Birmingham has long had an image problem.
But the city - just under 120 miles north-west of London, with a population of 1,001,000 - has long outgrown the stereotypes of ugly concrete architecture and vowel-mangling accents to become one of the country's most vibrant and multicultural urban centres.
Cushman & Wakefield's annual 'city monitor' report recently concluded that Birmingham was the best city for business in the UK outside London. It was 19th in Europe, only two places lower than Stockholm and just above Geneva.
It is clear that the city can now offer just as good a quality of life as any other regional centre
In the report Birmingham came top for new headquarters and back office functions, availability of office space, and cost and availability of car parking.
Returned to pedestrians
It is clearly not just a place for big business, either. Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency for the wider conurbation, has an £8m venture capital co-investment fund to assist early stage businesses with growth potential, known as the Advantage Early Growth Fund.
'Rebirth' is the word most often used to describe Birmingham's transformation over the past decade, but in this case, it is not an exaggeration. The 'concrete collar' - the raised dual-carriageway ringroad that used to circle the city centre - has been removed.
Meanwhile, the city's public spaces have been returned to pedestrians, and its once-abandoned canalsides are once again contributing significantly to the economy, albeit through bars, restaurants and other recreational venues, rather than the transport of freight. The city even has two Michelin-starred restaurants, while in 2002 the Commision for Architecture and the Built Environment labelled New Street the fourth most attractive street in Britain.
Most importantly, the most visible vestige of the city's 1960s reconstruction - the monolithic Bull Ring shopping centre - was demolished in 2000.
Its £235m successor opened in September 2003, bringing 450,000 sq ft of retail space to the city, alongside a landmark Selfridges store designed by architects Future Systems. Three years earlier the Mailbox development by the canalside, comprising boutiques, designer shops, restaurants and bars, brought a bit of glamour to the city.
The new developments saw Birmingham leap from 13th to 3rd in Experian's ranking of the most important retail centres in the country, behind only London's West End and Glasgow.
It is clear that the city can now offer just as good a quality of life as any other regional centre. Many might still find that hard to believe, especially when the first thing visitors arriving by train or coach see are the dilapidated train and coach stations. First impressions count of course, which is why new stations for both modes of transport are in the pipeline.
Above UK average
In business terms, too, the city is no longer just a magnet for metal-bashers. While manufacturing still plays an important role, it tends to be of the more hi-tech, value-added variety.
The city's services sector has now become equally important - companies in business and professional services now employ over 100,000 people, a number expected to grow by 20,000 over the next decade.
The annual economic output per head in the city is £17,201 - above the UK average of £16,485.
According to inward investment agency Locate in Birmingham, the city now has the largest number of under-16s in the entire European Union. No other urban centre, whether east or west of the old Iron Curtain, has more young people.
Largely because Manchester has tended to get more coverage in most spheres in the national media, people often forget that Birmingham is the second largest city in England. There are 2.6m people if you take the wider conurbation as a whole.
Locate's manager Mike Loftus is bullish about the Second City's merits as a place to do business.
"The obvious one is location. If you are looking to service clients in a UK-wide market, the location is Birmingham. Its obvious centrality is enhanced by accessibility, by road, rail and air."
"Our proximity to London is also very important. We have all the advantages of being only an hour and a bit away from the capital, but with a totally different cost base and stress base."
The city's three universities are also vital, producing 18,000 graduates per year - providing a huge resource for those looking to add to their employee base.
The physical infrastructure to attract relocating businesses is also now in place. Loftus says that the West Midlands region is the only in the UK with 100% broadband accessibility, while the council will make the entire city core a wi-fi zone over the next few years.
"In the city centre we have two of the best pieces of speculative office space being built anywhere in the country," adds Loftus, "the 300,000 sq ft Colmore Plaza, being built by Abstract Land, and the 102,000 sq ft Calthorpe House in Edgbaston."
Indeed, there is some 1.9m sq ft of speculative office space on the market in Birmingham at the moment, while figures from Jones Lang LaSalle indicate that rents for prime space in the city stand at around £30 per sq ft, substantially less than in London.
Property prices in the city and its hinterland are attractive to refugees from the south-east, too. The average house costs just £157.495, although detached houses are relatively expensive at £308,757 - a number inflated by very desirable residential areas such as Sutton Coldfield and Edgbaston.
The city is also within easy commuting distance of some of England's most beautiful countryside, including the Cotswolds, Shakespeare's Country and the Shropshire Hills - although its centre now offers a broad range of flats and apartments for those who prefer the urban life.
Birmingham was at the hub of the industrial revolution in the UK, and after a period of post-industrial stagnation has reinvented itself. Not only is it relevant again, but having added modernity and dynamism to its affordability and centrality, it is now once again at the forefront of the economy.
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