The forgotten city: Why do we ignore Birmingham and the West Midlands?

Birmingham New Street station. Image: Getty.

There are over a million people in Birmingham. In the wider West Midlands metropolitan area, of which it’s the heart, there are well over twice that, and the conurbation has by far the biggest urban economy outside London. For most of the 20th century, Birmingham thought of itself as Britain’s second city, and nobody seemed to snigger.

And yet – for a place of that size and economic importance, we don’t really talk a lot about Birmingham. It doesn’t have the global stature of London, of course, but neither – these things are subjective, but this is nonetheless, I think, true – does it have the cultural weight of Liverpool or Manchester. Indeed, where people talk about Birmingham, they generally describe a version that’s several decades out of date, a place of concrete, roads and brutalism, where everyone has one of those accents you never hear on the telly.

(A side note: in his 1990 book about the English language Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson noted that the French used the phrase “être de Birmingham” to mean, roughly, “to be bored out of your mind”. I’ve always found it amusing, if a bit distressing, that Birmingham’s reputation extended that far – but I can’t find a second source, which suggests that maybe it doesn’t. Pity. Bryson is wrong about the green belt too, you know.)

There are no doubt all sorts of reasons for this cultural obscurity, taking in the lack of major Brummie musical movements, and the fact that Birmingham City FC hasn’t spent all that much time in the Premier League. But part of the explanation may be that the Midlands is, well, exactly what the name and geography would suggest: not quite affluent south, but not quite post-industrial north either.

Birmingham didn’t go into economic decline as early as the northern cities – as late as the 1970s, its booming car industry meant that wages were on a par with London – but it has since fallen quite substantially behind the capital. The result is a fuzzier narrative and regional identity: there’s just not as much to latch on to.

What’s more, its location means that the Midlands is not quite far enough from London to escape the gravitational pull of the capital. Entering New Street Station, one of the first things you see is a screen telling you when the next train to London leaves. As of 2016, perhaps the region’s single biggest investment priority is getting High Speed Two built, thus cutting travel time to the capital from 64 minutes to 49. It’s difficult to imagine any of the big northern cities deciding that their biggest priority was a closer link to London.

I suspect there's one more reason why the West Midlands perhaps doesn’t quite punch its weight – something that’s been making this thing a pain in the bum to write. It’s this: should we be talking about Birmingham, or the West Midlands? Is it one city, or several?

Here’s a map of the region, courtesy of Mr Google:

And here, from Wikipedia, is a map of the region’s urban area and government boundaries:

The old metropolitan county consists of seven councils, three cities, and two urban areas. Between the cities of Birmingham and Wolverhampton lie the three boroughs which make up the Black Country (Dudley, Walsall and Sandwell). These area is basically one continuous urban sprawl – were it not for the big signs, you wouldn’t know you’d left Birmingham at all. Yet if you ask anyone in Wolverhampton, they will tell you very firmly that they are absolutely not Brummies. (Seriously, the Centre for Cities, which counts it as such, gets letters.)

Between Birmingham and Coventry lies Solihull, which is contiguous with the former but which also contains a chunk of green, in which you’ll find an airport and a big convention centre. Coventry and Wolverhampton are part of distinct urban areas, and even fast trains take 47 minutes to cover the 30 miles between the two. (It only takes 64 minutes to get from Coventry to London, 86 miles away.) And yet, they’re both very clearly dependent on Birmingham in some way.

So – is the West Midlands one metro area? Two urban areas? Three cities? Seven boroughs? Is it a mistake to focus on the old metropolitan area, and exclude the commuter satellite towns around it (Redditch, Tamworth, Telford etc)? Is it, as I once wrote in an obvious bid for attention, just Greater Birmingham? Or it is something else?

This is not purely an academic matter: disputes over boundaries and identity have a knock on effect on governance, and that has an effect on policy. Without a common identity, city regions have struggled to create common institutions. Without those, they struggle to solve joint problems, or build a single economy. 

I don’t think it’s mad to suggest that this is one reason Manchester is seen as the coming city, and bigger, richer Birmingham isn’t. Suburbs of the former grew up as satellites of it, and so are generally happy to accept their role as part of a city of 2m. Greater Manchester is a coherent thing. By contrast, many in Coventry and Wolverhampton maintain they are living in proud independent cities: they don’t want to be off-shoots of Birmingham. Better to be an independent small city than a subservient part of a large one.

And so the leaders of the former presents a united front the world, and gets the ministerial attention and cultural adoration, while the leaders of the latter squabble openly about who and what they are – and everyone still sees it simply as the place with the concrete and the brutalism.


At least, that’s my theory. But maybe I’m being unfair. Just maybe, the region is moving on, because late last year – against many cynical expectations – the West Midlands agreed a devolution deal. Now, people have started using the phrase “Midlands Engine” in the same way they use the phrase “Northern Powerhouse”. (That is, as a flattering label for the region, rather than as a reflection of actual policy; but hey, it’s a start.)

And next May, Labour’s Sion Simon and Andy Lewis, the Conservative former boss of John Lewis, will compete to become the region’s first metro mayor. 

The new mayor’s inbox will be pretty full. The West Midlands has pretty poor public transport, and is facing a housing shortage, of the sort that can only be addressed by getting its seven boroughs to work more closely together. Will the new mayor have the sort of clout required to make them do that? Are they ready to give up that sort of power?

Over the last few months, I’ve been intermittently been trying to find out, and trying to get a sense of how the region’s various components see their future. This is where I own up to having tricked you: because this is actually the first part of a series. In later instalments I’m going to look at the priorities and economies of Birmingham and Coventry.

But next week, I’m going to start at the north western tip of the conurbation and ask: what’s the deal with Wolverhampton?

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

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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: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

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.