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 Indeed, where people talk about Birmingham, they generally describe a version that’s several decades out of date, a place of concrete, roads and brutalism, where everyone has one of those accents you never hear on the telly.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

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.


There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).