1. Governance
November 13, 2014updated 06 Mar 2023 10:36am

Is it time for Greater Birmingham?

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

By Jonn Elledge

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.)

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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.

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