“The council destroyed more than the Blitz”: For the third time in a century, they're rebuilding Coventry

Coventry's Millennium Square, and the Whittle Arch. Image: mintchocicecream/Wikimedia Commons.

I was hovering gormlessly outside Coventry station, waiting for Google Maps to load, when I suddenly realised I didn't need to bother. Some kind soul had installed large and obvious signs to point out the best way to reach the city centre on foot.

More than that, they'd made the correct route all but unmissable. A wide pedestrianised path wound its way passed a half-finished new office development, across a buried ring road, and through a small park, Greyfriars Green. After that, it continued down a tree-lined avenue passed a venerable-looking parade of shops and bars. It reminded me of bits of Oxford or Cambridge. It was rather nice.

Which, if I'm honest, was a bit of a surprise. The standard narrative about Coventry goes like this: once a beautiful walled medieval town, the Nazis levelled the place in the Blitz, in an attempt to wipe out Britain's manufacturing base. What remained was finished off by the post-war planners who thought that old buildings were passé, and we'd all be much happier in concrete-themed pedestrian precincts surrounded by big roads. Coventry's reputation is as one of Britain's biggest planning blunders.

Today, though, the city is pulling out all the stops to turn that around. That route into the city that so impressed me is brand new: at the start of this decade, reaching the city centre from the station involved traversing a dingy subway under a six-lane ring road, then walking besides an under-used dual carriageway. Those trees, which now divide the pedestrian route from the road, once stood on the central reservation.

The pedestrian gateway: the far side of those trees used to be the southbound carriageway. Image: Google.

This route was originally marked by a blue line painted on the pavement. The fact that line was even necessary, says executive director of place Martin Yardley, was a mark of quite how badly the planners had failed Coventry. Now, as a sort of tribute, the gateway route is lined with blue street lights.


Shades of grey

Yardley is delighted when I tell him I'd been pleasantly surprised by the new pedestrian route: the whole point of the exercise was to change new visitors' first impression of the city, and my reaction is exactly what he'd been looking for. He's a Brummie by birth, but today he also heads the Coventry & Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership, and he has an infectious enthusiasm for his adopted home town. It used to be almost unnavigable on foot he tells me. “It's a bit embarrassing, but when I first worked here, I took a suit into a dry cleaners, and then didn't pick it up for weeks. I just couldn't find the place.”

Our tour of the city lasted only an hour, but we moved so fast, and covered so much ground, that it felt much longer, so determined was he to show me all that changes his team were making to the place. Before we get to that, though, let's talk a bit more about history.

The familiar narrative is, if anything, a bit too flattering, Yardley argues. The real problem for 20th century Coventry was that the medieval city had survived too well: the centre was a maze of narrow streets, without any of the wide Victorian boulevards that could be re-purposed for the motor age in other cities.

This, in a place with such strong connections to the car industry, was thought a bit of an embarrassment. So in the 1930s, the city started demolishing chunks of itself to give it space to install some decent roads. “The council destroyed more than the Germans ever did,” Yardley tells me. The Blitz was just a convenient alibi.

At any rate, one of England's most historic cities was almost entirely levelled to be replaced with what looked like a planned new town. Trunk roads crisscrossed the centre; an enormous multi-lane ring road cut it off from the surrounding districts.

And, in a sop to the fact that human beings still had feet, the central shopping area was re-developed as the pedestrianised Precinct: a sort of outdoor shopping mall, with lower and upper levels linked by stairs and slopes. In 1960, this looked like the future. 

The Precinct in 1962. Image: Ben Brooksbank/Wikimedia Commons.

Today though, such post-modern visions seem more tightly tethered to the time they were built than older architecture ever does. Much of the Precinct still remains: that tree-lined walk from the city centre runs out somewhere on Hertford Street, when you suddenly find yourself in something that looks a lot like a multi-storey car park.

I found this part of the city familiar, even comforting, despite the fact it's objectively horrible, and it took me a minute to work out why: it looks a lot my home town Romford did during my childhood. As it turns out, medieval market towns that got trashed by the 20th century are my happy place.

Rebuilding Coventry

My reaction, though, is almost certainly a bit weird, so Yardley and his team are doing much to remake the place. And the heart of their reforms is changing the city's relationship to cars: taking space away from motor vehicles and giving it back to pedestrians.

During the 2012 Olympics, the city's Ricoh Arena played host to the football. So the council used the games as an excuse to extend the pedestrianised part of the city centre to the Broadgate area, creating a new public square. That in turn has encouraged a private property developer Guy Shearer to redevelop the neighbouring Cathedral Lanes shopping centre. As Yardley says, gesturing to an expanse of plaza no longer covered in traffic, “He spent £22m doing that, because we spent £5m doing this.”

Where this building stands there used to be a road.

Elsewhere in the city, the council has reclaimed part of an unnecessarily vast road junction, and allowed developers to build on top of it. It's buried sections of the ring road to make it easier to get in and out of the city centre (a trick it borrowed from Birmingham). It's replaced access roads with pedestrian boulevards, to make the route from the student quarter to the city centre more walkable.

Part of Coventry University. This used to be a road, too.

The biggest change, though, is that it's simply narrowed the roads. At one point, Yardley stops outside an old cinema, now occupied by Coventry University. “The pavement used to come out as far as that canopy,” he tells me – a width of just a few feet. Now it's nearly three that. The forbidding dual carriageway has been replaced by a single lane road. Wherever possible, within the inner ring road, pavements have been made wider than roads, and all traffic is restricted to a 20 mile per hour speed limit.

The line down the middle of this photograph marks the boundary of the old pavement.

There's one more change the city has made to its roads: it's removed most of its pedestrian crossings. Particular crossing points are suggested by changes in the texture of the road surface, and marked with boulders – but there are no lights to force traffic to stop. There are no traffic lights either: to pass a junction now, drivers simply have to move slowly and wait their turn.

This, Yardley admits, has been by far the most controversial part of his programme. Some locals expected carnage, and the local media all but admitted that the first accident on the new roads would make the front page. “One taxi driver told me he hated it - 'because now when I approach a junction I'll need to think'.” (Not quite as strong an argument as the driver clearly thought.)

A new style pedestrian crossing. 

So far, though, everything's gone well: people simply driver more slowly. (One proper zebra crossing remains, on the request of the University of Coventry.)

Two big developments are still underway. The first is Friargate - that shiny new office development I noticed next to the station.  The other is City Centre South, a redevelopment of the other end of the gateway into the city.

The obvious question is - how on earth has the city funded all this? Thanks to the post-war development, and some strategic buying down the years, the council already owned much of the land in the city centre, which has helped. Close relationships with the two local universities (Coventry and Warwick, which confusingly is not in Warwick at all, but on the outskirts of Coventry) have helped, too.

The council is also rennovating buildings, in an attempt to hint at the city's medieval heritage.

But much of the money required has come from two big sources, Yardley says: Heritage Lottery Funding, and the European Union. So does Brexit throw a spanner in the works? ”I'd prefer it if we weren't leaving the EU,” Yardley admits. “But we've already done the big stuff. We don't need to do it again.”

So for the third time in a century, Coventry has comprehensively remade itself. With luck, there won't be a fourth.

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

This is the final part of a series on the West Midlands. You can read part one on the region as a whole here; part two, on Wolverhampton, here; and part three, on Birmingham, here.

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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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