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Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:24 pm on 3rd February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour 4:24 pm, 3rd February 2020

My Lords, I too welcome the Bill; it is a great day for Birmingham to have been selected to organise the Commonwealth Games, which will be the biggest sporting event we have ever had. It goes wider than simply sport, because it is a great opportunity for Birmingham and the West Midlands to show themselves at their best, and there will be a wealth of opportunity in terms of business, culture, volunteering, physical activity, and jobs that go with having the Commonwealth Games. I will come back to culture in a moment; in that regard I declare my patronage of both the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

A number of noble Lords have already mentioned some of the sports we will see. I particularly welcome wheelchair basketball, as well as the inclusion of women’s cricket for the first time. That is fantastic for the sport itself but also as an opportunity to bring many more communities to watch from the city itself, so it is an important decision.

Clearly, the Games will leave a lasting legacy—we hope so—certainly in terms of physical infrastructure, and, we hope, transport. Both my noble friends Lady Crawley and Lord Snape mentioned New Street station. That is not a small issue. A magnificent retail outlet was built on top of New Street station, and it is very successful; it has John Lewis, lots of restaurants, and it is used by many people. However, to make it work financially, the station itself has simply been squeezed into four little bits of the huge atrium. I am glad that my noble friends and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, owned up to the fact that it is impossible to find your way round. I worry that when visitors come, they too will find it impossible to find a way out. It is just bizarre that both taxi ranks are out in the open, so that if you are waiting for a taxi and it is raining, there is no protection at all. To be honest, it seems quite extraordinary that we now have had the station for a couple of years, if not more, and no solution has been found. I will come back with an amendment on this in Committee, because we need some answers about how New Street station will operate.

My noble friend Lord Snape, who knows railways like no one else, did not mention—I do not know whether he forgot or did not think it was important enough—that one of the advantages of having the Commonwealth Games is to enable investment in our transport infrastructure. We are seeing the extension of the tram system up Broad Street into the Hagley Road, and the reopening of the New Street to Kings Norton railway line, including of course the opening of Kings Heath station. I ask the Government to reassure me—as I did the last time we debated this—that by the time the Commonwealth Games start, Kings Heath station will be truly up and running.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, and the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, made some important points about modern slavery, and there is good progress to report. We have already seen good work on the social value charter, and on accessibility and sustainability. I truly believe that the organisers have got the message that has been given in our previous debates and again today. If we can pull off a Games which really grips these issues, we will learn important lessons that we can feed in to the future.

Challenges remain, and I will mention three. First, on finance, the funding of the Games is complex. It certainly includes a substantial contribution for commercial revenues, and the budget is split 75%/25% between central government and Birmingham City Council and its partners. However, the funding for the city remains a challenge.

Birmingham City Council’s funding is very challenging. Noble Lords will have seen the analysis published last week by the Local Government Association showing the impact of the Government’s proposed review of the local government funding formula, which showed that Birmingham would lose, if that formula was adopted, £48 million a year—the largest loss of any local authority in the country. Can the Minister update us on that, because it is extremely relevant to the city council’s ability to find its contribution to the fund?

That financial challenge is one reason why Birmingham City Council has been very interested in a tourist levy to help pay some of the cost. It has already reviewed but discounted the possibility of a volunteer system because of its unworkability. The Core Cities UK group, which brings together lots of cities in the UK, is in favour of such a levy, and Scotland is close to implementing it. Edinburgh City Council has conducted a consultation, which showed high levels of support for such a levy, with 85% of respondents backing it.

We debated this on the previous Bill. All I ask the Minister at this stage is whether a pilot could be adopted to, first, provide funds to help with the cost of the Games and, secondly, to test out how it will work in practice, to look at the impact on hotel costs, user charges and the like. I know that this decision rests with the Treasury, rather than with her department, but I hope that she will at least open the door to a discussion about the feasibility of such a prospect.

Tourism levies go beyond the Commonwealth Games, of course. Birmingham has an amazing cultural scene. Just think of the CBSO, the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, the Birmingham Opera Company, the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the Ikon Gallery, and the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, to mention just a few.

The city council has been a wonderful supporter of the arts in the past. A strategic decision was taken in the 1980s and 1990s that regeneration would come partly through regenerating our arts, and it has been wonderfully successful in that. I have no doubt that, when we have the Commonwealth Games, those arts organisations will be providing fantastic entertainment to our visitors, but the precariousness of the city council’s funding position has meant that resources have been cut back from the arts grants and many of those organisations are finding it very tough indeed.

The Minister may be aware that Professor Julian Lloyd Webber, principal of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, had spoken out about the disparity in funding between, say, the Royal Academy of Music in Birmingham—the conservatoire—and other royal schools of music. That is a DCMS responsibility, and I hope that the Minister is willing to meet me to discuss it.

Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Foster, and others mentioned the briefing by the News Media Association on behalf of the UK’s media publishers. When one hears about Downing Street’s attempts to exclude certain media outlets from Downing Street briefings, following the Trump Administration’s practice, the issue of public bodies trying to control media access is very serious. We will be looking for a comprehensive answer from the Minister about that during later stages of the Bill.

The third and final challenge relates to legacy, which several noble Lords spoke about. Birmingham has one of the highest levels of obesity among year 6 children in the country. NHS Digital figures show that one in four children who finished primary school in Birmingham in 2017-18 was obese, and 6.5% were severely obese; additionally, 15% of year 6 children were overweight. That means that 41% of Birmingham’s youngsters are unhealthily overweight when they finish primary school. I really hope that we can use the legacy as a way to kick-start a new and bold approach to encourage physical activity, health and well-being, particularly among our young people.

Hopes were raised in the London Olympics; the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, referred to that. He went on to talk about the Glasgow experience, which was rather more encouraging, but we must use the Games as a way of leaving a long-term legacy in the health and well-being of young people in the city. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond with enthusiasm and confidence that this is being planned for.

This is a wonderful occasion. It is great that so many noble Lords have spoken. It is a huge opportunity for a wonderful city. Let us all take that opportunity with both hands.