Blog post

Why the Midlands is a great place to live, work, study and visit

The Midlands is at the heart of the UK, both geographically and economically. Professor Kathryn Mitchell, our Vice-Chancellor, explains why it’s a great place to be – and how universities have a part to play in strengthening its reputation across the globe.

By Professor Kathryn Mitchell CBE DL - 5 June 2019

More than 10 million people call the Midlands their home. Our region has seven Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, two UNESCO World Heritage Sites and 60 historic houses, as well as many world-renowned businesses and high-quality universities. It is an outstanding place to live, work, study and visit.

Yet, despite its rich and attractive heritage, in 2018, the region experienced a decrease in tourism from abroad. According to national tourism agency VisitBritain, 2.54 million overseas residents visited the Midlands last year. That’s 8.16% less than in 2017. Similarly, the UK had 28.68 million visits in 2018, a 5.3% decrease compared with 2017, and a £2.3m drop in spending. This was while global tourism figures continued to rise.

It is anticipated that the number of European visitors to the UK will decrease in 2019. This is particularly concerning given the uncertain political climate. It highlights the need for organisations in the Midlands to work even harder to attract tourists, highly-skilled individuals and businesses if the region is to remain competitive across global markets and continue to be a powerful magnet for economic growth and development.

Our city and county

Derby is at the heart of the East Midlands and provides an exemplary history of the UK’s industrial heritage. The University of Derby is well positioned to support our city and our county, businesses, schools and colleges, and our community. We are in the north of the county at our Buxton Campus and St Helena in Chesterfield, and in the city of Derby itself.

This region of the Midlands has continued to exploit its heritage and enabled innovation and manufacturing to continue to be the bedrock of its economic growth, whether it is quarrying in the north of Derbyshire or planes, rail or automobiles in Derby. However, this is a simple description of our city and county. Our wealth of heritage and the juxtaposition of rural and city living creates an attractive and convenient place where you can live well.

Over the last five years, there have been many exciting projects across our region that highlight the collaborative partnerships between local authorities, local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), business and national funders, such as the Heritage Lottery Fund. These projects improve opportunities for both working and living in the East Midlands, especially in Derby and Derbyshire.

Improve, restore, inspire

For example, the DerwentWISE Project is a partnership hosted by Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. It is made up of 15 local and national organisations concerned with the preservation of the Lower Derwent Valley. The aim of this project is to improve and restore the landscape and inspire people about the natural and cultural heritage in the area. The partnership was awarded £1.7m of Heritage Lottery Funds in 2013 and is already showing significant impact with enhanced access and curation of the area. Our academics are involved and are conducting research to support the project.  

In Buxton, extensive work is being carried out to restore the Grade I-listed Crescent, which was built by the fifth Duke of Devonshire as the centrepiece of the famous spa town. The Heritage Lottery Fund, with support from our local enterprise partnership, D2N2, which covers Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, has provided over £11.3m, in addition to the original major grant, to secure the long-term future of the Crescent. This not only builds on the restoration of the building but re-invigorates the importance of a spa town associated with health and wellbeing. The Peak District and national treasures such as Chatsworth House, with which we are delighted to have a strategic partnership, are instrumental in the success of this investment.

Derby is also undergoing monumental developments and ambitious plans are in place to regenerate the city. As well as key projects to redevelop the Assembly Rooms and renovate Duckworth Square, work is being done to transform Derby’s Silk Mill museum into a world-class attraction. The £16.4m redevelopment programme is supported by a £3.7m grant from D2N2. It aims to create a Museum of Making and establish a ‘southern gateway’ to the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site. This will bring more visitors to the area and increase the city’s prosperity through both job creation and visitor economy. This is an exciting project which will remind both residents of and visitors to the region of the industrial heritage and innovation of our city.

Arts and culture

The importance of arts and culture in developing cohesive communities and engendering a sense of pride is vital to the health of our region. The current Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing exhibition, organised by Royal Collection Trust at Derby Museums and Art Gallery, captured the desire of our communities to engage all generations. The gallery welcomed 16,243 visitors compared with 6,765 in the same period of 2018 – an increase of 140%. This showcases a fantastic success and highlights the ability of our region to attract the best.

Derby is also home to the UK’s leading festival of international photography, FORMAT, which is co-hosted by the University of Derby. Organising a year-round programme of international commissions, open calls, residencies, conferences and collaborations in the UK and internationally, FORMAT welcomes over 100,000 visitors from all over the world. This year, the University hosted the FORMAT Conference, which was the most ambitious in the history of the festival and a landmark of contemporary photographic research.

Role of universities

Universities in the Midlands have a fundamental role in attracting people to study and learn in the region. While we all have a part to play in helping to attract and recruit talented staff and students, in regenerating our cities and in supporting our communities through our civic duty, our greatest responsibility is in educating and transforming the lives of people.

I am Chair of the Derby Opportunity Area Board and, by working with others and with the full commitment of staff and communities, our city is taking great strides to improve outcomes for young people. We champion social mobility and strive to inspire and create opportunities for all across our region and beyond, regardless of age, background or location. The University is a significant heartbeat in our city and our region. We take seriously the responsibility we have to drive the economic, social, cultural, educational and environmental prosperity of our home.

Universities are inherently collaborative and must continue to work together to improve skills across the region, support lifelong learning and continue to make the Midlands a great place to study and learn.

Making the whole of the Midlands a great place

The next couple of years will see a series of momentous events happening in the Midlands, including Birmingham hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games and Coventry being named the UK’s City of Culture in 2021.

While these events are significant, we have to ensure universities, businesses, LEPs, and local authorities across the Midlands are promoting the whole region as an attractive destination and capitalising on the great opportunities being offered.

The uncertainty of Brexit means we have to work even harder to make the Midlands an attractive place in which to live, visit, learn and work. We have a rich heritage but we must not rely on this and become complacent. The region has ambitious plans and we have to market our strengths if we are to compete on a global scale.

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About the author

Professor Kathryn Mitchell, Vice-Chancellor

Professor Kathryn Mitchell CBE DL
Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive

Professor Kathryn Mitchell is the Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of the University of Derby. Her academic background is in Psychology and she continues to play an active role in research.

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