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Work and prosperity
10 June 2013

How Birmingham was strangled by the state

In a lot of countries, there is nothing second rate about their second cities. Though lacking the status of capital city or largest city, they still stand tall as centres of global repute. But our own second city… not quite up there with Los Angeles, Munich and Milan, is it?

The tragedy is that there was a time – not so long ago – when Birmingham was seen as so dynamic that the London establishment was afraid of it. The following facts are from Henry Overman of the LSE Spatial Economics Research Centre:

  • “Birmingham itself was second only to London for the creation of new jobs between 1951 and 1961. Unemployment in Birmingham between 1948 and 1966 rarely exceeded 1%, and only exceeded 2% in one year. By 1961 household incomes in the West Midlands were 13% above the national average, exceeding even than those of London and the South East.”

So what went wrong? How did the city of Joseph Chamberlain fall into the decline from which it’s now beginning to emerge? The answer wasn’t any failure of Birmingham itself, but the dead hand of central government:

  • “Up until the 1930s it had been a basic assumption of Birmingham's leaders that their role was to encourage the city's growth. Post-war national governments, however, saw Birmingham's accelerating economic success as a damaging influence on the stagnating economies of the North of England, Scotland and Wales, and saw its physical expansion as a threat to its surrounding areas – ‘from Westminster's point of view was too large, too prosperous, and had to be held in check’.”

What an appalling, zero-sum view of the national economy! Yet, through one measure after another, Whitehall set about throttling the city’s growth:

  • “The West Midlands Plan, commissioned by the Minister for Town and Country Planning from Patrick Abercrombie and Herbert Jackson in 1946, set Birmingham a target population for 1960 of 990,000, far less than its actual 1951 population of 1,113,000. This meant that 220,000 people would have to leave the city over the following 14 years, that some of the city's industries would have to be removed, and that new industries would need to be prevented from establishing themselves in the city. By 1957 the council had explicitly accepted that it was obliged ‘to restrain the growth of population and employment potential within the city.’”

Daniel Knowles, for the Economist, quotes Overman at length, but follows on with another crucial part of the story – the physical re-shaping of the city:

  • “Without much consultation, enormous numbers of people were ‘decanted’ from inner-city slums to grey suburban council estates, where loneliness and crime thrived. Meanwhile, the city centres themselves were strangled with great elevated roads intended to get people in and out of the "commercial" zones… Even Joseph Chamberlain's grand Council House was surrounded by roads.
  • “The result was the doughnut city: a tiny commercial core, cut off from the rest of the city by ringroads and by a vast belt of derelict Victorian properties… Perhaps most outrageously, the restrictions on development didn't even save the city's architecture. The beautiful Victorian New Street Station was knocked down and replaced with a grim, urine-soaked box; the Edwardian shopfronts on New Street were replaced with plastic and concrete.”

Reading these accounts of what was done to Birmingham and its people, one can’t help but feel a sense of boiling rage. And yet many leftwingers continue to view the post-war era of centrally-planned disasters as some sort of heroic age.


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