Here are four thoughts on Birmingham’s new tram plan

Oooh, shiny. Image: Transport for the West Midlands.

Last week on our Facebook page (you like that already, right? You should definitely like it), we received a complaint, of sorts: that we don't write enough about Birmingham.

If there's any validity to this, it's for a simple reason. Much of our most widely-shared content is about transport. And Birmingham's transport is pretty, well, rubbish: a few commuter rail lines, an extensive but under-regulated bus network, and a single, solitary light rail line which, let's be honest about this, makes for a rubbish map.

To make matters worse, for most of its life, the Midlands Metro – the light rail line in question – didn't make it into Birmingham City centre at all. From its opening in May 1999 right up until 2016, trams terminated on the northern fringe of the city's central business district at Snow Hill. At the other end of the line, they didn't make it to the heart of Wolverhampton, either.

The line as it was. Click to expand. Image: Transport for the West Midlands.

All of which was great for passenger numbers, obviously.

But that is, gradually, changing. In May last year, the route was extended to three new stations, ending at the recently renovated Birmingham New Street station. And over the weekend, the Department for Transport announced it was chucking £60m into the pot to help pay for the £149m extension which will take the line another mile or so through to Birmingham's rapidly redeveloping Westside.

Here's a map of where the five new stations will be:

Click to expand. Image: Transport for the West Midlands.

Some observations, in no particular order:

Those names suck

I'm not convinced those names will stick. For one thing, the stop labelled "Stephenson Street" on that map is already open, except it’s actually called "Grand Central". (The rather grandiose name refers to the shiny new shopping centre on top of New Street station.)

For another, there already is a Five ways railway station, not particularly close to the Five Ways tram stop (the original Five Ways is a roundabout). And Edgbaston is more than a little vague, since Edgbaston is a fairly big suburban district which taken as a whole is probably bigger than the entire city centre. So my guess is at least some of these stops will ultimately open under different names.

What's with the hair-pin turn?

The result of this extension will be a slightly odd shaped line, which heads south east into the city, then turns abruptly south west.

This makes a lot more sense when you see the city centre chunk of the route as something as yet unbuilt suburban routes can later plug into – rather than simply a weirdly circuitous route from the Jewellery Quarter to Five Ways.

Where to next?

As to where those later extensions might be, in his manifesto, the region's metro mayor Andy Street promised to

“Start the construction of the Midlands Metro extension to Brierley Hill and gain agreement to extend it to North Solihull and Birmingham Airport.”

The former of those is a more orbital route, that'll leave the mainline at Wednesbury and head south west through Dudley.

The latter sounds a lot like the oft-proposed East Side extension. That would leave the main line at Corporation Street, probably serve the existing station at Moor Street and the proposed High Speed 2 terminal at Curzon Street, and then run through the eastern suburbs towards Solihull, the airport, even Coventry.

Although nobody's talking about it yet, a western line seems plausible as well. That "Edgbaston" terminus on Hagley Road would connect up nicely with the proposed SPRINT line: a bus rapid transit route which would run the length of the Hagley Road, towards Bearwood and Quinton. It would seem strange to me to go to the trouble of building a segregated bus lane on that busy arterial, rather than to spend a few more quid and make it part of the tram network.

That said, I'm clearly speculating here. And artist's impressions of how Sprint would look clearly show it next to the tram at Edgbaston, so who knows:

Image: Transport for the West Midlands.

Oh yeah, and in the north the powers that be are finally extending the line to Wolverhampton proper. Good show, lads.

Why now?

Why the sudden government enthusiasm for spending money on public transport outside London? Doesn't this seem to go against everything transport secretary Chris Grayling seems to stand for?


Well, yes. But I suspect there's a simple reason. Of the big secondary English cities, the West Midlands is the only one with a Conservative mayor. Consequently, the Tories in national government would really quite like to see Andy Street succeed.

This extension has been on the table for some time, so I'm not saying this is the entire motivation. Nonetheless, I suspect the current management at the DfT will have been rather more easily persuaded of the value of this one than they would be of a £60m transport project in, say, Liverpool.

Anyway. The new line should be open by the spring of 2021. Which is nice.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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British television once sounded like Britain. But then, the ITV mergers happened

The Granada Studios, Quay Street, Manchester. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

This summer, several ITV franchises celebrated half a century of continuous operation. There was a Yorkshire Television themed cake, and a flag bearing the company’s logo was flown over ITV’s Yorkshire base for a time. It was all very jolly – but while a few people beyond Britain’s small community of television historians and old telly nerds engaged with the idea, any excitement was brief.

The main reason for is not, as you might assume, that, in the era of streaming and so forth, ITV is no longer a dominant presence in many people’s cultural lives: even the quickest of glances at the relevant figures would tell you otherwise. No, it’s because the mere existence of ITV’s franchises is now passing out of common memory. They are the trademarks, literally rather than figuratively, of a version of ITV that today exists only nominally.

For most of its history, ITV operated on a federal model. ITV wasn’t a company, it was a concept: ‘Independent Television’, that is, television which was not the BBC.

It was also a network, rather than a channel – a network of multiple regional channels, each of which served a specific area of the UK. Each had their own name and onscreen identity; and each made programmes within their own region. They were ITV – but they were also Yorkshire, Granada, Grampian, Thames, and so on.

So when I was a child growing up the in Midlands in the ‘80s, no one at school ever said “ITV”: they said “Central”, because that’s what the channel called itself on air, or “Channel Three” because that’s where it was on the dial. To visit friends who lived in other regions was to go abroad – to visit strange lands where the third channel was called Anglia, and its logo was a bafflingly long film sequence of a model knight rotating on a record turntable, where all the newsreaders were different and where they didn’t show old horror films on Friday nights.

The ITV regions as of 1982, plus Ireland. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, there were programmes that were shown across the whole network. Any station, no matter in what part of the country, would be foolish not to transmit Coronation Street during the period where it could persuade nearly half the population to tune in. But even The Street wasn’t networked from the beginning: it started in six of the then eight ITV regions, and rolled out to the other two after a few months when it became clear the series was here to stay.

This was a common occurrence: The Avengers, one of the few ITV series to genuinely break America, began in an even more limited number of regions in the same year, with other areas scrambling to catch up when the programme became a hit.

The idea behind ITV’s structure was that the regions would compete with each other to put programmes on the network, opting in and out of others’ productions as worked best for them. ITV was, after all, an invention of a 1950s Conservative government that was developing a taste for the idea of ‘healthy competition’ even as it accepted the moral and practical case for a mixed economy. The system worked well for decades: in 1971, for example, the success of London Weekend Television’s Upstairs, Downstairs, creatively and commercially, and domestically and internationally, prompted other regions to invest in high end period dramas so as to not look like a poor relation.


Even away from prestige productions there was, inexplicable as it now seems, a genuine sense of local pride when a hit programme came from your region. That Bullseye was made on Broad Street in Birmingham was something that people knew. That 17.6m people watched the 1984 Xmas special, making it one of the ten most watched programmes of the year, made Bully a sort of local hero. In more concrete terms, Bullseye and other Birmingham based programmes provided jobs, and kept that part of the country visible from all others. This was true of all areas, and from all areas.

ITV franchises would often make programmes that were distinctive to, or set in, their region. Another of Central’s late eighties hits was Boon. It might have starred the cockney-sounding Michael Elphick, but it was filmed and set in Birmingham, just as Central’s predecessor ATV’s Public Eye had been at the end of the sixties. In Tales of the Unexpected, one of the poorest and smallest ITV regions, the aforementioned Anglia, made a bona fide international hit, largely filmed in transmission area, too. HTV produced a string of children’s series set in its south west catchment area, including some, such as The Georgian House, that examined the way the area had profited from the slave trade.

There was another element of ‘competition’ in the structure of ITV as originally conceived: the franchises were not for life. Every few years, a franchise round would come along, forcing the incumbent stations to bid to continue its own existence against other local offerings.

The process was no simple auction. Ministers were empowered to reject higher financial bids if they felt a lower bid offered other things that mattered: local employment or investment, programming plans that reflected the identity of the region they were bidding to serve, or simply higher quality programmes.

Yorkshire Television itself owes its existence to just such a franchise round: the one that followed a 1967 decision by regulator IBA that Granada, until then the holder of a pan-northern England licence, was insufficiently local to Yorkshire. For a decade, commissioning and production had been concentrated in Manchester, with little representation of, or benefit for, the other side of the Pennines. IBA’s decision was intended to correct this.

Yorkshire existed in practical terms for almost exactly 40 years. Its achievements included Rising Damp, the only truly great sitcom ever made for ITV.

But in 1997 it was, ironically, bought out by Granada, the company who had had to move aside in order for it to be created. What had changed? The law.

In 1990, another Conservative government, one even keener on competition and rather less convinced of the moral and practical case for a mixed economy, had changed the rules concerning ITV regions. There was still a ‘quality threshold’ of a sort – but there was less discretion for those awarding the franchises. Crucially, the rules had been liberalised, and the various ITV franchises that existed as of 1992 started buying out, merging with and swallowing one another until, in 2004, the last two merged to form ITV plc: a single company and a single channel.

The Yorkshire Television birthday cake. Image: ITV.

Yorkshire Television – or rather ITV Yorkshire as it was renamed in 2006 – is listed at Companies House as a dormant company, although it is still the nominal holder of the ITV licence for much of Northern England. Its distinctive onscreen identity, including the logo, visible on the cake above, disappeared early this century, replaced by generic ITV branding, sometimes with the word Yorkshire hidden underneath it, but often without it. Having once been created because Manchester was too far away, Yorkshire TV is now largely indistinguishable from that offered in London. (It is more by accident of history than anything else that ITV retains any non-London focus at all; one of the last two regions standing was Granada.)

The onscreen identities of the all the other franchises disappeared at roughly the same time. What remained of local production and commissioning followed. Regional variations now only really exist for news and advertising. TV is proud that is can offer advertisers a variety of levels of engagement, from micro regional to national: it just doesn’t bother doing so with programming or workforce any more.

Except for viewers in Scotland. Curiously, STV is an ITV franchise which, for reasons too complicated to go into here, doesn’t suffer from the restrictions/opportunities imposed by upon its English brethren in 1990. It also – like UTV in Northern Ireland, another complex, special case – Its own onscreen identity. Nationalism, as it so often does, is trumping regionalism – although it was not all that long ago that Scotland had multiple ITV regions, in recognising its own lack homogeneity and distinct regions, while respecting its status as a country.


As is often observed by anyone who has thought about it for more than four seconds, the UK is an almost hilariously over-centralised country, with its political, financial, administrative, artistic and political centres all in the same place. Regionalised television helped form a bulwark against the consequences of that centralisation. Regional commissioning and production guaranteed that the UK of ITV looked and sounded like the whole of the UK. The regions could talk about themselves, to themselves and others, via the medium of national television.

The idea of a federal UK crops up with increasing frequency these days; it is almost inconceivable that considerable constitutional tinkering will not be required after the good ship UK hits the iceberg that is Brexit, and that’s assuming that Northern Ireland and Scotland remain within that country at all. If the UK is to become a federation, and many think it will have to, then why shouldn’t its most popular and influential medium?

A new Broadcasting Act is needed. One that breaks up ITV plc and offers its constituent licences out to tender again; one that offers them only on the guarantee that certain conditions, to do with regional employment and production, regional commissioning and investment, are met.

Our current national conversation is undeniably toxic. Maybe increasing the variety of accents in that conversation will help.

Thanks to Dr David Rolinson at the University of Stirling and britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk.