“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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“One of the greatest opportunities facing our region”: Andy Burnham on making work better for older people

Andy Burnham (then health secretary) and Gordon Brown (then prime minister) meeting an older voter in 2010. Image: Getty.

In the Greater Manchester Strategy, published by the Combined Authority in October, we set out our vision for Greater Manchester, including our ambitions for employment.

It’s not simply about getting more people into work – though this is important, given that our employment rate across the region is still below the national average. It’s also about improving the quality of work; creating better jobs with opportunities for people to progress and develop. That’s why we’re working towards a Good Employer Charter to encourage businesses across the region to step up.

But if we want to make a real difference for the people of Greater Manchester, we need to focus on those who currently struggle most to find a job, including people with disabilities, people with fewer qualifications – and older people.

One in three people aged between 50 and 64 in the Greater Manchester area are out of work. Adding in older workers on low pay, nearly half (46.3 per cent) of 50-64 year olds in Greater Manchester are either out of work or in low paid, low quality jobs. This is a bad situation at any age – in your 50s, with fewer chances to get back into work and less time to make up the shortfall in income and savings, it’s terrible.

It’s also bad for the region. People out of work are more likely to have or develop health problems, and need more care and support from our public services. We are also missing out on the skills and experience of thousands of residents. If Greater Manchester’s employment rate for 50-64 year olds matched the UK average, there would be 19,000 more people in work – earning, spending and paying into the local economy. GVA in the region could grow by £800m pa if we achieved this. 

If it’s bad now, it’s only going to get worse unless we act. This is the fastest growing age group among working age people in Greater Manchester. And with the rise in State Pension Age, we are no longer talking about 50-64 year olds, but 50-65, 66 and eventually 67. There are more older workers, and we are working for longer. Many of us are now expecting to work into our 70s to be able to earn enough for our later lives.


As the State Pension age rises, older people without decent work must struggle for longer without an income before they can draw their pension. But if we approach this right, we can improve people’s lives and benefit our local economy at the same time. It makes financial and social sense.

Older people bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the workplace, but we must make sure we provide a work environment that enables them to flourish. If we can help them get into good quality, suitable work, older people will be able to retain their financial independence and continue contributing to the region’s economy.

A report published earlier this week by the Centre for Ageing Better looks at exactly this issue. Part of our strategic partnership with the Centre for Ageing Better, the report is based on research conducted over six months with older residents in five communities with high levels of economic disadvantage across Greater Manchester.

In Brinnington, Stockport, the team met Adrian, in his late 50s. Adrian is a trained electrician, but since being made redundant ten years ago, has only managed to get a few short-term contracts. These short term, zero hours contracts, are “more trouble than they’re worth” and have left Adrian stressed and worse-off financially.

He has been sent on a large number of employment-related courses by JobCentre Plus, and has a CV with two pages listing training he has completed. However, these courses were of little interest to him and did not relate to his aim of finding stable work as an electrician. He told the team he only attended most of the courses so he “doesn’t get in trouble”.

Adrian recognises there are other types of work available, but much of it is warehouse based and as he is not in the best physical health he does not feel this work is suitable. He said he has “given up” on finding work – even though he still has 8 or 9 years to go until State Pension age.

Adrian’s story shows how badly the system is failing people like him – highly skilled, in a trade that’s in high demand, but being put through the motions of support in ways that make no sense for him.

A major finding of the report was the high number of people in this age group who had both caring responsibilities and their own health problems. With the need to manage their own health, and the high cost of paying for care, people found that they were not better off in low paid work. Several people shared stories of the complexity of coming off income support to take up temporary work and how this left them worse off financially – in some cases in severe debt.

The report concludes that changes are needed at every level to tackle chronic worklessness amongst this age group. This is not something that employment and skills services alone can fix, although Adrian’s story shows they can be much better at dealing with people as individuals, and this is something we want to do more on in Greater Manchester. But the health and benefits systems need to work in sync with employment support, and this is a national as well as a local issue.

Employers too need to do more to support older workers and prevent them from falling out of the labour market in the first place. This means more flexible working arrangements to accommodate common challenges such as health issues or caring responsibilities, and ensuring recruitment and other processes don’t discriminate against this age group.  

Greater Manchester has been at the forefront of devolution and has been using its powers to bring together health, skills and employment support to improve the lives of local people. The Working Well programme is a perfect example of this, providing integrated and personalised support to over 18,000 people, and delivering fantastic outcomes and value for money.

Such an approach could clearly be expanded even further to include the needs of older people. Ageing Better’s report shows that more can and needs to be done, and we will use their insights as we prepare our age-friendly strategy for Greater Manchester

We have to act now. In 20 years’ time, over a third of the population of Greater Manchester will be over 50. Making work better for all of us as we age is one of the greatest economic and social opportunities facing our city region.

Andy Burnham is the mayor of Greater Manchester.

For more about the work of Greater Manchester Combined Authority and its Ageing Hub, click here.