Centre for Cities – How garbage in gives garbage out!
This is an extract from a report I wrote in 2016. I submitted this to a variety of public bodies and MPs. Only one, from among those, responded. Later an MP decided to raise the issue and I reminded him I had circulated him with this. He wrote a one line response “thank you”. He is no longer an MP. What I wrote centres, mostly, on my home City, Wolverhampton. It serves, however, to illustrate how public policy is misinformed by mischievous ignorant jobsworths in various branches of the Civil Service. The policy I describe is the mechanism that has been used to gerrymander boundaries and render our electoral system not fit for purpose.
What is a City?
A deal of confusion unnecessarily surrounds this issue. A City is a town, or more recently a group of towns, to which letters patent have been issued by the Monarch. It is that simple. Cities may be large or small. The title is honorary but cities that are large will be significant economic components of the Nation. However there is more to it than that.
Most economists admit that central micro-managing of an economy is impossible, due to the complexity, and they blame that approach for the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Communities develop organically. They are not imposed by a central authority. They grow motivated by the Law of Supply and Demand. Some are small, some grow large. Some expand until they touch another community. They remain distinct communities but casual and uninformed observers might conclude they are parts of a single entity. They are not. How they grew is key to understanding the significance of individual communities. Therefore, when grouping disparate communities together, it is vital the history of those groupings is the prime criterion since forced marriages of incompatible communities are unlikely ever to form cohesive entities.
Imagine a street a mile long running east – west with terraced houses along each. Halfway along the road it is blocked by a twenty foot high wall rendering travel between the two halves of the street impossible. The people of the east have little or nothing to do with the people of the west. At the eastern end of the road is a shop. The people from the east shop there. At the western end is another shop. The people from the west shop there. Each shop has its own catchment. This does not prevent people from taking a lengthy journey to shop at the other shop. They are deterred from doing so by the distance. Even if the wall is removed they are more likely to shop at the location in their own half of the road so long as there is a level playing field. If the shop nearest is closed then they are inconvenienced and generally become angry. Where conurbations grow from multiple centres this is how the people within them can be expected to behave. Attempting to centralise on an artificial, imposed “centre” can only cause misery.
Boundaries, Communities and Gerrymandering
The Establishment has attempted, over almost two centuries, to mould the Nation by partitioning it into convenient constituencies and boroughs which deliver single party administrations and safe Parliamentary seats. The consequence is that those boundaries frequently bear little relationship to the actual communities that grew so organically. Central Government has often attempted to force its own imprint on groups of communities by seizing (through nationalisation) the assets of the centres that had grown up so naturally and Government has sought to create larger partitions that are inaccessible and unaccountable to the public at large.
The Centre for “Cities” treats these partitions as being “cities”. Leaving aside the insult, to the monarch, it is clear these partitions bear no relationship to actual communities and while claims have been made to conform to some kind of theoretical basis an examination of the evidence (or rather lack of it) reveals there are major inconsistencies in the way differing parts of the country have been treated. I shall refer to these partitions as “Convenience Partitions of the State” (CONPOTS). Cities they most certainly are not. In her speech one morning (9th September 2016) the Prime Minister highlighted how the misuse of statistics has damaged the education prospects of many children. The misuse I refer to here has had a catastrophic effect on many local economies.
Where actual cities have been consulted on the appointment of “elected mayors” they have usually voted against the proposition. Nevertheless the system is being imposed on large areas of the country where there has been a rejection or where there has been no consultation whatsoever. Later I shall examine why the “Centre for Cities” refers to these places as such and demonstrate how it is based on a completely false premise.
The manipulation of boundaries has been especially evident and particularly damaging in what is frequently called the “West Midlands Conurbation”. In fact this is two conurbations and each of them is a matrix of disparate towns and villages. A small built up ribbon links the two in the area of Smethwick. The two conurbations should be defined as “The North Warwickshire Conurbation” (NWC) and “The South Staffordshire Conurbation” (SSC). The original town of Dudley was anachronistically a component of Worcestershire but was surrounded entirely by Staffordshire. In recent contact with the Boundaries Commission I found they had been influenced, very considerably, by the defined COMPOTS. That is wholly inappropriate.
