Boldly going where Birmingham has never gone before

By Cllr Ian Ward | 19 July 2022

We’re now just one week away from the biggest event to ever be staged in the history of Birmingham and the wider West Midlands.

The Commonwealth Games will see us host 6,500 athletes and officials from 72 competing nations and territories for 11 days of thrilling sporting action.

But it is more than that. The Games represent a direct investment of £778m into the region, some of which is part of almost £1bn of wider regeneration in our proud host city that the event has been the catalyst for.

It is going to offer us a shop window to a global audience of 1.5bn people, it will help bring people together and gives us an opportunity to show off the very best of a bold, diverse and vibrant city on the cusp of a golden decade of prosperity and opportunity.

From that summary alone, you can understand why I have so passionately championed Birmingham’s cause as host city.

It goes back to 2002, when I was fortunate enough to attend the Manchester Commonwealth Games.

It is clear the Games took Manchester’s rebirth onto another level and I left convinced Birmingham could benefit in the same way.

In the years after, we underlined Birmingham’s credentials, staging many major events including two World Indoor Athletics Championships, test match cricket, Rugby World Cup fixtures and international badminton.

But I kept thinking about Manchester. A multi-sport event like the Commonwealth Games would bring all of the economic benefits those other events regularly provide but supercharge the impact on a city-wide level.

By 2016 the time was right to raise our hand for the 2026 Games.

Then, a few months later, Durban relinquished the right to host the 2022 Games. The Government made it clear it would support a bid from a UK city, but it had to be for 2022, not 2026.

Regardless of the year, the strengths of our bid were constant. Firstly, we had the track record for hosting major events. Secondly, we have excellent infrastructure. A Commonwealth Games could be staged here, with 95% of venues already built.

The only projects we needed to deliver were an aquatics centre (a stunning facility in neighbouring Sandwell, which will be an asset of regional and national importance) and a revamp of the dated Alexander Stadium which will host the athletics and opening and closing ceremonies for Birmingham 2022. In short, we were a proven and low-risk candidate city.

Thirdly, we are a young, diverse and welcoming city. Approximately 40% of Brummies are aged under 30 and people from every Commonwealth nation can be found here. We are a City of Sanctuary and have always welcomed people from around the world when they arrive and settle in our city.

Combined, our proposition was compelling and when the Government had to make a choice between Birmingham or Liverpool for the UK’s candidate city, we were chosen.

Negotiations followed with the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF), which then announced us as host city with just over four years to go in December 2017.

I use the word ‘just’ because a Games host normally has the luxury of seven years to plan and prepare.

Despite this, and thanks to our bid strengths, we set about the task of working with partners at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Commonwealth Games England, the CGF and the West Midlands Combined Authority to plan and prepare.

Each partner was assigned a delivery workstream, the council tasked with overseeing capital infrastructure.

As well as sporting facilities, this included athlete accommodation in the form of a Games Village.

We identified a site near the Alexander Stadium and set to work, achieving planning permission 12 months after the Games were awarded – a remarkable outcome given such a process typically takes twice that long.

A few months later, construction work started and things continued to progress. But then came the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

As far as the construction process was concerned, we had some tough decisions to take.

Did we carry on and try to achieve delivery for the Games? Or, did we move to an alternative option given our assessments were showing there was a reduced confidence in delivery of the new housing?

The collaborative nature of the Games partnership, and the fact we are blessed with some excellent facilities across the West Midlands, meant we were able to pivot and use alternative accommodation at the University of Birmingham, the University of Warwick and hotels at the NEC.

A lot has been said about this decision, but it was absolutely the right call. It meant we had a solution for athletes and could focus on delivering the Perry Barr Residential Scheme, going straight to its legacy use as homes for people of the city.

Ultimately, the only change of substance was that athletes from the Commonwealth would not be the first (temporary) tenants of the new housing.

When the decision was taken in the summer of 2020, we were still two years away from the Games, but who could have envisaged the pandemic would continue to disrupt society until 2022?

An early decision on the village certainly prevented severe headaches closer to the Games.

The decision has been subsequently validated by the fact the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics will utilise student accommodation in a similar way, and the Victoria 2026 Commonwealth Games will be using a multi-site village model.

We have been at the forefront of change that will see many future multi-sport Games take a more sustainable approach to how they deliver key facilities – something we can take away as one of our legacies to the world of sport.

Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the refurbishment of the Alexander Stadium, our other key infrastructure project, has been delivered on budget and on schedule.

Given the circumstances, it’s a remarkable achievement and we should never lose focus of the fact it was local government, in the shape of Birmingham City Council as stadium project lead, that achieved this.

Although this is all evidence of the important role the council has played in what, at times, has been a complicated partnership involving organisations operating at a local, regional, national and international level, we are clear we need to show how the Games are relevant to people in Birmingham.

It’s public money that has been put up for this event, so as the host city, we were clear from the outset that community benefit had to be hardwired into everything we’ve done.

When it comes to our purchasing power, through our capital projects we have created or safeguarded almost 900 jobs, provided 105 apprenticeships and upskilled almost 1,700 people. And that’s before you factor in social value activity with local communities, including 3,300 volunteer hours.

More broadly, Games contracts worth more than £300m are set to benefit local or regional suppliers.

Leading the bid campaign back in 2017 was Birmingham City Council showing how it was seeking to level up, well before that phrase entered the political vocabulary.

The council has also provided an extra £6m, beyond its core Games budget contribution of £184m, to fund legacy activity.

Of this, £2m has been shared amongs 107 community arts organisations through our Creative City scheme. This has enabled history to be made as Festival 2022 is the first Games cultural programme to formally have a community-led strand.

Given the way in which the arts have been impacted during two years of lockdowns, we hope this helps kickstart funded groups, so they go from strength to strength in future.

A further £2m was allocated across all 69 of the city’s wards for Celebrating Communities, a small grants scheme to help people embrace the Games.

Not every area has a Games venue or Festival 2022 activity, so we wanted to take the Games to the people, and there is a mixture of celebrations, sporting and community activity being staged thanks to this funding.

We made sure people from each ward were part of the decision-making, and the early results from funded projects show people are keen to make the Games relevant to them, wherever they are.

Ensuring no stone is left unturned, the remaining £2m has been split between projects designed to improve community cohesion, health and wellbeing as well as adding council funding to Bring the Power – the official Games youth programme.

Underpinning everything Games-related is a cross-partner legacy plan, and as a council we have produced our own document, to help address long-term challenges the city faces in the weeks, months and years after the Commonwealth Sport movement starts looking towards Victoria 2026.

With one week to go, there is plenty to reflect on and be proud of in terms of the role local government has played in delivering this spectacular event.

We’re ready to show what it means when we say Be Bold, Be Birmingham.

Cllr Ian Ward is leader of Birmingham City Council


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