A Tale of Two Brums
Much of Birmingham was ruined by our obsession with cars but even now it seems everyone still wants to drive.
I have always been a petrolhead. As a child of the 90s I grew up watching Brum explore Big Town and dreamt of the day I’d be able to drive. I was always overjoyed when my parents bought a new car; the only exception being one April day in 1996 when I bawled my eyes out seeing that a black BMW Z3 had replaced the estoril blue M5 on the driveway. As a teenager I watched Top Gear, had arguments about which cars were the fastest or most beautiful and learned the make and model of every vehicle that passed me on the street. It was with no small amount of internal conflict that I sold my car last year with no plans to replace it.
I was moving from leafy, semi-rural Solihull to Birmingham city centre and didn’t think I really needed a car; I could get everywhere by train, bus, on foot or soon, by tram. I was of the opinion that the city centre was not the place for cars as none of my friends - most of whom come from or live in London - had never really given car ownership any thought. Blessed with the public transport network of the capital, most of them can’t drive and have little intention of learning. Whereas most people I know in Birmingham and the wider West Midlands can drive because it’s the simplest and cheapest way of getting to work, even if they would rather not. The difference in attitude regarding car use and ownership is mostly practical. Those of us living beyond the outer fringes of the TfL tube map do not have the luxury of the underground and cheap buses. Leeds is the largest city in Europe without a rapid transit network, taking that unfortunate crown from Birmingham when the city extended its one tram line a little further into the city centre. Many cities in the UK have lots of empty space in their centres and this is often occupied by cheap surface level carparks, whereas in central London, a parking space is the same price as a two bedroom flat anywhere else.
The decision to go car-less seems to place me in a minority in Birmingham, which several years ago was shown to be one of the most car dependent cities in the UK. Though the public transport network is rapidly improving and trams returned to the city centre in 2015 for the first time in 50 years, car-dependence seems ingrained in the Brummie psyche and and is perhaps not unrelated to the city’s long history as the centre of the UK automotive industry. The history of car manufacturing in the West Midlands has been discussed from an economic perspective ad infinitum, typically focussing on mismanagement at British Leyland, rather than its social and psychological consequences. The significance of a vast motor industry idles quietly in the background of Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club, in which class consciousness and industrial strife at the Longbridge plant are explored from the perspective of school children growing up in its shadow. Today, however, the motor industry and our relationship with it face different challenges as Brexit threatens jobs at Jaguar Land Rover in Solihull and the region’s first Metro Mayor seeks to position the West Midlands as the global leader in electric cars and the battery technology behind them.
The relationship Birmingham and the wider West Midlands has with the motor industry has been a long and complicated one and how we view cars today is the result of that. Birmingham architect Joe Holyoak considers this enthusiasm for the car part of the city’s identity, alongside ‘its resistance to the bicycle, the built-in obsolescence and temporariness of its redevelopment, its confusion of size with quality, its unconcern for history and its wilful destruction of previous generations' architecture.’ It is this I would like to explore.
Looking at photos of Birmingham from the late 19th and early 20th century, before the ubiquity of the horseless carriage, you can see a city replete with Victorian and Edwardian architecture with enough gothic revival parapets and turrets on the skyline to confidently challenge Oxford for its reputation as ‘the city of dreaming spires’. If more of it were still standing in 2019, Birmingham would be a globally renowned city break destination talked about in the same breath as Paris or Rome. As a Brummie, a naturally self-effacing and modest creature, I would never otherwise have made such a bold claim had it not been for a book I discovered in the excellent, if not a bit patronisingly named, ‘Local Interest’ section of Waterstones. Lost Buildings of Birmingham is a stunning collection of annotated photographs of a city that no longer exists. The captions at times read like a eulogy, at others an exasperated wistfulness at the shortsighted decisions of planning officers of the past. Occasionally, the author himself is stumped as to the identity of the now absent landmarks in the photos but includes them because they are located next to something recognisable making it clear that they were definitely here. You can discover architecture that has been lost not only in the City Centre, but as far afield as Vauxhaul, Bordesley, Maypole, Kings Heath, Aston and Sutton Coldfield from a time when the inner and middle ring roads did not define where the centre ends. It is indicative of Birmingham’s size that a lot is still left but it is only a fraction of what was and flicking through the book’s photos for the first time, my eyes were brought to tears at the scale of the tragedy, wondering what modern Birmingham would be like if this book were a lonely planet travel guide and not an obituary.
