Pride of Place through our Cultural Action Zones by GBSLEP Interim Chair, Anita Bhalla

Pride of Place – it’s one of the themes of Levelling Up but what does it look like and how can we deliver this?

Invigorating our cities, towns and local centres is a key driver to economic recovery. Following the release of the Levelling Up White Paper in February, it’s clear that the Government continues to recognise the importance of placemaking and cultural development to encourage pride of place – one of the four themes of the paper. Here at GBSLEP, we have been championing this for over a decade.

Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) has been committed to improving the lives of our communities by creating places that people want to live and work in. One way which we have been doing this is through our Cultural Action Zones (CAZ) pilot programme. We are delivering CAZ across 9 areas in our region. Our aim is to help create thriving and dynamic places. The programme brings together multiple agencies, funding, and organisations to re-animate our high streets and neighbourhoods.

So, what have we done? We’ve provided grants of between £22K to £70K which, along with other funding, are supporting the recovery of local businesses, cultural organisations and communities. We are seeing neighborhoods uniting to create cultural gatherings in retail spaces as well as community venues. Pop up festivals are taking place and street art is animating neighbourhoods. What’s more, the money is being used to improve public pathways and spaces to make places inviting. It’s all about bringing opportunity back into our local communities and in turn pride of place.

Cultural Action Zones are already making a difference with 480 local creatives involved and 40 creative workshops delivered. An example of a Cultural Action Zone ‘in action’ is Solihull’s Festival of Cultural Moments and Conversation Culture.

As Solihull emerges from the Covid pandemic, the cultural sector is rebooting itself thanks to the borough’s first ever Festival of Cultural Moments (FoCM). Through a combination of commissions and grants, the Council started the 7-month cultural programme last June. Different artistic, cultural and heritage events have taken place in a variety of locations across Solihull as well as pop-up theatre tours. It’s all about giving communities the chance to curate cultural activities and to enjoy artistic offerings on their doorstep. These tours are building Solihull’s cultural infrastructure and supporting the recovery of the cultural sector.

This funding is part of a wider package of funding that GBSLEP have invested across our geography for the development of our creative and cultural economy. Since 2017, GBSLEP has invested over £34m into cultural capital projects including Symphony Hall, the Birmingham REP and the National Memorial Arboretum to name a few. We have helped open up closed off spaces to creative organisations as well as new audiences.

GBSLEP has also invested £3m into the world class Creative Content Hub in Birmingham. The £18m facility based at The Bond in Digbeth is part of the city’s historic Creative Quarter and is due to open later this year. It’s a place for independent production companies, businesses and freelancers to explore the next generation of creative production, from virtual reality to new media.

By supporting screen and production works, we are ensuring that we have a joined-up sector supply chain where new talent and new ideas can be trialled and tested, and importantly, aspiring creatives can stay in our glorious region to pursue their careers. GBSLEP’s gap funding investment into the Creative Content Hub has been followed by the BBC’s announcement of a new Apprenticeship Hub and Master Chef moving to the city as well as the opening Steven Knight’s Digbeth Loc Studios – one thing leads to another!

We have also commissioned work for the region’s creative sector around low carbon adoption to become a model region and have a supply chain that implements low carbon production practices. Green recovery and clean growth are important themes and commitments for GBSLEP.

This fits in to our wider work as a Local Enterprise Partnership. Our unique triple helix structure brings together the public, private and academic sectors to make informed investment decisions that are underpinned by local insight. Our work in creative and culture is informed by what the industry needs. It’s also about instilling wellbeing into our communities and giving them pride in the places where they live and work. By supporting businesses, jobs will be created and by investing in places, wellbeing and quality of life will be raised – a core mission for GBSLEP and for the Government’s levelling up ambitions. GBSLEP has a track record of delivering and making a difference and we have so much more to do as part of ‘Team West Midlands’.

Originally posted on LinkedIn.


