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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How a Welsh lawyer invented the hydrogen fuel cell – in 1842

A hydrogen-powered bus. Image: Getty.

Let us start, in the spirit of steampunk, by imagining a new and different past. One that is just a little different to that which we currently have.

So welcome to the year 1867. The Victorian age is at its zenith and a new, powerful and monied middle class is looking for things to do with their cash. Towns and cities seem to be growing bigger with each passing day, and horizons are transformed as new buildings appear everywhere.

One aspect of the urban landscape never changes though. Everywhere you look you will see one of the huge gasometers that have been a constant feature of the cityscape for almost 20 years now. They are filled with the hydrogen gas essential to run the fuel cells – or gas batteries, as the Victorians call them – that are so vital for the economy and for powering everyday life.

In both this imagined and the real past, the gas battery was invented in 1842 by a young Welshman from the then town of Swansea, William Robert Grove. It was a revolutionary device because rather than using expensive chemicals to produce electricity like ordinary batteries, it used common gases – oxygen and hydrogen – instead.

However in this timeline, unlike our own, within 20 years the Welsh man of science’s amazing invention had ushered in a new industrial and cultural revolution.

Towering gasometers. Image: Franz Kapaun/Wikimedia

Our imagined scene is the British Empire’s new electrical age. The horseless carriages that run along roads and railways are all powered by electricity from banks of gas batteries. So is the machinery in the factories and cotton mills that produce the cheap goods which are the source of Britain’s growing wealth. The demand for coal to produce the hydrogen needed to run gas batteries has transformed places such as Grove’s own south Wales, where coalfields are expanded to meet the insatiable need for more power.

Middle-class homes are connected to those gasometers through networks of pipes supplying the hydrogen needed as fuel to run all kinds of handy electrical devices. Machines for washing clothes – and dishes – have trebled the workload of domestic servants by transforming their employers’ expectations concerning daily hygiene. There are machines for cleaning floors and furniture. Electric ovens are fast replacing the traditional kitchen range in the more fashionable houses. Gas batteries also run the magic lanterns that provide entertainment for middle-class families every evening after dinner.

Of course, none of this actually happened. The true history of energy, and the culture that depends on that energy, over the past 150 years or so has been rather different. It was coal and oil, rather than hydrogen, that powered the 19th and 20th-century economies.

A curious voltaic pile

The gas battery’s real history begins in October 1842, when Grove, newly appointed professor of experimental philosophy at the London Institution, penned a brief note to chemist and physicist Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution.

“I have just completed a curious voltaic pile which I think you would like to see,” he wrote. The instrument was “composed of alternate tubs of oxygen and hydrogen through each of which passes platina foil so as to dip into separate vessels of water acidulated with sulphuric acid.”

The effect, as Grove described it to Faraday, was startling: “With 60 of these alternations I get an unpleasant shock and decompose not only iodide of potassium but water so plainly that a continuous stream of thin bubbles ascends from each electrode”. Grove had invented a battery which turned hydrogen and oxygen into electricity and water.

The technology described in Grove’s letter to Faraday. Image: Wikimedia/EERE.

In 1842 Grove was busily making a name for himself in metropolitan scientific circles. He had been born in 1811 into a leading family in the commercial and public life of Swansea, and grew up in a world where the importance and utility of science was commonly understood. The Groves’ neighbours included prominent industrialists including pottery manufacturer and botanist Lewis Weston Dillwyn and John Henry Vivian – an industrialist and politician – who were also fellows at the Royal Society.

Grove studied at Brasenose College Oxford before going to London to prepare for a career in the law. While there he became a member of the Royal Institution and it is clear that from around this time he started to become an active electrical experimenter.

Economical batteries

This is when some of Grove’s earliest forays into scientific work began to appear. In 1838 he gave a lecture to the society describing a new battery he had invented: “an economical battery of Mr Grove’s invention, made of alternate plates of iron and thin wood, such as that used by hatters”.

This emphasis on economy was a theme that would recur in his work on the powerful nitric acid battery that he developed a year later – and which led to his aforementioned appointment as professor, and fellowship of the Royal Society – as well as in his work on the gas battery.

Grove described in a letter to Philosophical magazine how the battery “with proper arrangements liberates six cubic inches of mixed gases per minute, heats to a bright red seven inches of platinum wire 1/40th of an inch in diameter, burns with beautiful scintillations needles of a similar diameter, and affects proportionally the magnet”. This is typical of the way battery power was demonstrated. Scientists would show how it could break down water into its constituent gases, make wires glow, or work an electromagnet.

