Four thoughts inspired by three days in Birmingham

The new New Street. Image: Getty.

Last week, after returning from Labour conference in Liverpool, I wrote an article about both the city’s history and how I felt about the place. The piece got a lot of nice comments, from Scousers past and present. It also got – let’s be honest about this – a fair few complaints from those who felt I’d done the place a disservice.

Okay, so there were more of the latter than I would have liked. But I found the conversations that ensued interesting, and learned a bit more about Liverpool. And since only one person told me I was (and I quote) “just a bloated twat”, and in the intervening days I’ve been to Birmingham for the Conservative conference, I figured I’d repeat the trick.

What follows is, once again, a personal response to a city. If you disagree – and I’m sure some will – do feel free to get in touch and tell me why.

I actually know Birmingham rather better than Liverpool – my dad’s lived there for nearly 20 years, so I’ve had rather more chance to wander aimlessly around the place. But here are four things that occurred to me while I was getting myself lost on this occasion.

Birmingham city centre looks really, really good

You don’t often hear people say this, do you? When asked to list the most beautiful cities in Europe, people never say, “Paris, Vienna, Brum”.

And historically, there would have been a reason for that. Not so long ago, Birmingham’s most prominent physical features were the old Bull Ring Shopping Centre, which looked like it had got lost on its way to some forgotten province of the Soviet Union, and the inner ring road, which was so efficient at cutting the city centre off from the world around it that it became known as the “concrete collar”.

The old Bull Ring. Image: Star One/Flickr/creative commons.

Well, they’re gone. The silver roundels of the replacement Bull Ring, which opened in 2003, have become a symbol o f the new Birmingham. And much of the traffic from the ring road has been diverted, allowing it to switch from inner city motorway to, well, normal urban road.

What’s more, the dark and cramped New Street station has a new light and airy atrium, while the brutalist Pallisades shopping centre above it has been cleaned up and rebranded as Grand Central. (This confused me slightly when I noticed that the new tram stop outside was called “Grand Central New Street”.) Outside, it you’ll find plenty of grand Victorian buildings and arcades, as well as new offices and flats.

It’s an on-going project – the concrete Central Library was torn down earlier this year as part of the Paradise scheme, and much of the city looks like a building site. And the city probably still isn’t going to be listed alongside Paris any time soon.

Birmingham Cathedral. Image: Stephen McKay/

But there are places – around St Philip’s cathedral, along the New Street pedestrianised centre, by the plush office district of Colmore Row – where Birmingham is as fine a city as any you’ll find in Britain. So we should all start being a bit nicer about the place.

A big part of that is because of the canals

Birmingham, it’s often said, has more canals than Venice. This is true, but ignores the crucial fact that Birmingham is also an order of magnitude larger than Venice and anyway has rather a lot of roads, so it isn’t quite the selling point the slogan suggests.

The canals were crucial to Birmingham’s growth. There’s no obvious geographical reason why a major city should have grown up there: no docks, no easy river crossing (indeed, no river to speak off). The reasons why Birmingham did boom as the industrial revolution took hold seem to have been a combination of a cluster of innovative factories that began to appear in the late 18th century, and its position at the middle of the canal network that was built to serve them.

These days, those canals aren’t much use on that score. But they do provide a lot of nice waterfront, of the sort that make a nice setting for bars, restaurants and high grade office space.

Gas Street Basin. Image: Oosoom/Wikimedia Commons.

At any rate, Birmingham both looks more attractive and feels more affluent than those who haven’t visited recently would probably imagine. Except...

Suddenly, the city just stops

The Tory conference was held in the International Convention Centre (ICC) in Centenary Square. It’s a rather grand plaza, which also contains the new city library, a symphony hall and a theatre. Immediately behind the ICC you’ll find Cambridge Street, where the central business district suddenly stops, and beyond which is a windswept high rise estate.

It’s a similar story elsewhere on the fringes of the city centre, in areas like Birmingham and Ladywood. Suddenly, the grand public squares and newly built flats and offices give way to post-war housing estates.

To an extent, this is a product of Birmingham’s history: for several decades, the concrete collar prevented the business district from expanding, and now it finally has, it’s crashing slap-bang into derelict industrial spaces or depressing estates. But you’ll find variations on this theme in most big British cities – in Liverpool and Manchester and even Bristol, where you turn a corner and suddenly go from a booming city centre to an area that’s very visibly neither.

Maybe it’s a legacy of Blair era boomgoggling. But it’s a slightly disarming experience when you’re used to London, in which both gentrification and commercial activity go on for miles, and where there is no housing depressing enough that you can’t rent it to some early-career solicitors for about £600 a month.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about Birmingham is...

The whole place feels oddly American which I mean that it’s very clear that the city was designed for cars, and the idea you’d want to walk anywhere would baffle those who built the place.

In the city centre, those days are gone. Outside it, they’re not, and you quickly run into a world of six-lane highways and traffic jams that snarl up every rush hour because, in large chunks of the city, the only way to get to work is by road.

There are good reasons for Birmingham’s car-obsession: it was the centre of Britain’s car industry, and used to revel in its reputation as Britain’s “motor city”. That’s begun to change, but it means that the city’s planners spent several decades pouring money into roads rather than other forms of transport.

Once again, this might be my London-centrism speaking, but: this feels quite odd in a conurbation of over 2m people.

The West Midlands is slowly expanding its tram network (though it’s a long way behind Manchester’s, or even Sheffield’s). Its big idea, though, is also road-based: the Sprint network of bus rapid transit routes, which’ll take over some of the ridiculous number of lanes there are on routes such as the Hagley Road.

The first proposed Sprint route. Image: Centro.

How this’ll go down with local drivers, of course, remains to be seen.

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

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T​his article is part of our Midlands Engine series. Click here for more


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.