Birmingham Rep have officially unveiled a £2.87m new look to their historic home on Birmingham’s Centenary Square, 50 years on from the theatre first opening its doors.

Brand-new elements of the design include a fully accessible front entrance and terrace which connects directly to the popular city-centre square, the first time The Rep has been able to welcome visitors and audiences through the heart of the building.

Other features include beautiful new cafe, bar and restaurant spaces which complement the original striking RiBA award-winning 1971 building design and brand-new 10-foot signage that welcomes visitors from across the square.

Anita Bhalla, Interim Chair, Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) said:

“The Rep is one of our city’s iconic cultural venues and amongst many that will take centre stage as the region hosts the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games this summer. It’s fantastic to see that The Rep’s public spaces have been transformed to provide better accessibility and hospitality for people to enjoy. It’s fabulous to see a new entrance onto the magnificent Centenary Square – an area that has also benefited from previous GBSLEP funding.

“Our £2 million investment into The Rep is part of our work to support our creative industries cluster and to drive forward inclusive economic growth. It’s all made possible through our unique triple helix structure of bringing together local authorities, businesses and partners to make investment decisions that are underpinned by local knowledge and need.”

Read the full article on the GBSLEP website.


Interim Chair Anita Bhalla visited The Bond in Digbeth, along with Create Central Members to see the latest progress on site.

Birmingham’s international reputation as a hub for content production will strengthen later this year when The Bond: Creative Content Hub for the West Midlands opens in Digbeth.

Following last week’s announcement that BBC One primetime series MasterChef will be moving production to Steven Knight’s Digbeth Loc. studios in Birmingham, the Creative Content Hub will be host to top TV production companies.

Create Central has announced the Creative Content Hub will be its new HQ, where it will act as a lightning rod for new production and will provide training, development, meet the commissioner events and networking opportunities for the next generation of production talent.

Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) Interim Chair Anita Bhalla visited The Bond in Digbeth, along with Create Central Members to see the latest progress on site.

The £18 million facility based in the city’s historic Creative Quarter received a £3 million grant from GBSLEP’s Local Growth Fund programme. This funding helped bridge the financial gap, enabling the project to be delivered by Oval Real Estate and Oval Developments.

Anita Bhalla, Interim Chair of GBSLEP said:

“What a great time for the creative economy which is worth £4 billion in our LEP region and has the potential to add 30,000 jobs and 3,600 more businesses to the creative cluster.

“Our investment in The Creative Content Hub has been followed by the recent BBC announcement and the arrival of Steven Knight’s Digbeth Loc. studios. This new space is about exploring the huge potential, around film, TV, games, VR, AR and other innovative content production. It’s a crucial part of the creative jigsaw and fits in with the emerging cluster in Digbeth’s Creative Quarter.

I was here a year ago and it’s great to see the progress being made. GBSLEP has really leveraged its unique position of bringing businesses, public and academic sectors together to see this project delivered. As we look to grow our economy inclusively, it’s important all areas of creative content makers get our support.”

Read the full article on the GBSLEP website.


Today’s White Paper has revealed LEPs will continue to play a critical role in developing regional economies – bringing businesses into the conversation about the future growth of places. It outlines that where LEPs are located within the geography of Mayoral Combined Authorities, they are being encouraged to integrate. Where devolution deals with an MCA cover part of a LEP (like GBSLEP), the paper says this will be looked at on a case by case basis. Of course, this relates to us as we are one of 3 LEPs within the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) geography. The Government has said they will provide further detail. Meanwhile, we have already been working with the WMCA to develop a Plan for Growth for the region and will continue our collaborative approach to ensure the best outcomes for our communities.