“Birmingham architect Joe Holyoak considers this enthusiasm for the car part of the city’s identity, alongside its resistance to the bicycle, the built-in obsolescence and temporariness of its redevelopment, its confusion of size with quality, its unconcern for history and its wilful destruction of previous generations' architecture.”
There are various social media pages that publish similar photos of old street scenes from across Birmingham alongside the present day view, offering comparisons separated by several decades. BrumPic has over twelve and a half thousand followers on Instagram, but it was an image on a Facebook group called Old Pics of Brum, which has over sixty-five thousand members, that caught my eye. It was from a primary school in the 1950s which showed schoolchildren learning about road safety by ‘driving’ around the playground in Austin J40s, known as Joycars. These toy cars were made in Austin’s Longbridge factory from metal leftover from the manufacture of real cars and came with a dummy engine, complete with spark plugs and leads, battery operated headlamps, horn and chrome trim. Judging by the comments on the page, this was nothing exceptional and a fond recollection of many of the older members of the group. I had cycling proficiency lessons at primary school and was taught how to safely navigate roads as a pedestrian but not until I learned to drive at seventeen did I learn how to approach roads from the perspective of a motorist. I do not know whether this was a phenomenon that existed nationwide but what is clear is that car-centrism in Birmingham was ingrained early, whether these children would one day work in the factory that made them or look forward purchasing the latest model.
This cheerful photo hid a practical and ultimately damaging truth; if everyone wanted a car there would need to be space for them. This is space that needed to be created in places where it had never been needed before. Nothing was safe from the wrecking ball; schools (King Edwards School Five Ways, demolished 1958), theatres (the Grand Theatre, Corporation Street, d. 1960) cinemas (The Scala, Smallbrook Street, d. 1960), hotels (Stork Hotel, Corporation street, d. 1960), pubs (the Bell, Great Colmore Street, d. 1965). Even churches were raised to the ground, including Wycliff Baptist Church, (Bristol Street, d.1961), to make way for the veneration of the the motor car whose congregation you can still see assembled on the A38 every day at rush hour.
The original Snow Hill Station was closed in 1972 after a decade of winding down services and transferring them to New Street Station. It was finally demolished in 1977 after spending five years as a surface level car park. As rail ridership increased the station was rebuilt and reopened in 1987, in a far more functional design of a multi-storey car park atop several platforms. The size of these groups’ followings shows that I am perhaps not the only one in mourning for a time I cannot even remember, which makes it even more remarkable that the city council still allow for such acts of vandalism today. Island House (demolished in 2012) was not architecturally exceptional, nor was it especially ancient, only missing it’s centenary by a year, but it was a piece of what little there is left of its era in Eastside. Island House was also replaced by a surface level car park.
It is commonly said about Birmingham that more damage was done to the city by post-war urban planners than the Luftwaffe. The dates in Lost Buildings of Birmingham will attest to a massacre of Victorian blocks, that had emerged unscathed from the Second World War, raised to the ground in their entirety between the 1950s and the 1970s. In their place Brutalist buildings were erected, apparently reflecting fashions of the time. Those replacements are now experiencing the fickleness of fashion and the trigger happy bulldozers of the city whose motto is fittingly and often relentlessly ‘Forward.’ That being said, whatever your own idiosyncratic architectural tastes, I’m sure most would agree that cities are in a state of constant change and reinvention; buildings being replaced with other buildings is the standard course of redevelopment in cities all over the world. This is not therefore a nostalgic and ill-founded assertion that things ‘were better in the old days’. Post war development especially has been much maligned all over the UK, but this is not a longing for time gone by, Birmingham's unique tradition of forever beginning again is founded in optimism and ambition and a belief in a better future and always has. This has been the case in the 20th, the 19th and the 18th centuries, but the tradeoff is living in a city where nothing lasts long, where everything is constantly in a state of flux. James Hobbs wrote the song I can’t find Brummagem, reproduced in its entirety below, bemoaning the city’s constant state of flux around the time the Birmingham Manor House was demolished in 1816 to make way for the additional space at the markets. The boundaries of the moat of the manor are allegedly preserved in a concrete bunker-like structure, and I’m not joking, under the multi-storey car park of the recently demolished 1970s wholesale market.
