November 18, 2009

What's With the Obsession About Big?

Pete Ashton has posted a great entry recently to his blog, wondering whether Birmingham City Council has an obsession with big, grand, look-at-how-great-we-are events that seem more about showing off to the rest of the country (and world, if the world happens to care) and engaging in woolly activities like "improving the brand" than it is about putting on enjoyable and great events for the population. He asks why it has to be about the big, major initiatives and why it can't celebrate more smaller events - something that might, paradoxically, differentiate the city more than another me-too big lighting switch on.

Reading Pete's article, it seemed to me that you could switch some of the names and some of the projects (although thankfully I don't think we've had a similar failure with people getting injured) and it could easily be about Liverpool. There's a similar desire for big projects that swallow up millions of pounds of funding and promise grand regeneration, prosperity and job targets in the middle distance. It all makes for great headlines in the Echo, but does it really achieve much more than that?

I suppose it depends on whether you think that the way to improve the city is through a top-down or bottom-up approach.

From my (admittedly somewhere near the bottom) perspective, the top-down style seems to provide good media soundbites and short-term bragging rights, but at the expense of much of the money trickling down the lowest level and a high risk of failure. Liverpool One isn't perfect but is about as well executed as a big shopping mall project could be, but the Innovation Park seems to be a grand project casting around for a purpose still.

Maybe the problem is with a focus on trying to attract prosperity from outside the city, rather than nurturing the potential of the people within it? Do we have to create these grand schemes in order to successfully bid for regeneration funding? Are we building big science parks and office complexes with a view to attracting big companies to relocate to Liverpool and bring their jobs with them? I don't know; it would explain things better if that's true.

Is that how successful cities operate? "Move here and we'll give you loads of handouts". I'm not sure I'd want to live in a city populated by people who are only around because they were paid to be here. I think it's better to take a longer-term approach and help the people already in the city, who want to be in the city, to create interesting and new businesses. Some of them will fail, but some of them won't, and I don't think it's immediately obvious beforehand which are which. We should be encouraging all of them, and helping people dust themselves down if things do go wrong. That way we'll end up with a much more resilient mix of businesses and who knows, maybe the next Meccano or White Star Lines or Littlewoods...


Posted by Adrian at November 18, 2009 09:47 PM | TrackBack

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