GBSLEP has been demonstrating the missions of the levelling up plan as announced today over the last decade, creating opportunities for our communities through job creation which has boosted productivity. We are critical to the future of levelling up. To date, our work has added £12.7 billion GVA to the regional economy. We have spread opportunities through skills training and job creation – 187,000 private-sector jobs have been added to our region since 2010. Crucially we have unleashed private sector investment in significant projects like Paradise Birmingham, enterprise hubs in Cannock and Redditch, and the Precision Health Technologies Accelerator which has catalysed the development of the Birmingham Health Innovation Campus.

We have been able to make a difference because of our unique triple helix partnership model of bringing businesses, local government, colleges, and universities together to make informed decisions that create sustainable investments. Our breadth of private sector expertise, combined with partnerships across public bodies is integral to the success of our investments. For every £1 we have invested, £3 has been leveraged in private and public funding. We look forward to deepening our relationships as part of Team West Midlands to ensure everyone has access to a better quality of life.

Originally posted on the GBSLEP website.


The Chancellor’s Spring Statement has outlined a range of initiatives designed to support families, communities and businesses to ride out the current economic turbulence and ease the rising cost of living. GBSLEP notes these measures are designed to support local businesses as they work to recover and grow in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic and the onset of global political challenges.

Soaring fuel costs are impacting many of our businesses and the cut to fuel duty of 5p a litre will undoubtedly be welcomed by many. However, GBSLEP recognises that rising energy prices will also affect production and running costs. This is why our Sustainability Hub’s Clean Growth Programme and Energy Saving and Business Efficiency Grant is looking to help SMEs identify how they can save money. Our work will complement the business rates relief on a range of green technology used to decarbonise buildings. As a business led organisation, we will use our agility and flexibility to respond to the needs of our businesses in the coming months as we shape our policy and delivery work.

Even in the face of adversity, SMEs show great resilience – something we have witnessed over the last 2 years. They continue to innovate and employ people. We therefore welcome the announcement that the Employment Allowance threshold will increase from £4,000 to £5,000 and make it easier for our smaller businesses to reduce National Insurance Contributions although many will still face the impending impact of an increase.

The commitment to improve R&D relief will also have an impact in our region. As a LEP we have invested in hundreds of businesses from data driven medtech and life sciences to our work through industry led SuperTech WM to encourage innovative research and development. Any tax relief on R&D projects will support these businesses to continue their cutting-edge work.

We welcome the reassessment of the Apprenticeship Levy to ensure it is fit for purpose. Here at GBSLEP we have worked with Birmingham City Council to ensure its levy transfer is supporting SMEs across the city to recruit and retain apprentices. The Levy has already supported thousands of people into the workplace locally. This work has been delivered through our Skills and Apprenticeship Hub – a forward-facing service which works directly with businesses to identify skills needs and ensures the right training is being provided to match market demand.

Whilst we note the change in growth forecast for the economy, there is much to be optimistic about. Here in the city-region we have some great opportunities with HS2 and this year’s Commonwealth Games. We are doing all we can to help stimulate our local businesses and economy and we remain committed to being agile and flexible in the face of changing political, social and economic circumstances. Our work is underpinned by local knowledge we gather through our unique structure of bringing together business leaders, local authorities and academics. Our excellent Growth Hub is on hand to deliver help and is key to ensuring our SMEs have access to support and guidance to enable their success.

Originally posted on the GBSLEP website.


With the Government’s Plan B now being rolled out the distant memory of various lockdowns is no doubt being resurrected. For those of us who could work from home, and will have to again, living spaces became places of work and our local neighbourhoods a much-needed escape from the blurred line between home and work. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom.

Staying at home was the trigger for getting to know our local areas much better. Yes shops, restaurants and local community amenities were all closed, but if like me you embraced your trainers and reconnected with the outdoors – a whole new exploration of our, villages, neighbourhoods, towns and cities began.

With lockdown easing, it became clear that there was an appetite to keep this new relationship going especially by investing in our ‘local’ high streets, central areas and squares. Interestingly this wasn’t just a geographical desire to stay local, it was more than that, we retuned with our deep-rooted need to create a community around us.

