Wolverhampton should be Pittsburgh, not Detroit

There was a well-written article by columnist Jenni Russell in The Times  Thursday, although I found it painful reading in places. It was responding to Prime Minister David Cameron’s conference speech on Wednesday. He spoke of a “land of opportunity”, which left Russell “incredulous”.

“What was the connection between his splendid aims and people’s real lives?” she asked. “Inequality has widened for the past forty years, accelerated for the past ten and is forecast to get worse.  The wealth gap between the South East and the rest of the country just gets bigger.”

Such arguments resonate with many, as does Ed Miliband’s “cost of living crisis”. Yet they resonate most in struggling Labour heartlands such as Wolverhampton in the West Midlands, the very town Jenni cited when wondering how David Cameron’s speech would be received outside the conference hall.

“How will this work for Wolverhampton?” was her refrain.

She described the decline of the town centre – largely by counting down the dwindling number of major chain stores in the High Street. She also described the “tangible” lack of activity and the impact of cuts on the local authority’s abilities to provide employment. It all sounded pretty depressing – a million miles from thriving London and the Tory shires.

I sympathise with Wolverhampton. It’s not a city I know, although I’m far from one of those ill-informed southerners that proudly proclaim their ignorance of anywhere north of Oxford. As a football fan my sense of English geography came as a youth following West Ham to unattractive industrial towns such as Bolton, Coventry, Derby and Leeds (usually for little reward). And I spent over three years in Manchester, becoming the typical gobshite pseudo-Mancunian that the city encourages from its many suburban and culturally-rootless students.

And I was fascinated. I loved the civic magnificence of the industrial cities – somewhat dented by poor 1960s redevelopment but nonetheless still very much intact in terms of pride. Whether in Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Liverpool, Birmingham or Leicester (and many others), there was an enormous sense of self-respect brought about from an industrial heritage that, in each case, was built into the fabric of the town. In modern parlance, each was a nineteenth century “cluster” – developed usually for a single industry such as cotton, or wool, or metal bashing or hosiery.

In Manchester, I’d wander the backstreets and canal-towpaths and soak up the poignant silence – imagining the bustle and noise and enormous sense of the achievement emanating from the vast brick mills that ringed the commercial centre of the city. Recently shut, I felt I was walking among the abandoned ruins of a great civilization – the Egypt of industrial archaeology. Some you could even enter – making me the Howard Carter of this particular Egypt as I gingerly explored a mill with the machinery’s markings still visible and the odd piece of discarded furniture or wall panelling, or even paperwork.

Sure, they looked like noisy and uncomfortable places to work. And I’m sure the mill owners extracted their “surplus value” (to make a Marxist reference) from the workers as best they could. But for someone brought up in the dull 1970s exurbs of Essex – a townie raised in an alien countryside – they looked like the embodiment of “the possible”: a testament to nineteenth-century genius, planning and endeavour.

And that’s my point – beyond a nostalgic pause to remember my 1980s youthful discovery of the north. It’s that those mills represented something far more than the decay I explored while skipping lectures. In fact, they represented Cameron’s exact conference phrase: “a land of opportunity”. The mill owners were, by and large, not the wealthy aristocrats that had been economically dominant prior to the nineteenth century. They were middle-class risk-takers: seizing upon technological advances and finding backers to build small companies that could buy machinery, employ people and grow into major businesses.

Yet the opportunities didn’t stop there. Just as migrants today are often fleeing poverty and lack of opportunity, so migrant labour into the pre-Victorian industrial cities of Britain was escaping subsistence-level rural poverty. Unbelievably to modern sensitivities, in many cases the squalid slum conditions surrounding the mills represented an improvement for the migrants (although overcrowding brought new problems such as disease and crime).

Of course, satanic mills and stinking slums and working-class exploitation make us view this period as a dark one in our history (hence Danny Boyle’s portentous portrayal at the Olympics’ opening). It’s a world we’re happy to have left behind. Yet I cannot help thinking there’s something in the spirit of those mill owners that we should rekindle in the very towns and cities where they first turned their lathes and spun their cloth.

They were the start-ups of their day – entrepreneurs with a vision but absolutely no guarantee of success: in many cases with the odds stacked against them. And they were establishing entire industries – clustering together to maximise efficiencies, engage the same service providers (including labour) and to keep an eye on each other’s progress. And it just happened – led by pioneers such as Arkwright in Manchester, and Boulton and Watt in Birmingham. The government did nothing to help, although – notably – also did nothing to hinder their progress: hence my pain with Jenni Russell’s well-written article.

She wrote that “government must be the motor driving innovation, bringing companies together, advising them on the future….”

My instincts repel this idea, although more in terms of sentiment and emphasis than actuality. Of course, government has a role in creating the circumstances in which small start-ups can thrive. And I don’t just mean in terms of “getting out of the way” (though that’s important enough in key areas such as regulation). Entrepreneurs are clearly struggling to find funding at present as banks, post crisis, clean-up their balance sheets. So there’s a role here  (though please make it debt rather than the dependency-spreading “grants” of previous governments). And local governments have a vital role to play in terms of zoning (creating vibrant areas for start-ups) and general encouragement. But the notion that governments are a “motor of innovation”, or the best repository for “advice”, makes me feel queasy at the thought.

Andrew Adonis, Vince Cable, Ed Balls, George Osborne – all should be listening to entrepreneurs, not “advising” them. And they are far from representing a “motor driving innovation”. You’ll find that in the science parks of Cambridge or the converted rookeries of Shoreditch, not the corridors of the political class too keen to spend our money on their political hobby-horses.

On this, it’s worth comparing two “rustbelt” US cities – Detroit and Pittsburgh – and how they coped with their “loss of competitiveness”. Detroit, the famous Motor City, was a mono-industry town where labour-management battles resulted in high labour costs and Spanish practices that left it vulnerable to competitors. Yet the city also suffered from the suburbanization of its industry, much of which moved beyond the city borders. Over time, inner Detroit lost its relevance, and – ultimately – bankrupted itself. Now, the city is a shadow of its former greatness – attracting little more than voyeuristic tourism.

Pittsburgh – America’s Sheffield – took a different path. The city centre also lost its industry, but farsighted locals diversified. Helped by the local university, the city became a medical innovation cluster – a Paolo Alto for healthcare technologies. Yet other sectors flourished among the former foundries of the Steel City – including robotics, food and finance – all developed privately with government roles restricted to that of enablement and encouragement. Factories have been converted into cool offices and workshops and whole districts – such as East Liberty – have been zoned to encourage start-ups.

And while I’ve never been to Wolverhampton, I have been to Pittsburgh – a city where the sense of happy optimism is palpable. Everyone you meet seems to have a plan. And not one of them involves reliance on Andrew Adonis and his equivalents.

So, before condemning Cameron for the sake of Wolverhampton’s future, Jenni Russell should take a good look at Pittsburgh, and perhaps wonder where Wolverhampton can find its own version of the appropriately-named East Liberty.



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