Reviving Joseph Chamberlain: How Wolverhampton is using municipal power to build a new economy

The i10 building, which the council helped fund. Image: City of Wolverhampton.

Here’s a piece of trivia for you: Wolverhampton is the only British city ever to build its own motorway junction. 

In 2013, the council teamed up with neighbouring Staffordshire to build a new junction 2 on the M54, serving the i54 business park, which straddles the boundaries between the two councils. They borrowed the £40m required to fund the project against future business rate revenues.

To a public transport nerd like me, this seems like an odd sort of a thing for a council to prioritise. 

The i54 business park, north of Wolverhampton. Image: Google.

For Wolverhampton, though, it makes perfect sense. The 98 hectare i54 park is one of the city’s most important employment zones, home to companies including laboratories group Eurofins, manufacturer Moog and, most importantly, Jaguar Land Rover, which builds engines there. i54 is a big part of the reason why the West Midlands remains the centre of the UK’s manufacturing industry, and is the only region of the country with a positive trade balance with China.

The city council would like to see the Midlands Metro tram network extended to the park, but even optimistically that’s many years off. For many people in the West Midlands conurbation, commuting means driving. And so, to link local residents to job opportunities, the city decided to build its motorway junction.

“We want as many [of the park’s] employees as possible to be Wolverhampton residents,” the council’s managing director Keith Ireland told me when I visited the city some months back: the more locals there are in decent jobs, the less pressure there’ll be on council budgets.

It’s easy, when thinking and writing about cities, to become obsessed with stuff that is, if not exactly sexy, then at least the sort of thing that’s exciting to nerds. A new tram line, or a new metro mayor – these are the sort of things that will change the way a city looks from inside the bubble.

But from the perspective of the people actually running city councils, as lovely as these things are, they’re often less important than cold hard cash. Austerity has seen local authority funding slashed by 40 per cent, with many of the deepest cuts reserved for deprived Labour-led areas like Wolverhampton. The devolution of business rates, promised by George Osborne last autumn, will go some way to filling that gap – but it won’t close it entirely, and will anyway do most for those areas that already have the best economies. There’s also a mismatch of timing: the last of the revenue support grant, through which central government is currently funding councils, will be lost in 2018-19, while the new, devolved funding won’t materialise until the following year. 

In Wolverhampton, these problems are amplified by the fact that the city wasn’t exactly booming to start with. It’s seven kilometres from affluent Tettenhall in the north west to Bilston in the south east, notes the council leader, Roger Lawrence. And every kilometre you walk, male life expectancy drops by a year. 

Making economies

But Lawrence claims that the city’s economy is in a rather better state than one might think.  Much of the data doesn’t capture how well the city’s economy is actually doing, he argues, because so many of the city’s higher earners live outside the city boundaries in Staffordshire. “When they look at our data, people say, you’re not doing very well, are you? But if you drew the boundary this tightly that’d be true of any city.” The standard productivity measure of GVA, he adds, “means some nationally, and probably regionally – but it doesn’t mean anything locally”. (It’s hard not to take this as a subtweet.)

Nonetheless, the point is that Wolverhampton is under a lot of pressure to do things but doesn’t have a lot of cash with which to do them.  “If we’re not careful,” Ireland argues, “adult social care and children’s social care could be all that’s left.”

The statue of Lady Wulfrun, the 10th century noble for whom the city is named. Image: David Stowell/Wikimedia Commons.

So how does a city deal with that? Wolverhampton has a dual strategy. One part involves a “transformational” approach to its existing services, which is basically a euphemism for helping people to help themselves.

By way of example, it costs the city around £30,000 a year to keep a child in social care. Much of that money could be saved if the council intervened early, and focused on supporting the extended family to care for the child instead. Do that for 100 kids, and you’ve saved the better part of £3m from the city budget. “In the good old days, the question was: what can we do to help you?” Ireland says. “Now it’s: what can you do to help yourself?”

The other part of the city’s strategy is to think more commercially. That sometimes means finding ways of maximising revenues from things like leisure or cultural facilities: attracting larger audiences, or selling them more things once they’re through the doors. (in Lawrence’s words, “food, drink, hard boiled sweets they can crush with their teeth...”).

Where possible, it’s also re-directing money to investing in projects that can bring growth. That motorway junction is one example. Another is the i10 office development next to the station. The city has decent train and road connections – but it lacks the high quality office demanded by employers. And so, the council has decided to build some.

This isn’t always easy: Ireland admits, it can be difficult to make the case for “investment at a time when we’re making people redundant”. But there’s a theme emerging here: filling in the gaps. Sometimes that means investing in facilities; sometimes it means investing in skills. Either way, because the council doesn’t have the money to provide all the services it once did, it’s trying to work out how it can get most bang for its buck.


Due south

Ask anyone in Wolverhampton, and they will tell you firmly that, no, it is not a part of Birmingham. But its leaders admit, nonetheless, that working with the wider West Midlands region will be vital to the city’s future.

To that end, Lawrence is keen to invest in the local transport system to maximise the benefits of High Speed 2: “It’s all very well saying you can get to London in 14 seconds and Manchester in an hour if you can’t get to the bloody station,” says Lawrence. He wants to look into changing the rules around the M6 toll-road, too – for example, by removing the toll when there’s an accident on the M6 proper – on the grounds that it’s currently underused.

The relationship with the conurbation’s other councils is smoother than people realise, Lawrence claims. When I suggest the West midlands devolution deal had come as a surprise to a lot of observers, he replies – another subtweet -  “Well, a lot of people aren’t very clever, are they. There was a lot of play acting going on. We were squeezing every last ounce out of the government.”

But he clearly remains convinced that Wolverhampton’s future is as a city in its own right, not as a northern suburb of Birmingham. The city and the three Black Country boroughs have a larger population than Brum proper, he notes, and “probably more canals too”. “We’re good friends with Coventry, because we can gang up on Birmingham,” he adds. The two other cities, he says, see their role as balancing their bigger neighbour’s influence over the West Midlands.

Hasn’t this infighting held the region back, I suggest? ”Perhaps the Midlands has not done very well at selling itself,” Lawrence admits. “When [the Greater Manchester councils] go into a room and have a row, they don’t carry it on outside, which perhaps we have.” But he rejects the idea the region’s lack of a coherent identity will hold it back. “Merseyside has got a huge identity,” he notes. “You can’t eat it.”

This is part two of a series on the West Midlands. You can read part one here. Next time: it’s on to Birmingham.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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