Moritz von Jacobi’s electromagnetic motor, 1873. Image: Wikimedia/Julius Dub.

Significantly, Grove also went on to say that as “it seems probable that at no very distant period voltaic electricity may become a useful means of locomotion, the arrangement of batteries so as to produce the greatest power in the smallest space becomes important”. Indeed, shortly after Grove announced his invention, the German-born engineer Moritz Hermann von Jacobi used a bank of Grove’s batteries to power an electromagnetic motor boat on the river Neva in Saint Petersburg. And the technology later went on to be used extensively by the American telegraph industry.

Born of necessity

It was Grove’s continuing work on making batteries more efficient and economic that led directly to the gas battery which was to be the forebear of the now modern fuel cell. He wanted to find out just what happened in the process of generating electricity from chemical reactions.

It showed how “gases, in combining and acquiring a liquid form, evolve sufficient force to decompose a similar liquid and cause it to acquire a gaseous form”. To Grove, this was “the most interesting effect of the battery; it exhibits such a beautiful instance of the correlation of natural forces”.


The gas battery provided powerful evidence in favour of the theory Grove had developed regarding the inter-relationship of forces, which he described a few years later in his essay, On the Correlation of Physical Forces. There he argued:

that the various imponderable agencies, or the affections of matter, which constitute the main objects of experimental physics, viz. heat, light, electricity, magnetism, chemical affinity, and motion, are all correlative, or have a reciprocal dependence. That neither taken abstractedly can be said to be the essential or proximate cause of the others, but that either may, as a force, produce or be convertible into the other, this heat may mediately or immediately produce electricity, electricity may produce heat; and so of the rest.

In other words, forces were interchangable and any one of them could be manipulated to generate the others.

But what about utility and practical power? Grove clearly believed, as did many of his contemporaries – including the electro-magnet’s inventor, William Sturgeon – that the future was electrical. It would not be long before electromagnetic engines like the one that Jacobi had used for his boat on the Neva would replace the steam engine. It was just a matter of finding the right and most economic way of producing electricity for the purpose.

As Grove put it to a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1866, if:

instead of employing manufactured products or educts, such as zinc and acids, we could realise as electricity the whole of the chemical force which is active in the combustion of cheap and abundant raw materials... we should obtain one of the greatest practical desiderata, and have at our command a mechanical power in every respect superior in its applicability to the steam-engine.

We are at present, far from seeing a practical mode of replacing that granary of force, the coal-fields; but we may with confidence rely on invention being in this case, as in others, born of necessity, when the necessity arises.

He was clear that realising this particular dream was not his problem, however: “It seems an over-refined sensibility to occupy ourselves with providing means for our descendants in the tenth generation to warm their dwellings or propel their locomotives”.

A new past

Grove certainly made no attempt to turn his gas battery into an economic device, but like many Victorians he was fond of looking into the future and putting his technologies there. In many ways it was Victorians such as Grove who invented the view of the future as a different country that we are so familiar with now. Their future was going to be a country full of new technologies – and electrical technologies in particular.

William Robert Grove, circa 1877. Image: Wikimedia/Lock & Whitfield.

By the time Grove died in 1896 commentators were prophesying a future where electricity did everything. Electricity would power transport systems. Electricity would grow crops. Electricity would provide entertainment. Electricity would win wars. It seemed almost impossible to talk about electricity at all without invoking the future it would deliver.

All this brings us neatly back to the new past for Grove and the gas battery that our future technologies may deliver. If the future of new and clean electrical technology – that contemporary promoters of the fuel cell are today offering us – really happens, then the obscure story about a curious little invention by a largely forgotten Welsh man of science will become an epic piece of technological history.

That future, if it happens, will change our past. It will change the ways we understand the history of Victorian technology and the ways in which the Victorians used those technologies to tell stories about their future selves. We should not forget that we still pattern our own projected futures in the same way as they did. We extrapolate bits of our contemporary technologies into the future in the same sort of way.

The ConversationIt is interesting to speculate in that case why particular sorts of technologies make for good futures and others apparently do not. At the end of the 19th century the gas battery clearly did not look like a good piece of future-making technology to many people. It does now.

Iwan Morus, Professor of History, Aberystwyth University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.