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 Indeed, where people talk about Birmingham, they generally describe a version that’s several decades out of date, a place of concrete, roads and brutalism, where everyone has one of those accents you never hear on the telly.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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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.