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The Second City

To begin a Tribune series on England's Second City, Birmingham's own Lynsey Hanley asks why the city's development was so chaotic – and tended to ignore, diminish and segregate its population.

I sometimes get asked why, as a Brummie, I don’t seem to have a very positive view of Birmingham. Well, put it this way: asking a Brummie to say something nice about their city is like asking them to say something nice about themselves: we just can’t do it. But if feeling angry about a place is a measure of how much you care about it, Birmingham sends me into fits of rage. The reason I hate it so much is because I love it so much.

Politically, Birmingham has been an poorly-led city for decades, with successive Labour councils pinning their hopes on regeneration through big city-centre projects designed to lend Birmingham glamour, rather than tending to the appalling poverty experienced by a huge proportion of its residents. Birmingham’s official unemployment rate, at 9.8 per cent, is comparable to that of Blackpool and pockets of inner London.

The peripheral council estates in every corner of the city—most notably Kingstanding in the north, Druids Heath in the south, and Bromford in the east—are in an appalling state of underinvestment and disrepair, verging in parts on a kind of inhabited dereliction. The narrow residential roads that form some of the only viable routes into Birmingham’s centre are choked by traffic, exacerbated by a public transport system more suited to a small town than a city of a million people.

It has no light rail or metro system, only a single tram line that took 20 years to extend through the city centre to its benighted main railway station, New Street. A single bus ticket costs £2.40, compared with £1.50 in London; and if you think that’s bad, an adult ticket for Birmingham’s publicly-run science museum, the Think Tank, costs £16, while its equivalents in London and Manchester are free to all.

For these reasons and a multitude of others, Birmingham can often feel like a city turned against its own people. The city’s leaders have wasted decades trying to turn it into something it isn’t. I grew up to the sound of widespread local derision at the prospect of Birmingham holding its own Grand Prix (it held the Super Prix in 1986) and entering the competition to host the 1992 Olympics, eventually won by Barcelona. In more recent years, this theme has been repeated: grand projects over necessary ones.

John Madin’s striking 1974 Central Library was bulldozed after fewer than 40 years in use—essentially because Prince Charles said something mean about it in the eighties—and in 2013 was replaced by a three-tiered postmodern cake, the Library of Birmingham. It turned an anchor of city life into a gimmick, costing the council £188.8 million it couldn’t afford. Within two years of opening, the new library’s opening hours had been cut from 70 to 40 and people were being asked to volunteer to replace paid staff.

More recently, the entire first floor has been given over to a private ESOL company and cannot be accessed by the public. A glass lift to the upper floors broke down and was left unfixed for months, and visiting on wet days I’ve had to dodge the buckets stood around to catch leaks. You can’t get past the entrance door without being asked for donations.

Neither the failure to gain the 1992 Olympics nor the glaring inability of developer-led regeneration to bring prosperity to working-class city-dwellers has deterred Birmingham from plugging away in the same vein. The 2022 Commonwealth Games are being held in the city at a direct cost of at least £184 million, likely to expand to over £218 million. The former site of the 1974 Central Library has been replaced with ‘Paradise’, an offices-and-shops complex of a distinctly pre-crash, pre-Covid nature, while New Street Station was redeveloped in 2015 around a shopping complex, Grand Central, with a vast John Lewis as its anchor store. The John Lewis has already closed.

Talking to the Observer in November 2020, Birmingham’s Conservative metro mayor Andy Street insisted that the Paradise development made ‘a statement that this place has refound its self-confidence’. But you can’t help thinking that a city without the confidence to defend a controversial civic building, preferring instead to bankrupt itself paying for an inferior replacement, can’t have had much in the first place.

Birmingham is a city built on hard unglamorous manual work and inward migration, and as such is a gritty and provisional place. Its focus is on getting by and getting along, which can make it a maddening place to come from if you’re a bit of a dreamer. In 1998, the critic Jonathan Meades was moved to make a BBC 2 film, Heart By-Pass, decrying Brummies’ apparent acceptance of their city’s position as ‘an ignored void at the heart of the country’.

