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 Indeed, where people talk about Birmingham, they generally describe a version that’s several decades out of date, a place of concrete, roads and brutalism, where everyone has one of those accents you never hear on the telly.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). The 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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What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.