Britain After Coronavirus: Birmingham and How We Recovered and Rebalanced ‘Last Time’

Did central economic planning sabotage Birmingham’s postwar recovery? And might its history and 21st century revival have lessons for Britain’s post-pandemic recovery?

Until the early 1960s, booming Birmingham and the West Midlands outpaced London and the South East to have the highest household incomes in the UK. Few people born in the hyper-centralised, London-centric Britain of the mid-to-late 20th century onwards might know this.  So what on Earth happened to postwar Birmingham – a mighty engine of the British economy and ‘The Workshop of The World’?

By the 21st century, Birmingham and the West Midlands were reported to be bouncing back as investment poured in. But one seemingly forgotten study from 1986 suggests that incredibly, between 1945 – 1975, up to 387 West Midlands-based firms and 111,700 jobs were relocated to other UK nations and regions. This followed a combination of stringent government restrictions placed on West Midlands firms wishing to expand and government incentives to move to poorer UK areas. Postwar central government restrictions also prevented outside private investment into the West Midlands. Expanding firms remaining in Birmingham faced obstacle courses set by the 1945 Distribution of Industry Act. The Act followed the wartime coalition’s 1944 White Paper and interwar planning from Neville Chamberlain’s time as Chancellor. This ‘Harassment of Industry Act’ enabled much of Birmingham’s economy to be restricted, dismantled and relocated. The 1965 Control of Office Employment Act also restricted Birmingham’s office-based services economy.

Local warnings that Birmingham’s economy was becoming ‘precariously over-specialised’ were ignored by postwar Westminster central planners, who sought to shrink the West Midlands economy and population. At the same time and also with lasting consequences, local working class communities seem to have been broken up and ‘decanted’ elsewhere with little say in the matter. With burning zeal, postwar UK city planners were supremely confident that their huge dystopian schemes were the answer to major housing and city challenges.

If you are interested in how today – nations, cities and other places are planning their post-or-mid coronavirus economic and social recoveries, then read through the prism of the UK’s second city, this story of how postwar Britain tried to centrally-plan its way back to prosperity after the last comparable global emergency, world war two.

In this report, native Midlander and proud Brummie Julian Dee, Associate Director at Connected Places Catapult, has pieced together some of the very occasional media and academic blogs and articles which variously report or signal that postwar central government regional planning may have played an unacknowledged and forgotten role in this global city’s (now thankfully reversing) postwar decline.  He has looked at several sources to build a picture that he hopes is clear enough to offer this series as a conversation starter about how Britain tried to centrally-plan its economic recovery after world war two. He suggests that academics could help us to develop a clearer understanding of this seemingly forgotten chapter of postwar British history, thereby further strengthening Birmingham and the West Midlands’ confident re-emergence.

It is argued that what happened to postwar Birmingham may be a salutary lesson about the peacetime retention of a wartime focus on central government, which saw postwar democratic local decision-making and entrepreneurial freedom, stripped away – and working class communities powerless in the face of city planners. By reminding us of what Birmingham and other industrial cities have been capable of both in previous centuries and today, we may, he argues, be inspired to further draw upon their power and drive to reboot Britain – rather than, in a worst case scenario, to shoot ourselves in the foot by repeating history with any future unwarranted post-pandemic continuance of the centralisation of focus and power that have been considered necessary during the pandemic.

By seeking to piece together a nuanced picture, we may better understand what motivated postwar central government to redirect West Midlands industry to other UK nations and regions – and why there was some significant initial local interwar era and early postwar support for this.  While later local warnings of over-specialisation may have been ignored by ‘Westminster’, that initial local support and related context steers us away from imagining a ‘Whitehall establishment bogeyman’ trying to cut-down-to-size this ‘new’ industrial city.

He cautions that should any such negative focus on a simplified ‘bogeyman’ narrative take root, it could dampen the resurgence of the city’s instinctive optimism and proud independence – as exemplified by industrial Birmingham’s historic, diverse nonconformist communities and freethinkers – and their entrepreneurialism.

All the same, while in ancient times, stifling feudalism and serfdom had passed Birmingham by, leaving it free to grow – tragically, in the twentieth century, even before Hayek published Road To Serfdom, over-centralised economic planning, did not pass by Birmingham. By recalling how the socially and geographically peripheral status of many Brummies’ actually contributed to their inventiveness and entrepreneurialism – and the city’s success, we may better appreciate the importance of both personal freedom and cultural diversity in Birmingham’s once and increasingly present day prosperity.

A tragic exception to the trend of postwar central governments taking power from local councils were the sweeping powers given to postwar city planners which in Birmingham also saw much of the elegant Victorian and earlier city centre that the young JRR Tolkien knew, swept away.  While the concrete boxes of the 1960s and 1970s were presented as the early arrival of the twenty-first century, they quickly became visually emblematic of Birmingham’s decline and further contributed to it; while many such buildings have not survived far into the 21st century which they were purported to represent.  The impact of this postwar ‘abolition of history’ on the city’s ‘sense of self’ and its collective memory is considered from the vantage point of today, where thankfully, once again, Birmingham’s city centre squares, streets and canalsides – are becoming truly Connected Places – together with all their myriad business, cultural, educational, recreational and protesting expressions of human life.

Finally, as media outlets have reported on signs of Birmingham’s 21st century revival, some simultaneously described Birmingham as having been ‘forgotten’ and ‘ignored’.  It is also hoped that in some way, reflection on some of these aspects of history may conceivably also provide some kind of supportive additional context, as we seek to better understand the injustices of the past and the present, including with regard to where the legacy of enslavement and colonialism and their impact today, may also have been forgotten and ignored.

About the Author

Julian Dee is Associate Director at Connected Places Catapult and a public affairs, media and civil society specialist.  His campaign and research work has featured on radio, television, online and in print. Having worked as a senior researcher and press officer for the House of Lords Independent Crossbench group, he was awarded the 2007 House Magazine Parliamentary Researcher of the Year (Overall Winner) Award.  He is currently undertaking further research on the UK’s experience of wartime identity cards and the former continental internal passport system.  He is particularly interested in how the freedom of the individual has played an historic role in building cities and places. In 2006, he was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme along with PC Harold Muckle, the policeman involved in the 1951 case which precipitated the peacetime end of the UK’s wartime identity card and national registration system.

Download Britain After Coronavirus: Birmingham and How We Recovered and Rebalanced ‘Last Time’ Essay, Part 1 & 2 here

Britain After Coronavirus: Birmingham and How We Recovered and Rebalanced ‘Last Time’ – Part 1
  • Setting the Scene:  
    • Global Birmingham – ‘The Workshop of The World’ & ‘The Best Governed City in the World’;
    • Whatever the world’s post-pandemic economic outlook, by the 21st Century Birmingham had significantly bounced back.
  • Post War Birmingham: ‘imposed decline’?
Britain After Coronavirus: Birmingham and How We Recovered and Rebalanced ‘Last Time’ – Part 2

First Conclusions:

‘Imposed decline’ on a self-made global city: 20th Century Birmingham’s relationship with central government and the wider country;

‘Forward’: City Planners, bulldozers and the abolition of Birmingham’s past.

*Further conclusions may be published in due course.