In both of these conurbations there is a clear “capital”. In the NWC that is Birmingham. In the SSC it is Wolverhampton a City whose centre is more than five or six times the size of the largest of the other centres in that Conurbation. It has an Inter-City Railway Station. It has a very large university, the second largest in the West Midlands region. Its 24,000 students (compares very favourably with Birmingham University’s 28,000). It has the most ancient written history, dating back to 954 AD and beyond.
Wolverhampton developed and delivered water supply services to the majority of South Staffordshire and Southern Shropshire. It developed public transport for the same areas (apart from West Bromwich and Walsall whose own transport undertakings worked cooperatively with Wolverhampton Corporation Transport Undertaking). It existed for 800 years as a Royal Peculiar, a status granted in perpetuity and whose abolition is of questionable legal status. The area covered by the Peculiar corresponds very largely with the present day Wolverhampton (WV) postcodes.
Wolverhampton has a demonstrably clear radial major road network providing direct links to Wellington (Salop), Shrewsbury, Bridgnorth, Newport (Salop), Kidderminster, Stourbridge, Worcester, Walsall, Lichfield, Dudley, Sedgley, Coseley, Stafford/Stoke, Penkridge, Cannock, West Bromwich, Birmingham. The motorways extend that to include London, Manchester, Glasgow etc. [Wolverhampton City Centre forms the main focal point for the road network within the northwestern part of the West Midlands conurbation, and out into the rural hinterland of Staffordshire and Shropshire. (Wikiwand)]
In the map below the radial road system is clearly seen. Some of the older routes have been demoted since the building of the motorway system but a close examination reveals sixteen (pre-motorway) major routes converge on the City centre. These connect directly to every part of the South Staffordshire Conurbation and to most major towns in the region. Contrast that with the nine routes that converge on its competitor, Birmingham.
Wolverhampton’s unique radial road system.
A road leads to Birmingham. It is the old Thomas Telford route that passes through Bilston, Wednesbury, and West Bromwich. (The Halfway House, Tettenhall Road, Wolverhampton marks the half way point between London and Holyhead). The “Birmingham New Road” does not go to Birmingham. Instead it connects Wolverhampton with the far south of the SSC terminating at the border between Oldbury and Quinton. From there to central Birmingham is a tortuous route indeed.
Before the Nationalising of municipal services and the accompanying gerrymandering of boundaries in the 1960s and 1970s it was very clear Wolverhampton County Borough provided services to a region and not merely to itself. The County Authority, Stafford, was incapable of delivering County services to the urban districts that surrounded Wolverhampton. Wolverhampton remains the focal point of a considerable catchment area. It is true there is some overlapping with other smaller centres but in general they, historically, provide complementary services with each of the major towns having specialities. The SSC is better regarded as a “matrix” of communities. So too is the NWC.
For residents, in the SSC, Birmingham is a distant and inaccessible place. For the majority who use public transport it represents a two hour journey or more. Very few places in the SSC have direct bus, tram or rail routes to Birmingham City Centre. Car owners fare little better due to the lack of affordable parking facilities in Birmingham and the permanent near grid-lock of its road AND RAIL routes. I was brought up in Wolverhampton. I had never heard of Birmingham until I was a teenager.
It was not surprising, then, to find the West Midlands Metropolitan County Council was a monumental failure. When abolished, the former county boundaries should have been reverted to, in order that the consequential and persistent confusion of identities would not prevail. It is that confusion that has contributed to the economic malaise in the SSC and the wanton destruction of Wolverhampton’s economy and that of its neighbours. It seems, though, that bureaucrats and distant uninformed academics wish to persist in attempting to force large parts of the West Midlands into a shotgun wedding with Birmingham. They might examine the evidence.