Past generations have always had a greater affinity with their local communities, with many growing up, working, living and growing old in the same town, village or city.? Over the last 25 years our city centres have become the magnet for workers, entertainment and leisure –post-pandemic we are taking this a step further by reanimating and reimagining our town centres and local neighbourhoods. ?

This is at the heart of Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership’s (GBSLEP) work in creative, culture and placemaking. We’ve been delivering a Cultural Action Zone pilot programme in nine places across out patch. CAZs are a way of bringing together multiple agencies, funding and organisations to re-animate high streets and neighbourhoods. ?Our whole ethos is about bringing public, private and academic sectors to create interventions, allocate investment and deliver projects that create inclusive economic growth and improve the life of our residents. We’ve provided grants between £22K to £70K which, along with other funding, are supporting the recovery of local businesses, cultural organisations and communities.

Activities have included pop-up markets, street and public art trails, exhibitions, arts and craft workshops, engaging volunteers in green projects and much more. It’s not just been about delivering a cultural offer but also about rerouting traffic, pedestrianising areas, reconfiguring unused retail units into ‘meanwhile use’ spaces and developing tourism brands using artificial intelligence and virtual reality. It’s all about bringing footfall and opportunity back into our local communities.

In Northfield in Birmingham, the Making Spaces CAZ has been bringing people to their High Street through storytelling sessions, music, sewing crafts and dancing. Organisers have collaborated with Great Big Green Week and are now rolling out Christmas activities. Young people have developed their own programme of activities and work is also being done to test new ways of using empty high street retail spaces. There really is a great deal of excitement but also pride in contributing at such a local level. This, I believe has been turbo boosted by the pandemic and our realisation that we need to improve our local offerings.

This is just one example! In all, the Cultural Action Zone Programme has engaged hundreds of partners across multiple neighbourhoods and energised individuals and organisations, working together to create local areas that are appreciated and more importantly used by the people who live and work in them.

There’s been so much talk about ‘20min neighbourhood’ or ‘15min city’ which state that local places should offer more to all their residents. Our Cultural Action Zone Project is just one way in which we’re already delivering on this new way of reconnecting with people and places on our doorstep. It would be amazing if we could roll out such projects in every locality because quite clearly, they have an impact. ?

Originally posted on the GBSLEP website.

Webinar recording: building a sustainable future through fundraising

Charles Mesquita of Quilter Cheviot chairs a thought-provoking panel and is joined by Anita Bhalla, Chair of Trustees of the Birmingham Town Hall and Symphony Hall, Robin Thomas, Chief Executive of Morgen Thomas, Catherine Rustomji of Browne Jacobson LLP and Dan Fletcher, Director (Fundraising) of Moore Kingston Smith Fundraising & Management. The panel discuss fundraising and sustainability – how can your charity become a more resilient organisation post pandemic.

Watch the webinar on our website.

This recording is the fifth webinar in a series brought to you by Moore Kingston Smith, Quilter Cheviot and Browne Jacobson.

GBSLEP Board Director, Anita Bhalla reflects on the region’s creative economy

My glass is always half full and despite the extraordinary times we find ourselves in, it remains so but now it needs topping up.  We all know too well that times are hard, but they have the potential to get even harder before getting better. This region has a fighting spirit, my parents came here as immigrants decades ago, times were tough, but their spirit, determination and hard work built a future for us. That same spirit in in abundance here and now.

In recent years we have invested in our creative economy, watched it grow, given it a regional and national voice to see it rise as one of the key areas of growth for the GBSLEP. Are we really going to give all this up without a fight?  I think not.

Last week artists, musicians and creative sector leaders gave a stark warning that the UK is in danger of becoming a cultural wasteland because of the economic damage done to the sector by Covid-19. The Creative Industries Federation is calling on the Chancellor and Culture Secretary to allocate urgent funding for creative organisations and professionals who are in danger of collapse. They point out that throughout this crisis artists have not stopped producing content online, so people’s lives continue to be enriched by cultural experiences. Arts Council England is going some way to support the organisations it already funds; while this is welcomed it is not enough. We know in our region that our creative economy is made up of freelancers and SMEs who are falling through the funding gaps.

