Aisha Iqbal: Leeds and Birmingham - big cities united by common ambition

TALE OF TWO CITIES: The Leeds and Birmingham syklines.
TALE OF TWO CITIES: The Leeds and Birmingham syklines.
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Eagle eyed readers will have spotted that I’ve not been around for a while. That’s because I spent the bulk of the last four months working in Birmingham, aka the UK’s second city, a tag the city itself seems to have embraced.

There’s nothing like a bit of distance from home to give a girl a bit of perspective.

And I certainly gained plenty about the good, the bad and the ugly of our own wonderful Leeds while I was away.

The first think I learnt, I guess, was how much we often take our regional identities for granted, or indeed how much we underestimate their importance in our lives.

I’m an adopted Leeds lass, having grown up in the South East, but have now lived half of my life in Yorkshire.

The sense of alien-ness I felt on my arrival in ‘Brum’ is something I never felt before, or maybe I did, but I was too young and green gilled at the time to be overly aware of it.

A key moment came when I boarded a bus for the first time and asked for a day rider ticket and the driver - in a thick Black Country accent - offered me a ‘die syver’. Take a moment. You’ll get there. I did, eventually.

It was a charmingly revelatory moment for me on many levels. As was my sudden ability to spout Yorkshire-isms in every sentence, phrases that I didn’t even know I knew!

Public transport is something I bang on about often in this column, and my Midlands interlude certainly gave me more food for thought on that issue.

Birmingham is part of a devolved West Midlands region, with an affable Conservative elected mayor who was previously the managing director of John Lewis.

While we trundle along in our search for the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ panacea, it seems that the ‘Midlands Engine’ is motoring at a slightly better pace. The tram system seems seamlessly integrated into the city centre landscape, with routes as far as Wolverhampton and a second phase development on the horizon . The buses, from my experience, run effectively. So they do seem to have got that bit right. And they have recently bagged a £350m pledge from Government to boost house building in the region.

But before our transport and devo envy gets the better of us, a few observations. For all its shiny trams, I did find Birmingham city centre itself rather underwhelming, and at times indeed depressing.

The New Street station/Grand Central development is great, it has to be said. But where are the big shiny new retail centres? I had the distinct sense of being stuck in a time warp, having last visited the flagship Bullring shopping centre more than a decade ago. There were just way too many scruffy and/.or empty shop units in many parts of what should be the beating heart of the city.

Compare that with Leeds’s fantastic, vibrant Victoria Gate and Trinity Leeds developments, and the exciting emerging cultural quarter around the Playhouse. When it comes to regeneration, we are winning hands down. Not that it’s a competition. Well, it is a bit.

Another thing that disturbed me greatly was the sheer number of beggars and rough sleepers I encountered during my time in Birmingham.

On one walk from the railway station to my lodgings (just five minutes) I was directly approached by five people for spare change. . While we in Leeds certainly haven’t found the perfect solution to homelessness, our approach certainly seems to be working better than some.

However one thing Birmingham has definitely got right is the redevelopment of its canalside, which was a permanently buzzing hive of activity during my visits. Some better connectivity in Leeds city centre would do wonders for the waterside boom.

I developed a deep affinity for Birmingham and its people during my stay, they were as warm and welcoming on the whole as folk at home.

They are also hard working, ambitious, proud of their city but realistic about where it could do better.

As Brexit looms, and the devolution dramas continue, will our sense of regional identity become more acute, I wonder? And will that mean increased competition between cities to be the best?

Whatever happens, I have a renewed sense of the importance of city identity - and a renewed love of Leeds. We have a long way to go to achieve our potential, but we are getting there. Let’s keep the faith and get there together.