow-up on our recent story about roads.
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Brum in Brief
🚨 70 firefighters tackled a huge blaze in an empty shop in Lozells early yesterday evening. Soho Hill was closed in both directions and the public was urged to avoid the area. West Midlands Ambulance Service was also at the scene, the BBC reports.
💡 Household energy prices are set to rise in January with the latest price cap announced yesterday. Ofgem has said a typical gas and electric bill will go up from £1,834 to £1,928, a rise of £94 or 5%, prompting concerns about already struggling residents. Friends of the Earth campaigner Shaz Rahman, who lives in Longbridge and works as a technical advisor for E.On on energy efficiency projects, said on Saturday: “People are concerned their bills aren’t coming down. Even though they’re much higher than 2019 levels, there’s no extra support this year.”
🚉 The Midlands is one step closer to getting a major rail network upgrade to make connections faster and more frequent. This includes building the Bordesley chords — including a link Birmingham Moor Street with the south west and Wales, and the Wast Midlands. Network Rail has invited contractors to express interest in bidding to complete the £1.4 billion works ahead of a formal invitation to tender in February 2024.
🧸 Birmingham City FC and Birmingham Children’s Trust have launched a Christmas campaign to give a present to every young person supported by the Trust. 11,000 presents will be handed out by players from the men’s and women’s teams. Monday 18 December’s match against Leicester City is now Blue Nose Day and noses will be available to buy for £3. You can also click here to support.
🕮 Not an exclusively West Midlands recommendation, forgive me, but I noticed the publisher Fitzcarraldo has a 25% sale off everything. Books can be really expensive and often not something to prioritise buying with sky-high energy bills and the like, so I thought I’d give Dispatch readers a heads up. Fitzcarraldo publishes Jeremy Cooper’s Bolt from the Blue, a novel about a young woman who moves from Birmingham to London. It charts her relationship with the mother she leaves behind over letters, postcards, and emails.
✨ The Botanical Gardens winter lights show opens on Saturday with an illuminated trail through the gardens’ historic grounds. Their website says: “Immerse yourself in our mesmerising almost mile-long trail, with stunning lighting elements and fabulous light play, all set to music.” Hot drinks, toasted marshmallows, and mulled wine are available. Tickets must be booked in advance.
🚘 The role of cars in our city is a hotly debated topic right now with some pushing for measures to reduce air pollution and improve public health, and others critical of the infrastructural changes being imposed. Prominent voices on the former side of that conversation will gather for a panel next Wednesday at The Exchange from 7-9pm. There are a few tickets left - you can email The Lunar Society to get one.
An update on those ads…
On Wednesday we published a piece that wondered who was behind the curious social media ads asking people to sign a petition to ‘Protect Birmingham Roads’. The linked website was elusive. Here’s a brief recap of the predicament facing the city:
A £2.7 billion — £50.3m per year — Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contract was established to maintain Birmingham roads in 2010.
Birmingham Highways Limited (BHL) was set up to manage the contract and agreed a deal with Amey to carry out the work on behalf of Birmingham City Council (BCC).
Amey’s involvement came to an end in 2019 after a fallout with BCC.
In 2020, BHL contracted Kier Highways on an interim basis, a deal which is due to end on 31 January.
I spoke with someone from Protect Birmingham Roads who confirmed Birmingham Highways Limited (BHL) is behind the ads. They added that Kier Highways is the preferred bidder to take on the long-term work.
The issue is, if Whitehall doesn’t formally award the contract by the end of January, the PFI will effectively be terminated, leaving BCC to find the money to fix our roads. And as we all know, BCC isn’t exactly rolling in it right now.
I asked why the website isn’t clear about who is behind the campaign. The BHL spokesperson said:
“We're proud to say that we are leading the campaign, but we just don't want to be front and centre of it because we think what's actually happening is more important than who is running it.”
Of course, BHL’s shareholders and Kier Highways have a pretty strong financial incentive for the PFI to continue. But the ads and website are highlighting the impact on residents: “Potholes will proliferate, accident and traffic hot spots may remain un-addressed, and congestion will continue to get worse impacting air quality”.
If central government pulls the plug on the PFI, Birmingham will instead receive a grant for local highways maintenance, calculated by the national formula. But another source has told me this would be nowhere near £50 million a year.
There is also Rishi Sunak’s money to fix the “scourge of potholes” across the country which was reallocated from the scrapped second leg of HS2. The West Midlands will get £2.2bn but Birmingham is excluded because we already have the PFI. Or maybe we don’t. We simply don’t know. For now, we are in limbo, and the clock is ticking.