Hope and scepticism as Birmingham builds for Commonwealth Games

Looking out across a sea of cranes, the leader of Birmingham city council reflects on the rapid change to the landscape of Perry Barr, the area of the city that will host the Commonwealth Games in 2022.

“We have to make the most of this. This is a deprived community in this part of Birmingham, so getting on for three-quarters of a billion pounds of investments into this area should make it the envy of towns and cities up and down the country,” said Ian Ward as he launched a consultation on a masterplan for the area, which he hopes will guide its development over the next 20 years and determine the legacy of the games.

Ideas include a museum of athletics, as well as more shops and leisure space to encourage more visitors to the area. “The games is the catalyst for all of this. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Perry Barr and the people who live here. And we very much want the plan to be owned by the people who live in this community,” he said.

But the project has faced serious setbacks and accusations of overspending, and with the Olympic Games in Tokyo continuing to be fraught with Covid-related problems, there are doubts about what next year’s Commonwealth Games will look like.

“I think world vaccination will really have an effect on the way [the Commonwealth Games] is done,” said Khalid Mahmood, the Labour MP for the area. “We need to look at that properly because of what has happened with the current Olympic Games. The Commonwealth Games will not work if we don’t have proper vaccination across the world, because we’ve got the Delta virus at the moment, God knows what letter we’ll have by next year.”

Ian Ward, the leader of Birmingham city council
Ian Ward, the leader of Birmingham city council: ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Perry Barr.’ Photograph: Andrew Fox/The Guardian

Henrietta Brealey, the chief executive of Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, said Covid made the Games even more important for the city than when it initially bid for them in 2017.

“If anything, we need the Games more than ever to restore confidence in the local visitor economy, whether it’s bringing in domestic tourists or international tourists as the world allows at the time,” she said, adding a recent survey carried out by the chamber found 93% of about 400 businesses thought the Games would have a positive impact on the city region in the short term.

Mahmood is confident they will provide a boost and residents will see the benefits in the long run, although says some of the building work has caused upset among residents – particularly the demolition of a flyover that has created traffic problems.

Other controversies include scrapping the athletes’ village for the area, supposedly due to escalating costs and delays caused by Covid, meaning competitors will instead stay in university accommodation in another part of Birmingham and the partially built blocks will become housing.

The council also spent almost £16m moving a bus depot 300 metres to make way for athletes’ facilities that are no longer needed, a decision condemned by the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, in the House of Commons. “It was definitely the right decision,” said Ward, adding the masterplan now suggested turning the site into a marketplace.

Others are not so sure the Games will do much to help the people of Perry Barr and the surrounding wards.

“It’s an exciting thing to be happening, but it’s not really relevant to a lot of local people to be honest. Most people go, meh, doesn’t mean much to us,” said Helga Edström, a retired civil servant and partner of Birchfield Big Local volunteer group, which works in the area. “But we are suffering from the horrendous traffic problems and noise and the construction, it’s making people quite grumpy.”

She has signed up for one of the 13,000 volunteering roles being created for the Games, along with a number of paid jobs, but realises she is in a privileged position to be able to. “Analysis of Games volunteers over the last 40 years shows it is always the ‘worried well’ white middle-classes that volunteer because they can afford to do so,” she said.

And she said that, while welcomed, the Perry Barr masterplan was seen as very “aspirational” and there was scepticism among residents about what could be delivered, as well as whether the Games would have the same impact in a Covid landscape. “We don’t want it to seem like we don’t want the Games because actually it’s going be quite exciting, seeing the area on the TV and everything, but at the moment for local residents here it seems like a nuisance rather than an opportunity.”

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