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Benefits Street - and a warning from history

The decline of manufacturing in Birmingham has been an 'elephant in the room' in all of the brouhaha concerning the Channel Four television programme Benefits Street.

A view of Winson Green Road from, I think, Norman Street. The prison is in the background on the right. James Turner would have lived across the way in Winson Green House, before the area was developed.
A view of Winson Green Road from, I think, Norman Street. The prison is in the background on the right.

There have been a number of good news stories in recent months concerning the state of manufacturing in the West Midlands.

The news of the relocation of production from Dunlop Motorsport, with the loss of several hundred jobs, was very disappointing.

That came shortly after the news of Cash’s, a manufacturer based in Coventry, is about to close with the loss of 50 jobs.

And let’s not forget that though it was announced a couple of weeks ago that there will be £75 million investment by Cadbury’s parent company Mondelez, into its Bournville factory, there was an admission that job losses were “likely” to ensure the survival of the site by increasing efficiency.

The decline of manufacturing in Birmingham has been an ‘elephant in the room’ in all of the brouhaha concerning the Channel Four television programme Benefits Street.

When it was built in the late 1800s, James Turner Street attracted prosperous working classes from all over Britain, to work in the wide variety of local factories engaged in what is now referred to as “metal bashing”.

The 1891 census informs us that though the majority of the residents of James Turner Street at the time were from the local area, some had come from as far as Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Devon, Herefordshire, Leicestershire, London, Norfolk, Staffordshire and Worcestershire to work in the in numerous local factories springing up as a result of the industrial revolution.

These factories were creating goods that would be sold around the world and establish Birmingham as The City of a Thousand Trades.

The 1891 census showed that almost to a man – this included women – the residents of James Turner Street were employed as smiths, pressers, turners and stampers, chain-makers, moulders, casters, brass workers, solderers, burnishers, polishers, tank-makers, engine fitters, nut and bolt-makers, cycle-makers, core-makers, angle-iron smiths, axle turners, brass tap finishers, machine tool-makers, furnacemen, iron and steel wire drawers, and rule-makers.

What has made James Turner Street currently so infamous should act as a warning from history and be taught to all future generations of schoolchildren.

Hopefully, they will be more appreciative of the consequences of allowing a sudden decline in manufacturing capability than politicians from all parties with their ‘half-baked’ and often hopeless policies.

Some commentators go so far as suggest that some political leaders – we all know to whom they refer – possessed attitudes bordering on contempt for traditional industries such as manufacturing.

In the decades after the second-world war, those residents of James Turner Street who had became sufficiently wealthy moved out to the leafier suburbs and were replaced by the newly arrived immigrants from the Caribbean and Indian sub-continent who could secure employment in the local factories that still operated.

However, in the economic mayhem of the 1970s and 1980s these factories closed at an phenomenal rate.

It’s worth noting that Birmingham lost 200,000 manufacturing jobs in the ten years from 1971 alone.

This resulted in unemployment rapidly increasing up to over 20 per cent; especially in the likes of James Turner Street whose residents became used to a life of benefit dependency.

In many areas of inner city Birmingham unemployment has never reduced since the 1980s with all the attendant social problems such as lack of attainment of educational and vocational qualifications, higher than average crime rates and poor health.

The sense of hopelessness and ‘poverty of aspiration’ is all too apparent in Channel Four’s Benefits Street.

Birmingham’s GDP per capita was the highest of any British city outside the south-east in 1976, but five years later, it was the lowest in England, and relative incomes, which were the highest in the country in 1970, were the lowest by 1983.

I fully accept that the days of metal-bashing in Birmingham and surrounding areas have disappeared forever.

However, if people living in areas of social deprivation such as James Turner Street can never expect to work then that is truly dreadful.

Surely there must be an alternative?

What is needed is the sort of investment in creating the inventiveness and ingenuity that has attracted migrants to Birmingham for centuries; most especially after the industrial revolution.

Not for the first, nor last time, I appeal to our political leaders, particularly in Westminster, to urgently consider implementing the industrial policy so passionately advocated by Lord Heseltine in his report No Stone Unturned.

And, as I’ve argued previously, what we should aim to achieve in this area is a version of what the Germans refer to as the Mittelstand.

Birmingham has a reputation as a city with pre-eminence in all aspects of manufacturing excellence and innovation; Jaguar Land Rover being the best known example.

But we need thousands more small and medium-sized companies with the same obsession on producing excellent products through creative and dedicated people as JLR.

This is precisely what Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership is dedicated to achieving.

If GBSLEP’s long-term strategy succeeds it will be good for the people of Birmingham in terms of creating jobs with opportunity and improving the local economy.

Equally important success in this strategy will ensure that we have a more balanced national economy that is less London-centric and based on the associated vastly over-inflated property prices in the capital as well as and the caprice and hubris of city traders and financiers.

The trouble is, I don’t believe we will see this sort of radical change; certainly in the foreseeable future.

* Dr Steven McCabe is director of research degrees for Birmingham City Business School

 
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