While funding is crucial to getting the creative economy up and running again this is not enough. The coming months will require strong leadership –without barriers and boundaries. Never before have we needed collaboration and partnerships to go that extra mile – what great examples past weeks have shown us from health, care, retail, public services and community organisations. We applaud you all.

Going forward our creative economy must grow but goodwill is not going to be enough.  We need cross sector partnerships thinking outside the box, grabbing new opportunities the current landscape presents us. Emerging from this should be collaborative leadership, which also requires joint responsibility.

Strong partnerships are not accidental, and they do not arise out of goodwill or ad hoc projects – effective partnerships require new structures and activities, each institution re-thinking how it operates. It will require all our imagination and collaboration to build the confidence in our people to once again embrace our town and city streets, our amazing cultural venues, our bars and restaurants – to have the confidence again to walk and grow with pride.

Originally posted on GBSLEP

How the Creative sector brings benefits to everyone in the West Midlands

While the TV phenomenon starring the Shelby family has thrust Birmingham and the West Midlands into the global televisual spotlight over the last few years, the region’s creative industries have become one of Greater Birmingham and Solihull’s biggest success stories.

Creative thinking can spark our imagination when it comes to solving new challenges across different industries, while it also has a key role in helping meet the challenges our communities face every day. Mental health, physical wellbeing, education and community cohesion often benefit by embracing artistic, cultural and creative attitudes.

The huge impact the industry already has on the region combined with its exciting potential for further growth and collaboration with other sectors has made it one of GBSLEP’s key focuses, and something we will endeavour to support.

Almost 50,000 people across the nine local authority areas in the GBSLEP region are creatives, amounting to 5.6 per cent of the total workforce. The industry also generates £4.1 billion in GVA, almost nine per cent of the area’s total.

And while the statistics for our region’s creative and cultural offering are impressive enough, the sector provides additional intangible benefits, with the intrinsic value of creative thinking and expression encouraging innovation and collaboration in all walks of life and work.

We understand how important it is to continue to support our cultural offering in the region and we have therefore launched our Cultural Capacity Fund. Offered to cultural or creative organisations within the nine local authority areas in which we operate, it offers non-repayable grants of between £2,000 and £10,000.

The fund is designed to enable cultural organisations to move to the next level and undertake strategic planning, cultural collaboration, growth and profile raising, alongside bidding for funding and we are looking forward to announcing the successful applicants who will receive this fund in the coming weeks.

GBSLEP is working alongside neighbouring LEPs, from across the region and the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) to deliver a £1.3 million Creative Scale-Up Programme, a two-year scheme funded by central government with the aim of supporting up to 200 creative businesses across the region which have strong potential to grow.

A pilot with Film Birmingham has also been launched, with the aim of increasing film and TV production spend in the region from £11 million to £16.5 million per year. The additional support will improve the range and quality of its location services to film producers, increase promotional activities and target high profile productions including international streaming heavyweights such as Amazon, Netflix and Apple.

With events including the Commonwealth Games in 2022 on the horizon, and 5G technology unlocking new opportunities for content creators to work in different ways and produce ground-breaking productions, it is projected that there is potential to see the sector grow by up to 4,000 new businesses, creating 30,000 new jobs.

With a highly diverse talent pool and one of the youngest populations compared to major cities across Europe on the doorstep, businesses working in the industry have huge advantages when looking to expand their operations and produce world class work, whether it is in advertising, marketing, design, gaming, fashion, or film and performance.

The region’s creative network has been making huge strides in the last few years, and has endless potential to continue to put the region on the map as a forward-thinking, talent rich creative hub.

Posted on the Greater Birmingham & Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership website.