The WMMCC was based in Birmingham and its remoteness and inaccessibility led to its failure. Birmingham City Council is a by-word for failure in most of its departments which suffer from being over-sized and too remote. Birmingham is not equipped to deal with its own issues. It most certainly is unlikely, therefore, to be capable of delivering services to a much wider area. Indeed Sutton Coldfield does not belong in Birmingham. Its inclusion, to cover up for the dramatic decline in Birmingham’s population, was against the will of the people of that Royal Borough.
It is worth examining the “evidence” produced by the Centre for Cities. I wrote to them and they responded, (passing the buck). Instead of producing evidence to back up their assertion, they claimed to be advised by the work of Newcastle University:
The statement contained in the penultimate paragraph is untrue. The PUA system does not define cities and it does not define Wolverhampton and Birmingham as being a part of the same City. PUA = “Primary Urban Area”. Neither Bolton nor Rochdale is a City. Nor do the “built up” areas of Wolverhampton and Birmingham overlap.
Following the link the article contained on their website suggests they have “worked with the academics at CURDS, University of Newcastle to update the PUA definition and refine the methodology”. This is patently untrue. I contacted CURDS and they responded indicating the report “Centre for Cities” uses. It was dated 2003. It contains no citations relating to the Centre for Cities. It cannot be found by searching the CURDS website. It can only be found by knowing the url of the document involved:
It should be made clear the ONS provides statistics as required according to a specification it is given. It is not the role of the statistician to invent the reasoning. The question is “who provided the specification and on what evidence was it based?”
The ONS report can be found at:
This is where it becomes interesting.
The ONS report describes how they now use a “digital” system to calculate “Urban Areas”. (They mean a computer program!) They deliver no specification for the process. They provide no benchmarks against which it was tested. They give no indication of any testing of the process. They provide no information on any parallel running against manual methods in order to test the process. They give neither structure diagram of the programmes used nor any of the conditions pre-programmed into it. Inputs and outputs are not specified.
The ONS makes it clear the process merely measures buildings. It takes no account of whether they are in use, catchment areas, communications links or any of the other characteristics essential to make a community a viable economic unit. The purpose of this particular division of land is simply to divide the country between rural and “built-up” areas in order that comparisons of very different environments can be measured (on a national basis). For pretty well everything else the Census statistics appear to rely on the gerrymandered local authority boundaries. (Curiously the Wolverhampton suburbs that have been parcelled out into “South Staffordshire District” are not shown as part of the conurbation despite the fact they are seamlessly joined to the City).
The Centre for Cities claims to be an “economics think tank”. The assumption that the existence of buildings represents economic activity is an astounding thing for such a unit to declare. That Government, its departments, businesses and map makers rely on such a ridiculous assertion would suggest the entire Government bureaucracy is not fit for purpose.
Comparison of different areas.
Two areas I know particularly well. The West Midlands (region) and West Yorkshire. From the map in the ONS report I have extracted detail. Note how very similar the shape nd size of the West Yorkshire Urban area is to that of the so-called West Midlands Urban area. Over half the Wolverhampton travel to work area is excluded from the “PUA”!
The “West Midlands” is very clearly divided into two distinct areas with only a small built up bridge between them. That bridge is occupied by the Birmingham/Wolverhampton New Road, where it meets the M5 motorway, along with rail and canal routes.
The M5/M6 provides an almost impenetrable barrier between the two distinct conurbations. It is the wall referred to in the final paragraph of (1.) above. Birmingham, itself, is boxed in by the M5, M6 and M42. A small part of the SSC is within that box as, too, is Solihull. Sutton Coldfield lies outside the box.
The M5/M6 follows what was largely marshland and green fields lying between the two conurbations.
