Why is The West Midlands so much bluer than England’s other metropolitan counties?

Newly elected Midlands mayor Andy Street, with unsuccessful Labour opponent Sion Simon trailing in his wake. Image: Getty.

For a long time, the Tories have had a strong base of support across the metropolitan parts of the West Midlands. Up until the 2018 Birmingham City Council election, they held wards throughout the city, from inner city Edgbaston, to Bournville, which sits about halfway between the centre and the southern edge of the city, as well total dominance in the northern suburb of Sutton Coldfield

These particular areas, for long time, have had a concentration of demographics that favoured Conservatives: middle class, wealthy, predominantly-white British. Birmingham is, in truth, a very diverse city, but not an integrated one. As a result, neighbouring wards sometimes had staggering support for opposing parties – something which often correlated with high concentration of one class or ethnic group or an intersection of the two.

However, many of the seats in these wards were lost to the Tories this year. At the same time, they gained others, mostly in the poorer parts in the south of the city and in the Black Country. This was no real surprise considering last year’s general election results; the West Midlands was the one region in the UK where the Conservatives had a net gain of seats against Labour in 2017.

The West Midlands also had one of the widest overall margin of support for Brexit in the country: almost 60 per cent. That is one of the main reasons the Tories lost in places like Edgbaston (where you’ll find a major university and hospital, as well as concentrated support for Remain), while gaining in the Black Country, where support for Brexit was close to 70 per cent.

The Brexit referendum result in the West Midlands region: only Warwick District Council, in yellow, had a clear majority for Remain. Image: Wikipedia.

So was this just a simple case of voters switching support between parties based on where they stand on the defining issue of our time? Or does this speak to something deeper?

The region’s post-industrial economic decline was most acutely felt in majority-working class areas, like those found in Birmingham, Coventry, Stoke, and the Black Country where support for Brexit was staggering. The fall of living standards, even before the economic crash, certainly contributed to voter – many of whom had supported Labour for generations – going on to vote for Brexit because they wanted change. The Conservatives were smart to target this group: huge numbers of these voters had become disillusioned with a Remain-supporting Labour party which they felt hadn’t done enough to address their concerns while in office.


While plenty of urban areas in England had a majority vote for Brexit, none were as consistently high in their support as the West Midlands, particularly in the Black Country and Stoke. The metro areas in the West Midlands, much like those in the North of England are often labelled as Labour heartlands – usually by those who subscribe to a belief in “traditional Labour voters", a coded way of saying “white and working class”, or simply those who defaulted to Labour because they trended poorer and less educated.

While this is a gross oversimplification and misunderstanding of social and economic class in this country, the biggest electoral problem here is entitlement. Assuming that Labour, or former Labour, voters who opted for Brexit would return after the referendum and collapse of UKIP was as foolish as the Conservatives thinking the same for themselves about Tories who voted Remain. As the last election showed, class is no longer a reliable indicator of voting intention – but support for Brexit is, and the Tories are gaining in towns where support for Brexit was at its highest.

Brexit can’t be the only factor in the Tories’ growing foothold in the Midlands, not least because it’s both a cause and effect. But it certainly correlates with a more general realignment that comes with gains for both parties at each other’s expense. And while voters are moving in both directions, the shifts are not always equal. In Birmingham, the current council is almost exactly the same in composition after this year’s election compared to the previous one despite seat changes – but in the more Brexity Black Country, the Conservatives had far more opportunity to gain. And so, they did.

Why is it so different in the Black Country to Birmingham itself? The West Midlands recently has one of the highest shares of its population claiming unemployment benefits of anywhere in England. If anywhere fits into the “left behind” narrative, it’s here.

And although Birmingham’s GPD is second only to London’s, it also has greater inequality than in any other major English city. Birmingham saw mass unemployment even before the financial crash, with factories closing, like the Longbridge Rover plant, predating the recession. Levels of unemployment are currently among the highest in the country; and, in terms of income and employment deprivation, Birmingham is the most deprived local authority in the entire country.

Parliamentary constituencies in the West Midlands Combined Authority area. From west to east, the area contains Wolverhampton, the Black Country, Birmingham, Solihull and Coventry. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

That said, Birmingham is also very diverse. That may well explain why support for Brexit was almost exactly 50-50 (significantly lower than its neighbours), and why the political balance has remained the same for the past two elections.

The Black Country is economically similar, with all the above problems; but it’s far less diverse and has seen even less infrastructure spending. Unemployment is twice the national average across the Black Country; other measures of deprivation are also high. Like Birmingham, this was once the home of the industrial revolution, and when those industries waned, people got poorer and poorer. A vote for change was inevitable.

In the wider West Midlands, the area with the highest level of support for Brexit was the city of Stoke-on-Trent: 69.4 per cent. The Conservatives gained an MP here in 2017 with a 16 per cent increase in their vote. From pottery, to coalmining, to steelworks, Stoke-on-Trent has seen industries that employed huge swathes of its population vanish, mostly in the past few decades. With nothing in place to replace them, Stoke has, unsurprisingly, suffered from levels of unemployment that are hard to comprehend. Recently, in one suburb, fully half of all working-age adults were reliant on Job Seeker’s Allowance.

These are places where Labour once commanded staggering majorities but the Conservatives are now thriving. And while Brexit is a symptom as much as a cause, it has provided a gateway for the Conservatives to re-establish themselves in more urban areas where turnout is lower, more than offsetting their losses elsewhere.


As in the rest of the country, the Conservatives are haemorrhaging support in the more socially liberal built-up areas, particularly ones that trended Remain, like Warwick. But Labour face the opposite problem in socially conservative Leave areas – which, unfortunately for the left, comprise the majority of the West Midlands.

And while Labour dominates in the cities, it struggles in towns. And the metropolitan areas in the West Midlands happen to include a lot of large towns, like Dudley, where the two major parties are neck and neck. In the most recent general election, Labour only held onto Dudley North by only 22 votes. 

Through decades of underinvestment and stagnation, appetite for change has grown amongst an electorate which once supported Labour but which voted for Brexit in staggering numbers. And unlike in most Northern metro areas, the Conservatives already had a large base of support and party infrastructure in the West Midlands through which they could target vulnerable seats as others drifted from them.

Of course a Leave-supporting Tory Party promising change is tempting to these Leave voters in the West Midlands. And until the Brexit issue is resolved, it will continue to underpin how we all vote.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.