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