Full twenty years and more are passed
Since I left Brummagem.
But I set out for home at last
To good old Brummagem.
But ev'ry place is altered so
Now there's hardly a place I know
Which fills my heart with grief and woe
For I can't find Brummagem.
As I was walking down the street
As used to be in Brummagem,
I knowed nobody I did meet
For they've changed their face in Brummagem
Poor old Spiceal Stret's half gone,
And Old Church stands alone
And poor old I stands here to groan
For I can't find Brummagem.
But amongst the changes we have got
In good old Brummagem
They've made a market on the moat
To sell the pigs in Brummagem.
But that has brought us more ill luck
For they've filled up Pudding Brook,
Where in the brook jack-bannils took
Near Good old Brummagem.
But what's more melancholy still,
For poor old Brummagem,
They've taken away all Newhall-Hill
From poor old Brummagem,
At Easter time girls fair and brown,
Came rolly-polly down,
And showed their legs to half the town,
Oh! the good old sights in Brummagem.
Down Peck Lane I walked along,
To find out Brummagem,
There was the dungil down and gone
What? no rogues in Brummagem,
They've ta'en it to a street called Moor,
A sign that rogues ain't fewer,
But rogues won't like it there I'm sure,
While Peck Lane's in Brummagem.
I remember one John Growse,
Who buckles made in Brummagem,
He built himself a country house,
To be out of the smoke of Brummagem
But though John's country house stands still,
The town has walked up hill,
Now he lives beside a smoky mill,
In the middle of Brummagem.
Among the changes that abound
In good old Brummagem,
May trade and happiness be found
In good old Brummagem.
And tho' no Newhall hil we've got
Nor Pudding Brook nor Moat,
May we always have enough
To boil the pot in Brummagem.
The post war redevelopment in the city is, however, unique in this history of urban renewal. Buildings being replaced by buildings is one thing, but what might be trickier to come to terms with is the fact that the buildings in my by no means exhaustive list of examples earlier in this piece were not replaced by other buildings, but by roads. Even those that survived ‘tarmageddon’ like Joseph Chamberlain’s magnificent Council House were often bounded on all sides by roads. One of the city’s well known ‘landmarks’ if it can be called that, is Gravelly Hill interchange, known as Spaghetti Junction. The nickname has been applied to complicated road interchanges across the world ever since the Birmingham original was opened in 1972. By the 1960s it was clear that Birmingham grounded its sense of identity in its status as a motor city and the pioneer of new technology and progress than it did in its past, directed towards what sixty years later was a vision of the future that would not come to pass. John Minnis, author of England’s Motoring Heritage from the Air, believes that the urban realm was transformed almost overnight from the 1950s as cars began to dominate our lives; ‘Even in the 1930s there weren’t that many new roads in towns and cities and you really have to wait until the 1960s before we saw significant changes, when both Coventry and Birmingham town centres were totally transformed.’ Anyone who has walked the city in the last 50 years will have noticed the numerous underpasses underneath roundabouts (‘islands’ in Brummie) that segregate pedestrians and vehicles, with underpasses created below roundabouts and multi-lane roads. Pedestrians are placed below cars in a physical hierarchy of urban planning that is indicative of the raised status of the car.
What is often forgotten about this period is that unlike other cities that did not experience such widespread development, Birmingham was an incredibly wealthy city. Not only did it have one of the most diversified regional economies of anywhere in the country, Birmingham itself was second only to London for the creation of new jobs between 1951 and 1961 and unemployment between 1948 and 1966 rarely exceeded 1%, only exceeding 2% in one year. The average household income in the West Midlands was 13% above the national average, and higher than those in London and the South East. As such the city had the money to embark on such an ill conceived transformation.