Its growth wasn’t explosive, like Liverpool’s, but gradual and sprawling, its industries based on close, fiddly work making parts of a larger whole. Birmingham’s curious sense of insularity, in spite of being a place at the geographical centre of things, comes from the nature of that small-parts, small-industry work, making toys, guns, whistles, buttons, nuts, bolts, and badges. It’s about looking up close and keeping your head down, rather than looking up and outwards.

As if in concurrence with this theory, the city’s built environment is knotty and confusing. Birmingham has all the things you usually get on the edges of a city, where it blurs into the interregional infrastructure, scrunched up and parked in the centre. Its middle is like an exurb, resembling a congealed bowl of spaghetti – even that’s without accounting for Spaghetti Junction on the edge of the city centre.

The historian Simon Gunn highlights that Birmingham has long been well aware of its self-inflicted problems. The council even held a conference in 1988, inviting architects and planners from around the world to the city to tell it what to do. ‘It’s the most chaotic city I’ve ever seen,’ the Dutch architect and planner, Teun Koolhas, pronounced when confronted with his first view of the city centre. ‘It’s as though a child had upset a box of building bricks.’

Peter Rice, a distinguished civil engineer who had worked on the Sydney Opera House and the Pompidou Centre, was equally taken aback by the sense of menace experienced walking through the underpass beneath Smallbrook Queensway. ‘Visitors only need to have one experience like that to decide never to come back to Birmingham again […] Getting rid of the underpasses is not desirable – it’s essential.’

Most of the underpasses were, indeed, got rid of; the only problem is that what replaced them didn’t make the city centre any more easy or pleasant to negotiate. Road traffic still dominates: you just have to run the gauntlet overground rather than under it. Squeezed in between bus lanes, multi-storey car parks and curiously tatty-looking newbuilds, pedestrians aren’t so much treated as an afterthought as an imposition. This is Brum, so why aren’t you driving?

Its tangled appearance is made more stark when seen from a height, such as when you look from the viewing room at the top of the Library of Birmingham. You don’t see a grand sweep, as you do with Sheffield from the heights of Park Hill or Liverpool from New Brighton. You just see a mess. Fair enough, you might think: life is messy too, and at least Birmingham reflects that.

But what consistently disturbs me about the city is how the way it is run variously ignores, degrades, and segregates its population. Its lack of a proper and cheap metro or tram system forces people into cars when they can’t afford to run them and blocks and pollutes their streets. Its consistent prioritising of city-centre projects on the discredited hope of trickle-down prosperity makes clear its lack of vision and innovative thinking.

If there was ever a city that could do with adopting the ideas of foundational economics—building its economy back up by spending money on things that are actually needed by the people who live and work in it—Birmingham is it. The Manchester-based Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) has recommended the city base its future economy around the strengths of its ‘anchor institutions’—its universities, its hospitals, its further education institutions and its existing city council—from which to build local wealth.

But there is something more to it. The second city is a hive of vast human potential where the attributes of individuals are wasted, generationally, by a lack of collective self-confidence. Birmingham didn’t just invent the British Motor City. Without it ever being nationally celebrated, Birmingham invented the practice of multiculture, against the backdrop of Enoch Powell’s cynicism and a housing policy which effectively, if not deliberately, segregated working-class people by ethnicity.

The city’s true value lies in its people, and I feel this to my core every time I find myself in the throng of Digbeth market, hunting for bargain mangoes next to West African, South Asian, Caribbean, Eastern European, Afghan, Kurdish, Greek, and Irish women. I’m rarely happier when jostling along the rows of stalls looking for massive caulis and crates of on-the-turn cheese from Chilly Billy’s dairy stall. Birmingham is made of us, I think, and it should be made for us.