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 Indeed, where people talk about Birmingham, they generally describe a version that’s several decades out of date, a place of concrete, roads and brutalism, where everyone has one of those accents you never hear on the telly.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.