Around the same time, the government sought to reign in the growth of the city through poorly conceived policy decisions that would prove catastrophic for the city. These policies caused major structural weakening of the city’s economy and although government policy was unable to restrain the growth of Birmingham’s existing industries it was enough to discourage new industries from establishing themselves in the area. Birmingham’s wealth and success of the previous two centuries was the result of its economic diversity and its ability to innovate and adapt to changing circumstances. With its large skilled workforce and culture of entrepreneurialism, the city attracted people from across the UK and the world up in the same way that London does now. Even as late as the 1950s Birmingham remained the ‘City of a Thousand Trades’ and its economy could still be described as ‘more broadly based than that of any city of equivalent size in the world’ but by the 1970s, government restrictions on business meant that the industries that remained and grew successfully propped up a regional economy that was now reliant on large firms for employment. These firms had become overspecialised in just one industry - making cars.
Much of the motor industry was subsequently merged into one company, British Leyland and with nationalisation of the industry, trade union organisation grew and the company was gravely affected by industrial disputes. For most of the city’s history its businesses and industry had enjoyed a reputation for strong cooperation between its typically skilled workers and management and perhaps as a result, weak trade unionism, but by the 1970s, this had been overturned as the the motor industry in the city suffered from trade union militancy and industrial conflict. As late as 1976 the West Midlands region, with Birmingham at its centre, still had the highest GDP of any region in the UK outside the South East, but by 1981 it was lowest in England. Birmingham’s two centuries of prosperity and growth came to an end as abrupt as it was disastrous with the collapse of the motor industry and between 1971 and 1981 Birmingham alone lost 200,000 jobs, primarily in the manufacturing sector that consisted not only of car makers themselves but those employed in their supply chains. Birmingham’s unemployment rate neared 20% in 1982 but was much higher in inner city areas. Relative earnings in the West Midlands collapsed, going from being the highest in Britain in 1970 to the lowest in 1983.
Birmingham’s last gasp of prosperity was owed to the motor industry, cars provided jobs and maintained a level of wealth that the city had enjoyed for two centuries but has not regained since. An economic reliance on cars predated our reliance on them for personal transportation and it is no wonder that that reliance was nurtured as a result. Although that relationship changed over time it was still one of indebtedness to our four-wheeled friends. Cars shaped the urban fabric of cities to serve motorists first and pedestrians second. We assumed that the intoxicating freedom of the car, so beguiling on empty 1930s roads, should be extended to town & city centres, but instead of being a source of our liberation we have become enslaved by them. Around the same time, tram lines were ripped up and railway stations were closed as Birmingham quite literally went off track. Birmingham’s city engineer, Sir Herbert Manzoni set out to design a city for the motor age and John Minnis believes that Birmingham represents the high point of the dominance of the motor car in England. When someone argues that it’s ‘social engineering’ to make walking, cycling and using public transport more enjoyable, it is worth reminding them that designing our current car dependency has been perhaps the most damaging social engineering experiment in human history. People wanted cars and to the extent that Manzoni created space for them, he was a populist not a pioneer.
