Nottingham Professional Services asked me for my views on what can be done to improve the status and prospects of Nottingham.
Here is some of what I said.
How has Nottingham changed during your time here?
There have been some fantastic changes. Heavy investment in improved transport infrastructure has paid off. The £350m tram speaks for itself and £170m invested in the widening of the A453 has made a huge difference. How on earth did it take so long to do something so obviously necessary as widening the A453 and how short-sighted of some that the proposed tram line to Gamston was not built. The all-new schools and leisure centres are also noteworthy.
The role of the universities and the positive impact of their attracting students to Nottingham from all over the world should not be under-estimated. We need more graduates to stay in the city so we need to give them plenty of positive reasons to stay such as properly-fulfilling careers in high-value jobs and fabulous work-life balance.
I think the wave of migration from eastern Europe to Nottingham has been a real positive; a strong dose of added diversity just when we needed it. It is fantastic that so many have seen the good in the city and chosen to make it their home for the long term. I think Nottingham getting a deserved reputation as a great pace to raise a family could really boost our efforts to sell ourselves.
But I don’t think enough has changed. Not enough to take the city to the level it could be at. Too many people are a bit backward-looking and lack a perspective gained from seeing enough of just how well things are done elsewhere.
The biggest challenges lie in the future and we need to act fast and in a more joined-up way if Nottingham is to recover ground already lost even to Derby and Leicester and especially to some other UK cities such as Leeds, once a direct competitor but now seen as streets ahead.
What are the biggest challenges we face as city compared to our rivals?
We need to redefine who our rivals are. It’s not about staying ‘head and shoulders’ above Derby and Leicester, especially when they have closed the gap in recent years. We need to view them as our allies. Even added together the three city economies do not amount to much in global terms. It makes sense to abandon historic rivalries – that most young people or newcomers to Nottingham do not recognise or understand – and to work together attracting investment, trade, and most importantly jobs, to the East Midlands.
We also need to abandon a somewhat small-town mentality that has resulted too often in Nottingham settling for second best and celebrating mediocrity. There is no doubt that the city not having a single local authority for the whole conurbation, and the confused leadership that comes with that, has contributed to this and has held the city back. That has to change. And fast.
Aside from the biggest cities in the UK and a number of really attractive cities in Europe the rivals I would say we most need to keep an eye on are places like Milton Keynes and Coventry.
Coventry has a population of only 270,000, but it punches above its weight. It helps that Birmingham is next door and that HS2 will be really close by but it is only an hour from London now. They have a confident and relaxed leadership and really strong partnerships that helped them succeed in becoming UK City of Culture for 2021 and as part of Birmingham’s Commonwealth Games bid. In Andy Street, Mayor for all of the West Midlands, not just Birmingham, they have a powerful ambassador with tip-top connections.
Milton Keynes doesn’t deserve the jokey reputation it has. It’s well-designed, clean and really well located. There is no need for HS2, it’s already just 32 minutes from Euston (until 3am!). People who live there love it. And it is attracting employers. It has its ambitious city-story straight and real plans to double its population to 500,000 by 2050. That’s not messing about.
If you had a blank canvas, what would you like to see happen in the next 12 months?
It’s clear we need to get our act together and I think the City Council has grasped the nettle with recent plans to address the notion that Nottingham may be as they say, “falling behind the curve”. I am pleased to have been asked to join a city centre strategy group but, as a feminist, I do think the group could be a bit more representative.
It must not just be a talking shop, though I’m reminded that after many years of nothing much happening it was a similar large conversation that kick-started the plans for Nottingham Castle that are now bearing fruit. So watch this space.
The elephant in the room is HS2. No imagining of Nottingham’s future can fail to take it into account. It will require a re-think of Nottingham and Derby city centres as Toton becomes the high-speed heart of a twin-city metro economy.
I imagine a mini Canary Wharf, home to businesses serving a single new economy stretching from York to Birmingham via Leeds, Sheffield and Nottingham. There could be a new university campus. Why not a Guggenheim? Or Disney?
My vision may not be the right one, but it is important that we have a vision that we can all buy into soon. UK Central, the HS2 location near Solihull, is already one of the country’s prime investment destinations – in part because it has a compelling narrative and some great images. All we have for Toton is an artist’s impression of a car park, so it is great news that the government is funding the Midlands Engine to start work on a vision for Toton.
Other than that, the next 12 months for Nottingham are all about leadership. There is a City Council election next May and the County Council is busy working out which version of a ‘super-council’ it might be able to create. There is no time to waste so we need deep leadership right now. We need good numbers of people taking responsibility for their bit of Nottingham, for their sector, or profession, going beyond their own job or day to day business to tell a shared, consistent and positive story. Because they care about Nottingham and where it’s heading next.