West Yorkshire is divided by major hills on which it is impractical to build. However communication between the various parts of West Yorkshire is far easier and far swifter than similar length journeys in the West Midlands. There are, for example, more connecting roads between Bradford and Leeds, or Halifax and Huddersfield, than between West Bromwich and Birmingham. The area is shown as ONE SINGLE PUA. I was based at Wakefield and could reach any part of the former Metropolitan County within 30 minutes by car.
Referring to the Centre for Cities site: only two names within the former WMMCC appear i.e. Birmingham and Coventry. However in West Yorkshire Huddersfield, Bradford, Leeds, Wakefield are all defined as “cities” (paradoxically Halifax is not). I defy anyone to work out where Bradford starts and Leeds ends! However Leeds was almost entirely self-sufficient in the days of the WYMCC.
This example demonstrates the methodology is fundamentally flawed and inconsistent. Two almost identical areas, according to the published rules, are treated entirely differently. Each CONPOTS appears to have been formed according to its own individual anachronistic rules or more likely some form of manual intervention occurred in the supposedly mechanised process. No pre-defined set of rules could have delivered this kind of result in a computer programme. The contrived CONPOTS, such as Blackpool, further demonstrate the inconsistencies but I suggest that is self-evident.
What is clear is that the South Staffordshire Conurbation is very clearly a separate economic unit to the North Warwickshire Conurbation. The road systems, history and activities are clearly very separate one from the other. It is true that at the point where there is a bridge between the two conurbations there is bound to be a division of loyalties. The robotic division of the country merely by population density is not a satisfactory model for determining how areas are governed.
That which we call a rose?
A variety of terms have been used by those generating these reports and these terms frequently overlap or differ from their uses by other agencies. Birmingham has ambitious city fathers who seek to advance their City and this is generally at the expense of its neighbours. It suits them to capitalise on the confusion generated by the misuse of terms:
- Birmingham Is the City of Birmingham. The Local Authority area incorporates the shot gun bride of Sutton Coldfield.
- Birmingham has been used to describe the CONPOTS defined by the Centre for Cities to include numerous other Cities, towns and rural areas.
- Birmingham is a term used by people ignorant of the area to describe the two conurbations at the junction of Warwickshire and Staffordshire.
- Greater Birmingham is what the City fathers of Birmingham dream of and have sought to promote. Its definition varies according to a flexible wish list. It does not exist.
- West Midlands is a region of England covering a large part of the Midland plain and bounded in the north by the Peak District and in the west by Wales.
- West Midlands is a term frequently used when the expression “Greater Birmingham” proves unacceptable.
- West Midlands Conurbation is a misleading term used because “Greater Birmingham” is an expression rejected by the overwhelming majority of the residents of the area it seeks to define. It comprises three cities and several large and small towns. Sometimes it does not include Coventry.
- South Staffordshire Conurbation is the present Local Authority areas of Wolverhampton, Dudley, Walsall, Sandwell, South Staffordshire and it could be argued Cannock and Cannock Chase. This figures nowhere in public policy making. South Staffordshire District is generally overlooked.
- North Warwickshire Conurbation is Birmingham and Solihull although Sutton Coldfield does not really belong to it.
- The Black Country is an obsolete term relating to features of parts of South Staffordshire. The area is now a very GREEN area.
Centre for Cities refers to the ONS PUA as “Birmingham”. When grants are paid they go to the City of Birmingham. When statistics are generated they sometimes refer to the City of Birmingham, sometimes to the whole of the former failed West Midlands County, sometimes to Birmingham and the four neighbouring built up boroughs and sometimes to the whole of the West Midlands region or incarnations of a variety of components of it. Since the common term has various meanings comparisons become impossible.
Conspiracy or Cock-up?