Though the car industry provided prosperity in some quarters it harmed it in others, roads became physical barriers; the infamous concrete collars. Ring roads were highly effective at keeping cars moving around a city but the area inside the ring road is severed from its hinterland, constraining development to area within the collar and causing areas beyond to become economically deprived. Coventry still has one of the most tightly drawn ring roads in the country but Birmingham is fortunate that much of it is slowly being dismantled, not only increasing the area that is accessible to redevelopment and investment but also to pedestrians. Even trams are making a comeback and railway stations demolished in the 1960s are going to be rebuilt. ‘When I look at some of the aerial visuals, I think England changed for the worse,’ says John. ‘When you look at those early photographs, you can see compact towns with the countryside coming right up to them. There were gardens, market gardens and open spaces. Now there are just acres of Tarmac, car parks and industrial buildings.’ One of the many places the change is particularly marked is in Aston. The Barton Arms pub is replete with the wealth that Birmingham generated in its industrial heyday but is is sat alone amongst a tangle of roads. Aston is a community historic and prestigious enough to have a large Jacobean prodigy house at Aston Hall, the first historic country house to pass into municipal ownership, as well as a prominent football club in Aston Villa and its own university and yet very little of this strikes you as you pass through it. As Brummies got richer and moved north to Sutton Coldfield, they tore up Aston to build an expressway so they could drive to work. When the train line to Vauxhall via Aston was built, James Watt Jr., the owner of Aston Hall at the time, objected to it passing through the grounds of his estate while the Aston Expressway which was built 135 years later, runs right through it.
In the face of poor planning, central government mistakes and readily adopting a vision of the future that wouldn’t come to pass, jobs became ever more car dependent, and our lives did too. We were indebted to the car industry for our jobs and our last experience of prosperity that had existed before in a far more diversified economy. We associated car ownership with success and what sat on the driveway was not only the source of our paycheque but the evidence that we had received one. We passed this gratitude and love of cars to our children, we built a city for cars because we loved them, they extended a period of affluence that then ended suddenly. It was a last judder before the stall for the world’s first industrial city and the birthplace of the industrial revolution; what began with James Watt’s steam engine and the Soho Manufactory finally ended in the disappearance of British Leyland from Longbridge.
It seems that despite much of Birmingham being ruined by cars, everyone still wants to drive.
We are currently experiencing a period of reckoning in which our love of cars collides head on with modern life and reliance is no longer an excuse. Cars for a time changed the way we live, the recent history of residential development has focussed on suburban housing estates with complicated mazes of cul-de-sacs inaccessible to busses but designed with large drives as safe havens for cars. These were and still are typically built on greenbelt land that has never had easy access to railway stations, even though historic development on brownfield sites occurred side by side with public transport infrastructure. Many now want to take their cars with them to the city centre, thinking they can experience ‘city living’ with the mentality of a suburban commuter. Some city councillors seem keen to enable this archaic thinking in their regular objections to high rise apartment buildings citing insufficient parking for cars as grounds for refusal. While some councillors think it appropriate to fill the city centre will more car parking spaces, others admirably fight to ensure there is breathable air by seeking to introduce a clean air zone.
Cars also changed the way we shop; we take advantage of the ample parking at retail parks as we simultaneously bemoan the death of the high street that we no longer frequent. We complain that the roadworks required to build a fully integrated public transport system are causing problems for our commute because the only way we can get to work without a fully integrated transport system is by car. It seems that despite much of Birmingham being ruined by cars, everyone still wants to drive. This is evident from the traffic, the endless roads of cars parked on double-yellow lines and the opt-out attitude taken to speed limits. We also forget that the poorest in our city, who do not drive, have to pay to take the bus while car owners effectively receive subsidised parking in the city centre. Nothing proves this focus on motoring more than a campaign run by Trinity Mirror regionals before the last election. Manchester Evening News and Birmingham Mail ran the same survey to understand what issues were most important to their readers. Mancunians wanted a better health service. Brummies thought that the right to drive on the M6 toll road for free was more important.
Our relationship with cars only sets to get more complicated in the next few years as the motor industry in the region is once again front page news. Brexit threatens jobs at Jaguar Land Rover and the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street is committed to not only making the region the pacesetter in the electric vehicle revolution, but also bringing Formula-E to Birmingham. Electric cars may fix air pollution but not congestion and the continuing need for space for them. Our rush to embrace electric cars does not enable us to correct the damage cars have done to our cities. We need to encourage modal shift and create a walkable, bike friendly city for people rather than one for cars, irrespective of how they are powered. Different cars will not solve the problems created by cars and we need to free ourselves of thinking in this way. It sometimes seems we cannot quite let go. A city synonymous with the car, Brum must change its relationship with them, for the sake of our health, our urban environment, our changing lifestyles and our imperilled planet.
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