Comment: Birmingham businesses must step up or risk losing what makes city centre great

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Do as I say, not as I do.

We all heard this phrase from our parents when we were kids. The premise is simple – your parents told you to do one thing and then did something completely different themselves.

And this was considered acceptable. Sorry parents, but poor leadership skills. Covid-19 has decimated our leisure and hospitality sectors and they desperately need the help of the general public.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ is a great initiative but it really only scratches the surface.

The professional sector in the city can play such an important role in keeping this culture alive.

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While the local high street has seen a resurgence in the past four months, the city centres are in danger of fading.

My location of choice, because it’s where I work, is Birmingham. The city centre here is pretty quiet (safe!) and lifeless. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The large firms around the city have 1000s of employees – 35,000 are based in the Colmore Business District alone.

But the leaders of these firms are in no rush to return which severely limits the re-launch strategy of the bars and restaurants, not to mention other ‘personal’ businesses like hairdressers, nail bars, barbers, independent gift shops, locksmiths….. the list goes on.

The leaders of these firms have a duty of care towards their employees but they also have a civic duty to the culture and life of the city that surrounds and supports their offices.

If they stay away too long, that life will have disappeared. The benefits of working for a city centre firm will evaporate…no bars to visit after work, no restaurants open for lunchtime, no vibrancy and hubbub on the streets.

There has been much discussion around this topic.

Leaders everywhere are vocally supportive of their local economies but they aren’t walking the walk. (I caveat this with the fact that a very small number are).

These pavements in Colmore Row would normally be teeming with office workers
These pavements in Colmore Row would normally be teeming with office workers

While health and safety is a reasonable foundation for proper preparation of offices and different ways of managing teams, it must not be an easy excuse to avoid the city altogether.

The return to the city cannot be inconvenient to leaders, whether or not they worked in the office previously.

We need leadership that leads by example. You must walk the walk.

You must drive the change you want to see and, when it comes down to it, is that change hiding in your homes for the rest of your days?

I don’t think it is but if you keep hidden away, there will be nothing left out there. Staying at home is no more flexible a policy than having to be in the office for static hours.

Flexibility is not about avoiding the office, it is a cultural approach to learning how your firm can support its individuals and its teams.

Marooning everyone at home is lazy and avoids the issue. When the tide changes and the leaders decide that home-working doesn’t suit anymore because the firm’s culture has now dissipated, what will be left to attract the best talent to your firm, in the wasteland that is the forgotten city?

This is my call to you, the leaders of our cities. Safely, and securely, bring your teams back in a way that provides life balance and supports the culture we all depend upon.

Leaders: it’s not OK to sit in your ivory barn conversions and dictate the return to your teams without your presence.

You need to lead the way. It’s literally in your job description.

For the avoidance of doubt, my team at FleetMilne is back in the office, safely spaced out, travelling flexibly to suit, working from home on Fridays and well and truly supporting the local economy.

I am personally doing a very good job on the final item and I am in the office up to three days each week.

Nicola Fleet-Milne is chairwoman of Birmingham’s Colmore Business Improvement District and founder of city centre-based estate agency FleetMilne


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