It is tempting to infer conspiracy, when viewing the output of the Civil Service. More likely this is a combination of error, incompetence, laziness, carelessness, ignorance and yes, conspiracy. In these various reports it is clear the time-honoured tradition, of academia and public administration, has resorted to the usual practice of quoting invalid citations. Then the citations are misused. The PUA was designed for a different purpose to that which these reports put it. Had simple checks been made that would have been identified easily.
It is astonishing to find that a department of geography, at a major university, is prepared to accept that building density is the only determinant of community or economic units. To find an economics think tank then swallows this absurdity, without question, is equally extraordinary. Perhaps they failed to read or understand what they were quoting?
Despite extensive searching I have found no evidence of any peer review of any component of this convoluted set of interdependent reports. I have found no trace of any business case for settling on the definition of PUA as a satisfactory one for the purpose to which it is put. I have found no trace of any evidence that supports the use of the PUA as an acceptable form of economic subdivision of the State. I have found evidence of EU policies that appear to be the drivers of this move to unaccountability in public administration. Councillor Lawrence, of Wolverhampton City Council, declares the EU is not the root of this misinformation and points only to our very own Civil Service.
Most alarming of all is the silence of most elected representatives on these very obvious failings in the process of public policy determination. Only Councillor Lawrence appears to have spoken out.
A series of unconnected reports from the ONS, CURDS and the Centre for Cities, have been muddled together to deliver confusing, convoluted and invalid conclusions on what might form the major economic units (for the purpose of public administration, strategic planning and policy). They have no evidence basis and no business case exists to justify the conclusions delivered. None of this material has been peer reviewed. Unless or until such evidence can be produced the output of the Centre for Cities should be disregarded in its entirety.
Central Government uses the output of the Centre for Cities to guide economic policy and so do businesses and some map! They dictate signposting policy on the roads leaving the City of Wolverhampton hardly mentioned on the M1/M6/M6Toll! The distorting effect of the inaccurate and misleading advice from the Centre for Cities has had an economic cost to Wolverhampton and neighbouring towns which is incalculable. The “Centre for Cities” can be, very largely, blamed for the devastation of the South Staffordshire Conurbation.
In the 1960s the City of Wolverhampton was a thriving economic centre where its people enjoyed wages averaging 25% more than the national average. A number of issues have contributed to a catastrophic decline which leaves the average wage at one third of the national average. This corresponds to a 75% reduction in wealth in a matter of just fifty years.
The issues include the invention of the artificial “county” West Midlands, within the region of the West Midlands. That alone caused ambiguity. The seating of the administration in a competing City meant unequal distribution of funding and this coincided with a drastic reduction in the nation’s capacity to export manufactured goods. Birmingham has different priorities to the South Staffordshire Conurbation. Government further aggravated the demise by nationalising enterprises that had grown by local enterprise, obeying the law of supply and demand and thus Central Government removed a whole layer of the social strata of the City together with those high paying jobs.
The process was further aggravated by the deliberate political gerrymandering of the City’s boundaries removing two thirds of the former peculiar from the borough and ignoring the recommendations of a series of independent reports to the Government and Boundaries Commission. That a major component of this was to ensure a parliamentary seat for one, (now ennobled), man beggars belief. It is hard to avoid concluding there has been a deliberate process intending to destroy or neglecting the interests of the economy of this historic City and its neighbours.
The recent (rejected and now replaced) proposals for boundary reform would have, effectively, wiped the City of Wolverhampton off the map since it was clearly based on the Centre for Cities report and based calculations on an attempt to establish local wards and constituencies based on a fixed central point in Birmingham as if to suggest they are a part of that foreign City. This resulted in the creation of a constituency spreading across four Local Authority areas and delivered the east of Wolverhampton to the borough of Walsall and the south to the borough of Dudley. The west and north of the City remained parcelled out as a separate borough supposedly outside the PUA.
For centuries Wolverhampton provided essential County services to areas within its catchment area without trampling on local sensitivities or loyalties. That was a better model than what is now proposed. The City retains the necessary infrastructure to be capable of resuming its regional role.
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