Solihull and the Black Country should get over themselves. It's time for Greater Birmingham

Birmingham is beautiful. Image: Lee Jordan on Flickr, reused under creative commons.

If Britain's cities are to regain their greatness, they need to learn to act as one. 

I'm sorry Sandwell. I'm sure you're a lovely place – I hear good things about Wednesbury – and there's no easy way of saying this. But... you're not that important. You don't matter all that much.

If it's any consolation to the good people of Sandwell, it isn't alone in this. Walsall doesn't really matter either. Neither does Dudley, come to that. Wolverhampton matters a little bit, I suppose, but it still vanishes into insignificance compared to the one place that really matters in the West Midlands, a conurbation which is basically – and let's be honest about this – greater Birmingham. 

That is almost certainly the point at which a stream of abuse will pour forth from residents of Solihull and the Black Country, all keen to tell us that they have their own local identities, their own local histories, and that whatever else they are, they are definitely not part of any Birmingham, greater or otherwise. To which I respond thus: 

a) Oh yes you are, and 

b) Quit whining. 

This is not a trivial argument. Over the weekend, five of the region's councils - Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Walsall, Sandwell, and Dudley - announced that they were, at long last, planning to create a "super-council", equivalent to the Manchester or Leeds city regions. They're trying to persuade Solihull and Coventry to join the party, too. Nobody is quite sure yet what it'll be called.

But the one name that's absolutely been ruled out is "Greater Birmingham". Doing that would commit the cardinal sin or drawing attention to the slightly embarrassing, yet obviously true, fact that Birmingham is vastly bigger and more important than any of its partners. Birmingham still has a claim to being England's second city. Dudley does not. Get over yourselves.

We've been here before. It's why the metropolitan council that once covered the region ended up with the geographically unhelpful moniker of the West Midlands. The same argument, in different regions, gave us such cheerfully inane names for counties as Tyne & Wear and Avon. (Rivers, it seems are not controversial.)


But the apotheosis of this refusal by suburbs to recognise their subordinate status came last February, when the new city region covering Merseyside (see?) was briefly known as the "Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, St Helens, Sefton & Wirral Combined Authority". There is a fair chance that you've never heard of at least three of those places. This, to my mind, makes it a pretty crappy name. 

A sensible name for the conurbation on either side of the river Mersey would be one that screams THIS IS LIVERPOOL. Partly this is because it's where the region's economy is centred. It's where people commute to. It's where most job growth will be. Consequently, any authority for the region that isn't focused on providing transport to Liverpool, skills for Liverpool and housing for Liverpool isn't doing its job properly. Things that happen in Liverpool will benefit the entire conurbation; things that happen in Knowsley won't. 

The other reason why the region formerly known as Merseyside should be telling the world that it's Liverpool is that people have actually bloody heard of Liverpool. There are tribes in the Amazon, unknown to anthropology, who can nonetheless talk about Steven Gerrard and hum the tune to “Yesterday”. When the city authorities are trying to persuade Qatari or Chinese businessmen to invest in Liverpool, rather than in Lyon, this is no small advantage. Telling people you're from Sefton doesn't have quite the same cachet. 

In the end, the HKLSHSWCA changed its name to the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, which is still horrible, but at least makes some kind of sense. West Yorkshire is now the Leeds City Region; South Yorkshire is now the Sheffield City Region. The outer boroughs in these places have recognised the reality that their prosperity will depend in large part of the success of the city they surround. 

The Midlands should do the same. Yes, the region is diverse; yes, it's multi-centred; and yes, the Ruhr manages quite happily to exist without a single dominant city. But the West Midlands is not the Ruhr, and it does have a dominant city. And if Bradford can accept its future depends on Leeds, then Wolverhampton can accept it depends on Birmingham. 

You're Greater Birmingham. Deal with it. Now stop mucking about and get building.

 
 
 
 

The best way to make housing more affordable? Raise interest rates

Lol, no. Image: Getty.

Speaking to the Conservative Party conference in September 2017, the UK prime minister, Theresa May, gave a stark assessment of the UK housing market which made for depressing listening for many young people: “For many the chance of getting onto the housing ladder has become a distant dream”, she said.

Now a new report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) provides further, clear evidence of this. The study finds that home ownership among 25 to 34-year-olds has declined sharply over the past 20 years. Home ownership rates have declined from 43 per cent at age 27 for someone born in the late 1970s, to just 25 per cent for someone aged 27 who was born in the late 1980s.

The most significant decline has been for middle-income young people, whose rate of home ownership has fallen from 65 per cent in 1995-6 to 27 per cent now – most significantly hitting aspirant buyers in London and the South-East.

Causes and consequences

The IFS study lays the blame for all this on the growing gap between house prices and incomes. Adjusting for inflation, house prices have risen 150 per cent in the 20 years to 2015-16, while real incomes for 25 to 34-year-olds have grown by 22 per cent (and almost all of that growth happened before the 2008 crash).

A bleak picture. Image: Institute for Fiscal Studies.

But, as the report acknowledges, the problem goes much deeper than this. Home ownership rates differ by region. Although there has been a decline in home ownership rates for young people across all areas of Great Britain, the decline is less significant in the North East and Cumbria as well as in Scotland and the South West. The biggest decline in ownership has been in the South-East, the North-West (excluding Cumbria) and London.

So a person aged 25 to 34 is more than twice as likely to own their own home in Cumbria, as their counterpart in London. Worse, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to own their own homes – even after controlling for differences in education and earnings. Home ownership continues to reflect a deeper inequality of opportunity in our society.


More houses needed

Part of the problem is that both Labour and Conservative governments have seen housing as a single, stand-alone market and have focused their attention on what is happening to prices in London. But housing is a number of different markets, which have regional variations and different interactions between the owner-occupier, private rented and social rented sectors.

Regional variations in house prices for similar sized properties reflect the imbalances of the economy: it is heavily reliant on financial services, which are concentrated in London, while the public sector makes up a significant share of many local economies – particularly in the North. Migration from across the UK to overcrowded and expensive areas – such as London and the South-East – have put property prices in those areas even further out of reach for would-be buyers.

To make matters worse, both Labour and Conservative governments have routinely failed to build enough houses. While the current government’s aim to build 300,000 new properties a year by 2020 is welcome, it is simply not enough to meet the backlog in demand – let alone address the fundamental affordability problem.

Where homes are being built, they’re often the wrong types of homes, in the wrong places. Family homes are being built, despite there being some 4m under-occupied such properties across the country.

Not that long ago, government was reducing the housing stock in many parts of the North, through the disastrous Housing Market Renewal programme. Houses are currently being sold in smaller cities such as Liverpool and Stoke-on-Trent for just £1. And none of the government’s actions suggest that ministers understand these issues, or are prepared to address them.

House price inflation – and the awful affect it is having on home ownership rates for young people – is part of a wider problem of the global asset bubble. This bubble has seen huge increases in the price of assets – stocks, housing, bonds – in high income countries such as the UK. Successive governments have helped to fuel this through quantitative easing, ultra-cheap money and successive raids on pension funds.

The ConversationWhat’s needed to address this asset bubble is a substantive increase in interest rates. But while this may slow the growth in house prices, the sad truth is it will do nothing to make housing more affordable for most young people.

Chris O'Leary, Deputy Director, Policy Evaluation and Research Unit and Senior Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.