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 some 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.

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Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.


He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”