Reviving Joseph Chamberlain: How Wolverhampton is using municipal power to build a new economy

The i10 building, which the council helped fund. Image: City of Wolverhampton.

Here’s a piece of trivia for you: Wolverhampton is the only British city ever to build its own motorway junction. 

In 2013, the council teamed up with neighbouring Staffordshire to build a new junction 2 on the M54, serving the i54 business park, which straddles the boundaries between the two councils. They borrowed the £40m required to fund the project against future business rate revenues.

To a public transport nerd like me, this seems like an odd sort of a thing for a council to prioritise. 

The i54 business park, north of Wolverhampton. Image: Google.

For Wolverhampton, though, it makes perfect sense. The 98 hectare i54 park is one of the city’s most important employment zones, home to companies including laboratories group Eurofins, manufacturer Moog and, most importantly, Jaguar Land Rover, which builds engines there. i54 is a big part of the reason why the West Midlands remains the centre of the UK’s manufacturing industry, and is the only region of the country with a positive trade balance with China.

The city council would like to see the Midlands Metro tram network extended to the park, but even optimistically that’s many years off. For many people in the West Midlands conurbation, commuting means driving. And so, to link local residents to job opportunities, the city decided to build its motorway junction.

“We want as many [of the park’s] employees as possible to be Wolverhampton residents,” the council’s managing director Keith Ireland told me when I visited the city some months back: the more locals there are in decent jobs, the less pressure there’ll be on council budgets.

It’s easy, when thinking and writing about cities, to become obsessed with stuff that is, if not exactly sexy, then at least the sort of thing that’s exciting to nerds. A new tram line, or a new metro mayor – these are the sort of things that will change the way a city looks from inside the bubble.

But from the perspective of the people actually running city councils, as lovely as these things are, they’re often less important than cold hard cash. Austerity has seen local authority funding slashed by 40 per cent, with many of the deepest cuts reserved for deprived Labour-led areas like Wolverhampton. The devolution of business rates, promised by George Osborne last autumn, will go some way to filling that gap – but it won’t close it entirely, and will anyway do most for those areas that already have the best economies. There’s also a mismatch of timing: the last of the revenue support grant, through which central government is currently funding councils, will be lost in 2018-19, while the new, devolved funding won’t materialise until the following year. 

In Wolverhampton, these problems are amplified by the fact that the city wasn’t exactly booming to start with. It’s seven kilometres from affluent Tettenhall in the north west to Bilston in the south east, notes the council leader, Roger Lawrence. And every kilometre you walk, male life expectancy drops by a year. 

Making economies

But Lawrence claims that the city’s economy is in a rather better state than one might think.  Much of the data doesn’t capture how well the city’s economy is actually doing, he argues, because so many of the city’s higher earners live outside the city boundaries in Staffordshire. “When they look at our data, people say, you’re not doing very well, are you? But if you drew the boundary this tightly that’d be true of any city.” The standard productivity measure of GVA, he adds, “means something nationally, and probably regionally – but it doesn’t mean anything locally”. (It’s hard not to take this as a subtweet.)

Nonetheless, the point is that Wolverhampton is under a lot of pressure to do things but doesn’t have a lot of cash with which to do them.  “If we’re not careful,” Ireland argues, “adult social care and children’s social care could be all that’s left.”

The statue of Lady Wulfrun, the 10th century noble for whom the city is named. Image: David Stowell/Wikimedia Commons.

So how does a city deal with that? Wolverhampton has a dual strategy. One part involves a “transformational” approach to its existing services, which is basically a euphemism for helping people to help themselves.

By way of example, it costs the city around £30,000 a year to keep a child in social care. Much of that money could be saved if the council intervened early, and focused on supporting the extended family to care for the child instead. Do that for 100 kids, and you’ve saved the better part of £3m from the city budget. “In the good old days, the question was: what can we do to help you?” Ireland says. “Now it’s: what can you do to help yourself?”

The other part of the city’s strategy is to think more commercially. That sometimes means finding ways of maximising revenues from things like leisure or cultural facilities: attracting larger audiences, or selling them more things once they’re through the doors. (in Lawrence’s words, “food, drink, hard boiled sweets they can crush with their teeth...”).

Where possible, it’s also re-directing money to investing in projects that can bring growth. That motorway junction is one example. Another is the i10 office development next to the station. The city has decent train and road connections – but it lacks the high quality office demanded by employers. And so, the council has decided to build some.

This isn’t always easy: Ireland admits, it can be difficult to make the case for “investment at a time when we’re making people redundant”. But there’s a theme emerging here: filling in the gaps. Sometimes that means investing in facilities; sometimes it means investing in skills. Either way, because the council doesn’t have the money to provide all the services it once did, it’s trying to work out how it can get most bang for its buck.


Due south

Ask anyone in Wolverhampton, and they will tell you firmly that, no, it is not a part of Birmingham. But its leaders admit, nonetheless, that working with the wider West Midlands region will be vital to the city’s future.

To that end, Lawrence is keen to invest in the local transport system to maximise the benefits of High Speed 2: “It’s all very well saying you can get to London in 14 seconds and Manchester in an hour if you can’t get to the bloody station,” says Lawrence. He wants to look into changing the rules around the M6 toll-road, too – for example, by removing the toll when there’s an accident on the M6 proper – on the grounds that it’s currently underused.

The relationship with the conurbation’s other councils is smoother than people realise, Lawrence claims. When I suggest the West Midlands devolution deal had come as a surprise to a lot of observers, he replies – another subtweet -  “Well, a lot of people aren’t very clever, are they. There was a lot of play acting going on. We were squeezing every last ounce out of the government.”

But he clearly remains convinced that Wolverhampton’s future is as a city in its own right, not as a northern suburb of Birmingham. The city and the three Black Country boroughs have a larger population than Brum proper, he notes, and “probably more canals too”. “We’re good friends with Coventry, because we can gang up on Birmingham,” he adds. The two other cities, he says, see their role as balancing their bigger neighbour’s influence over the West Midlands.

Hasn’t this infighting held the region back, I suggest? ”Perhaps the Midlands has not done very well at selling itself,” Lawrence admits. “When [the Greater Manchester councils] go into a room and have a row, they don’t carry it on outside, which perhaps we have.” But he rejects the idea the region’s lack of a coherent identity will hold it back. “Merseyside has got a huge identity,” he notes. “You can’t eat it.”

This is part two of a series on the West Midlands. You can read part one here. Next time: it’s on to Birmingham.

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

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

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.