The property industry is telling investors that Greater Birmingham is a thing

Sorry, Solihull, you're Greater Birmingham now. Image: Velela/Wikimedia Commons.

There's a Greater London. There's a Greater Manchester. But there is no Greater Birmingham – and woe betide anybody who forgets this. Probably the single angriest response we've ever received to any article published on CityMetric was to this one:

Okay, we were sort of asking for it, but still.

Now there are a number of reasons why the West Midlands, as the conurbation in the middle of England is awkwardly known, eschewed the naming conventions in use in other British cities. Part of it is geography: Birmingham sits to one side of its conurbation, rather than being at the centre of it.

And part of it is history: Wolverhampton and the towns of Black Country have their own economies and their own industries, and didn't grow up simply as dormitory suburbs for Brum. (Even now Wolverhampton is sometimes counted as a separate city by European agencies and so forth, which frankly makes economic comparisons with, say, Manchester a right pain.)

But whatever the reason, the result is the same: many of the good people of the West Midlands reject the idea that they are living in Birmingham at all. When the region's council leaders were considering a regional authority, the only thing they were completely agreed on is that it wouldn't be known as Greater Birmingham. In an article last November, the political editor of the Birmingham Post, Jonathan Walker argued, in not so many words, that the choice of name was "antagonistic" to the non-Birmingham bits of the conurbation and so should be dropped.

Even the Greater Birmingham & Solihull LEP, the one official body with the dreaded phrase in its name

a) feels the need to pretend Solihull is just as a important as Birmingham (it isn’t), and anyway

b) excludes the whole of the Black Country, which one might think would be part of Greater Birmingham, but no, which has its own LEP.

So – there's no Greater Birmingham, there has never been a Greater Birmingham, and there never will be a Greater Birmingham.

But what's this?

That's from a press pack we were emailed last week. Greater Birmingham, you'll be excited to hear, is at the heart of a £110bn regional economy. More businesses were started in Greater Birmingham over the last two years than anywhere else in the UK outside London. It offers a host of exciting opportunities for property developers right across the region – from Wolverhampton in the north west to Solihull in the south east, Greater Birmingham is going places.

Which means that it must, y'know, exist in some way. Right?

We asked a spokesperson from Marketing Birmingham. Here's what she said:

Greater Birmingham doesn’t have any official status – it’s just used for MIPIM, targeting an international property audience. It involves Birmingham, the Black Country and Solihull.

Okay. So, Greater Birmingham doesn't actually exist. It's just that if you're trying to sell the conurbation to an international audience it's better to use Birmingham (which people have heard of) than the West Midlands (which they haven't) or, worse, "Birmingham, Wolverhampton, the Black Country and Solihull" (which, ouch).

In other words, the further you go from the city – from any city, really – the less important the distinctions between its various components become. Within the Midlands, there is a meaningful difference between Wolverhampton and Solihull. But viewed from London this looks like nitpicking; viewed internationally it looks incomprehensible. If the West Midlands is competing for investment with Marseille or Milan or Medellin, then Birmingham – however unlikely this sounds – is the best weapon it could have.

Which is basically we said before everybody started yelling at us, but hey. Anyway, here's an artists impression of what the "Paradise" quarter will look like once they've demolished the library and finished redoing it.

Image: Birmingham City Council.


Budget 2017: Philip Hammond just showed that rejecting metro mayors was a terrible, terrible error

Sorry, Leeds, nothing here for you: Philip Hammond and his big red box. Image: Getty.

There were some in England’s cities, one sensed, who breathed a sigh of relief when George Osborne left the Treasury. Not only was he the architect of austerity, a policy which had seen council budgets slashed as never before: he’d also refused to countenance any serious devolution to city regions that refused to have a mayor, an innovation that several remained dead-set against.

So his political demise after the Brexit referendum was seen, in some quarters, as A Good Thing for devolution. The new regime, it was hoped, would be amenable to a variety of governance structures more sensitive to particular local needs.

Well, that theory just went out of the window. In his Budget statement today, in between producing some of the worst growth forecasts that anyone can remember and failing to solve the housing crisis, chancellor Philip Hammond outlined some of the things he was planning for Britain’s cities.

And, intentionally or otherwise, he made it very clear that it was those areas which had accepted Osborne’s terms which were going to win out. 

The big new announcement was a £1.7bn “Transforming Cities Fund”, which will

“target projects which drive productivity by improving connectivity, reducing congestion and utilising new mobility services and technology”.

To translate this into English, this is cash for better public transport.

And half of this money will go straight to the six city regions which last May elected their first metro mayor elections. The money is being allocated on a per capita basis which, in descending order of generosity, means:

  • £250m to West Midlands
  • £243 to Greater Manchester
  • £134 to Liverpool City Region
  • £80m to West of England
  • £74m to Cambridgeshire &d Peterborough
  • £59m to Tees Valley

That’s £840m accounted for. The rest will be available to other cities – but the difference is, they’ll have to bid for it.

So the Tees Valley, which accepted Osborne’s terms, will automatically get a chunk of cash to improve their transport system. Leeds, which didn’t, still has to go begging.

One city which doesn’t have to go begging is Newcastle. Hammond promised to replace the 40 year old trains on the Tyne & Wear metro at a cost of £337m. In what may or may not be a coincidence, he also confirmed a new devolution deal with the “North of Tyne” region (Newcastle, North Tyne, Northumberland). This is a faintly ridiculous geography for such a deal, since it excludes Sunderland and, worse, Gateshead, which is, to most intents and purposes, simply the southern bit of Newcastle. But it’s a start, and will bring £600m more investment to the region. A new mayor will be elected in 2018.

Hammond’s speech contained other goodies for cites too, of course. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • £123m for the regeneration of the Redcar Steelworks site: that looks like a sop to Ben Houchen, the Tory who unexpectedly won the Tees Valley mayoral election last May;
  • A second devolution deal for the West Midlands: tat includes more money for skills and housing (though the sums are dwarfed by the aforementioned transport money);
  • A new local industrial strategy for Greater Manchester, as well as exploring “options for the future beyond the Fund, including land value capture”;
  • £300m for rail improvements tied into HS2, which “will enable faster services between Liverpool and Manchester, Sheffeld, Leeds and York, as well as to Leicester and other places in the East Midlands and London”.

Hammond also made a few promises to cities beyond England: opening negotiations for a Belfast City Deal, and pointing to progress on city deals in Dundee and Stirling.

A city that doesn’t get any big promises out of this budget is – atypically – London. Hammond promised to “continue to work with TfL on the funding and financing of Crossrail 2”, but that’s a long way from promising to pay for it. He did mention plans to pilot 100 per cent business rate retention in the capital next year, however – which, given the value of property in London, is potentially quite a big deal.

So at least that’s something. And London, as has often been noted, has done very well for itself in most budgets down the year.

Many of the other big regional cities haven’t. Yet Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham and Derby were all notable for their absence, both from Hammond’s speech and from the Treasury documents accompanying it.

And not one of them has a devolution deal or a metro mayor.

(If you came here looking for my thoughts on the housing element of the budget speech, then you can find them over at the New Statesman. Short version: oh, god.)

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook