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Four thoughts inspired by three days in Birmingham

Last week, after returning from Labour conference in Liverpool, I wrote an article about both the city’s history and how I felt about the place. The piece got a lot of nice comments, from Scousers past and present. It also got – let’s be honest about this – a fair few complaints from those who felt I’d done the place a disservice.

Okay, so there were more of the latter than I would have liked. But I found the conversations that ensued interesting, and learned a bit more about Liverpool. And since only one person told me I was (and I quote) “just a bloated twat”, and in the intervening days I’ve been to Birmingham for the Conservative conference, I figured I’d repeat the trick.

What follows is, once again, a personal response to a city. If you disagree – and I’m sure some will – do feel free to get in touch and tell me why.

I actually know Birmingham rather better than Liverpool – my dad’s lived there for nearly 20 years, so I’ve had rather more chance to wander aimlessly around the place. But here are four things that occurred to me while I was getting myself lost on this occasion.

Birmingham city centre looks really, really good

You don’t often hear people say this, do you? When asked to list the most beautiful cities in Europe, people never say, “Paris, Vienna, Brum”.

And historically, there would have been a reason for that. Not so long ago, Birmingham’s most prominent physical features were the old Bull Ring Shopping Centre, which looked like it had got lost on its way to some forgotten province of the Soviet Union, and the inner ring road, which was so efficient at cutting the city centre off from the world around it that it became known as the “concrete collar”.

The old Bull Ring. Image: Star One/Flickr/creative commons.

Well, they’re gone. The silver roundels of the replacement Bull Ring, which opened in 2003, have become a symbol o f the new Birmingham. And much of the traffic from the ring road has been diverted, allowing it to switch from inner city motorway to, well, normal urban road.

What’s more, the dark and cramped New Street station has a new light and airy atrium, while the brutalist Pallisades shopping centre above it has been cleaned up and rebranded as Grand Central. (This confused me slightly when I noticed that the new tram stop outside was called “Grand Central New Street”.) Outside, it you’ll find plenty of grand Victorian buildings and arcades, as well as new offices and flats.

It’s an on-going project – the concrete Central Library was torn down earlier this year as part of the Paradise scheme, and much of the city looks like a building site. And the city probably still isn’t going to be listed alongside Paris any time soon.

Birmingham Cathedral. Image: Stephen McKay/Geograph.org.uk.

But there are places – around St Philip’s cathedral, along the New Street pedestrianised centre, by the plush office district of Colmore Row – where Birmingham is as fine a city as any you’ll find in Britain. So we should all start being a bit nicer about the place.

A big part of that is because of the canals

Birmingham, it’s often said, has more canals than Venice. This is true, but ignores the crucial fact that Birmingham is also an order of magnitude larger than Venice and anyway has rather a lot of roads, so it isn’t quite the selling point the slogan suggests.

The canals were crucial to Birmingham’s growth. There’s no obvious geographical reason why a major city should have grown up there: no docks, no easy river crossing (indeed, no river to speak off). The reasons why Birmingham did boom as the industrial revolution took hold seem to have been a combination of a cluster of innovative factories that began to appear in the late 18th century, and its position at the middle of the canal network that was built to serve them.

These days, those canals aren’t much use on that score. But they do provide a lot of nice waterfront, of the sort that make a nice setting for bars, restaurants and high grade office space.

Gas Street Basin. Image: Oosoom/Wikimedia Commons.

At any rate, Birmingham both looks more attractive and feels more affluent than those who haven’t visited recently would probably imagine. Except…

Suddenly, the city just stops

The Tory conference was held in the International Convention Centre (ICC) in Centenary Square. It’s a rather grand plaza, which also contains the new city library, a symphony hall and a theatre. Immediately behind the ICC you’ll find Cambridge Street, where the central business district suddenly stops, and beyond which is a windswept high rise estate.

It’s a similar story elsewhere on the fringes of the city centre, in areas like Birmingham and Ladywood. Suddenly, the grand public squares and newly built flats and offices give way to post-war housing estates.

To an extent, this is a product of Birmingham’s history: for several decades, the concrete collar prevented the business district from expanding, and now it finally has, it’s crashing slap-bang into derelict industrial spaces or depressing estates. But you’ll find variations on this theme in most big British cities – in Liverpool and Manchester and even Bristol, where you turn a corner and suddenly go from a booming city centre to an area that’s very visibly neither.

Maybe it’s a legacy of Blair era boomgoggling. But it’s a slightly disarming experience when you’re used to London, in which both gentrification and commercial activity go on for miles, and where there is no housing depressing enough that you can’t rent it to some early-career solicitors for about £600 a month.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about Birmingham is…


The whole place feels oddly American

…by which I mean that it’s very clear that the city was designed for cars, and the idea you’d want to walk anywhere would baffle those who built the place.

In the city centre, those days are gone. Outside it, they’re not, and you quickly run into a world of six-lane highways and traffic jams that snarl up every rush hour because, in large chunks of the city, the only way to get to work is by road.

There are good reasons for Birmingham’s car-obsession: it was the centre of Britain’s car industry, and used to revel in its reputation as Britain’s “motor city”. That’s begun to change, but it means that the city’s planners spent several decades pouring money into roads rather than other forms of transport.

Once again, this might be my London-centrism speaking, but: this feels quite odd in a conurbation of over 2m people.

The West Midlands is slowly expanding its tram network (though it’s a long way behind Manchester’s, or even Sheffield’s). Its big idea, though, is also road-based: the Sprint network of bus rapid transit routes, which’ll take over some of the ridiculous number of lanes there are on routes such as the Hagley Road.

The first proposed Sprint route. Image: Centro.

How this’ll go down with local drivers, of course, remains to be seen.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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