The Article about the Conurbation Report published in 1948 (Vol.51, No.1, 2017) raised a number of questions about what had happened to its proposals for the post war reconstruction of the Black Country. It asked to what extent were the recommendations carried out, by whom over what period and who, what, why and when any problems were raised.

The article brought back memories of my own involvement in the early days of the Society. In those days there was limited awareness in the area including the Committee of how the Black Country was changing and the forces at work. Encouraged by John Fletcher and John Brimble I tried to raise awareness within the Committee and more widely of these issues. I argued for the Society to be as engaged with the present and future as with the past.

The article about Conurbation drew me to revisit my own copy of the report and my involvement with the society. Some insights into what happened and why can be drawn from the following contributions I made to the work of the Society in the late 60s and early 70s:-

  • Who Decides (Black Countryman, Vol. 1 no.1, 1968)
  • The Open Space Environment of the Black Country (Black Countryman,Vol. 4 No.3, 1971)
  • A BCS and Regional Studies Association One Day Conference about the Past, Present and Future of the Black Country held at the former Dudley Teachers Training college on the 8th November 1969
  • BCS Views on The Future of Local Government in Black Country, published in 1971

(Ed: conurbation: an extended urban area, typically consisting of several towns merging with the suburbs of a central city)

Change 1951-71

Central to Conurbation was a Black Country made up of an   “archipelago of settlements in a Green setting”. By 1971 80% of the derelict land and therefore most of the open space that existed in 1948 had been developed for housing and industry; the canals which were to have anchored much of the open space were closed, abandoned or left to decay. Development turned its back on the canals leaving them open to vandalism and abuse. Much of the traditional heavy industries had gone or were soon to close. The so called slums in and around the old townships had been cleared and replaced by new housing. Many historic cottages and other housing which were structurally sound or could have been upgraded were demolished because of their lack of modern amenities.

Thousands of the new housing were built in the 50s and 60s. In the inner areas the Black Country a large proportion of the new housing was built by the local district and borough councils for rent. These houses had the basic amenities which the older housing lacked, but for the most part was uninspiring. In the 60s a high proportion of this new build was high rise especially around older town centres. The newer housing in the outer areas of the Black Country was in the main built by private developers at lower densities for sale with a greater emphasis on the visual appearance and environment.

New single storey industrial estates appeared replacing older multi storey workshops. New industries anticipated by Conurbation did not materialise. One factor among many was the introduction in 1947 of Central Government Controls over new Manufacturing Development in the more prosperous regions of the UK. Including the Black Country and Birmingham.

These controls were intended to steer new development to the less well developed areas including Merseyside, the North East, Scotland and Wales. Later on these controls were also aimed at steering new manufacturing to Overspill locations in the West Midlands Region in particular Telford.

The controls applied to any industrial development over 3000sq.ft. In the Black Country new firms and projects were up until the 1970s subject to the strongest pressure to go elsewhere. The controls discouraged new investment and modernisation of the existing, often old industrial infrastructure; the replacement of obsolescent buildings; they hindered enterprise and strangled new ideas in red tape. The profitability of many companies was undermined leading to closures and takeovers. Ownership of business moved away from the Black Country

The Industrial Development controls were not applied as rigorously in the 1970s but were not repealed until 1984.

During the 1950s and 60s the flight of residents, businesses, wealth and influence to the fringes and beyond from the inner areas continued. The owners of businesses who had previously lived locally no longer did so. New housing and industrial estates were developed on the fringes of the Black Country and beyond in areas such as Aldridge and Wombourne which demonstrated to some extent what appealed to residents and businesses.

The railways which Conurbation had proposed be expanded were run down and lines closed. The M6 and M5 motorways proposed by Conurbation had been or were well on the way to being built, but little was done to improve regional and local roads. Much development along main roads had been blighted by the existence of improvement lines which had not been and would never be implemented.

The West Midlands Plan 1948

Soon after Conurbation was published a Central Government inspired Development Framework was published for the whole of the West Midlands Conurbation including Birmingham and the Black Country and its environs

This Plan for the Conurbation had been produced in the context of the Town and Country Planning Acted enacted by the incoming Labour Government in 1945. Although the Plan related to the whole of the West Midlands Conurbation it focused on the Black Country which the Plan identified as having the most challenges.

The Plan was produced by a team of Town Planners and academics led by Sir. Patrick Abercrombie, who was Professor of Town and Country Planning at University College, London University  and one of the most eminent Planners in the UK at the time.

This West Midlands Plan unlike Conurbation had Government support. Conurbation was non-governmental and purely advisory. It had been produced by a large Group led by Dr. Raymond Priestly Vice Chancellor of Birmingham University supported by a Steering Committee and a large number of advisory Groups including, business, and academic and local authority officials from across the West Midlands Region including the Shires, Birmingham and the Black Country. The work on Conurbation was supported financially and in kind by the Barrow Cadbury Trust whose chair Paul Cadbury acted as Secretary.

The Abercrombie Plan was commissioned by the then new Ministry of Town and Country Planning to provide a framework for the Local Planning Authorities to produce a Development Plan for their area as required by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. The initial Development Plans were to relate to the period 1951 to 1971

The Plan focused on the physical development of the Black Country. Central to its proposals for the Black Country were the maintenance and further intensification of  Industry in the inner areas; the location of new housing in the peripheral areas and beyond outside  a Statutory Green Belt including   towns and villages in South Staffordshire and North Worcestershire.

Abercrombie assumed the continuation of traditional industries with some allowance for new development linked to them. It set out housing targets for each County Borough and District Council with large allocations to Brierley Hill/Kingswinford, Aldridge Brownhills, Coseley, Sedgley, and Wednesfield. It did not anticipate the economic or population growth and structural change which hit the Black Country in the 1950s and 60s.

Local Development Plans 1951-71

The Planning Authorities responsible for producing these Development Plans for the Black Country were Staffordshire and Worcestershire County Councils and the County Boroughs. The local Borough and District Councils were   consulted and could advise, but they were not in the lead. The Plans required the approval of Central Government which also led the definition of a West Midlands Green Belt for land adjoining the Black Country and Birmingham. The definition of the Green Belt went on in parallel and linked to the production of the Development Plans for the Black Country and Birmingham.

Staffordshire and Worcestershire County Councils made provision in their Development Plans for Overspill housing from the Black Country and Birmingham. This provision included development in Cannock, Wombourne, Stafford, Kidderminster, Bromsgrove, Redditch, Worcester and villages in Staffordshire and Worcestershire.

The County Planning Authorities strongly supported the Green Belt and the steering of balanced new housing and employment to locations beyond or within, but outside the Green Belt.

Politics and Business

The Key players in the Development Plans   were   Central Government which set the guidelines and approved the plans, the County Councils, Landowners, Builders and Business. Powerful political and business interests had direct access to Ministers and Civil Servants in London to whom they made representations to support their interests in advance of Ministers making decisions on the Development Plans and Green Belt.

There is some anecdotal evidence that the plans for development in certain parts of the Black Country were strongly influenced by landowners and Party Politics. Some of the land owners and business interests were also County, District or County and District Councillors. Sir Hugh Chance, Director of Chance Brothers was a member of the West Midlands Group which produced Conurbation, a member of Worcestershire County Council and Chairman of Old bury and Smethwick Education Committees.

Residents and Civic Society.

The shaping of the Black Country in the 1950s and 60s reflected the way Central and Local Government operated; they decided what needed to be done and how it was to be delivered. The political and business elites were directly or indirectly involved; residents were not. There was very little if any public involvement; there was an absence of any regional or local civic forums and pressure groups to challenge the established way of doing business and to offer any alternatives.

Developers

During the 1950s and early 1960s there was pressure from developers including some of the Local Authorities especially Wolverhampton and Birmingham to breach the Green Belt? Successive Planning Applications for such development in South Staffordshire and North Worcestershire were refused by Staffordshire and Worcestershire County Councils which were appealed by the applicants to the Government who set up inquiries to inform its decisions.

There followed Planning Inquiries to advise on what action should be taken. It was on the basis of recommendations by Planning Inspectors who led the Inquiries and senior Civil Servants that Government Ministers decided to approve or not the proposed developments. The outcome was that some planning appeals were upheld allowing development to proceed and others were turned down. In some cases the approved Development Plans and Green Belt Policies were supported while in others they were not.

This led to very piecemeal development undermining the local development plans and public confidence in the Planning system and Local Government. The results can be seen today in the developments which were allowed to the west of Wolverhampton and in North Worcestershire.

Regional Working and Policies

In the early 1950s the Planning Authorities across the West Midlands agreed that enough was enough and that development across the region should be based on a locally agreed regional plan rather than it being left to ad hoc Ministerial decisions.

In 1955 the shire and urban local authorities set up the Birmingham and West Midlands Overspill Committee to produce, deliver and keep up-to-date an agreed regional plan.

These arrangements enabled the shire and urban authorities to work more closely together and to agree measures to manage overspill from the urban to shire areas consistent with approved Development Plans. This included formal agreements for overspill to particular locations within and beyond the Green Belt.

The agreements focused on new housing to be allocated for occupation by families moving from the Black Country and Birmingham. The Shire Counties also argued for the relocation of industry from the Conurbation to balance the increase in population in the Shires.

Pressure for the peripheral development of the urban areas onto Green Belt land continued into the 1960s. The Shire and Urban authorities were often on opposite sides resulting in continued friction and impasse between them, leaving Central Government to decide. Some argue that a factor in these decisions was whether or not development proposals would give a political party electoral advantage.

In 1965 the Government set up a West Midlands Regional Planning Council, made up of representatives of central and local government, and business. The Regional Council was supported by a Regional Board of Civil Servants and advisers to make recommendations to Government on the economic and physical development of the whole West Midlands Region including the Shire and Conurbation areas.

The Regional Council identified substantial economic and population growth that needed to be accommodated in the Region which would not be accommodated in the Conurbation. It proposed that New Towns should be developed based on Redditch and Dawley and that New Town Commissions be established responsible to the Government for bringing forward and delivering detailed plans.Dawley was later renamed Telford. The Government accepted these recommendations.

The Local Authorities across the region had major concerns about the proposals, not least the lack of focus on the needs of the conurbation, areas outside the New Towns and the transfer of local democratic accountability to unelected bodies appointed by Ministers.

As a result the Local Authorities established a revamped Overspill Committee, the West Midlands Regional Planning Conference, to bring forward proposals to address their concerns. It reported in the early 1970s.

Local Government

A major conclusion of Conurbation was that Local Government should be reorganised on the basis of a number of all purpose boroughs to deliver a more efficient and effective administration and detailed planning. It proposed the unification of planning control over the whole conurbation including the surrounding rural areas to a sufficient depth to ensure prevention of undesirable urban spread and ensure the preservation of the Green setting. It proposed that the boundaries of the new County boroughs should extend for some miles into the surrounding rural areas.

Conurbation’s proposals for Local Government reorganisation were not implemented. However by the late 50s there was increasing concern in London that the existing local government arrangements in the Black Country were a problem; that the existing arrangements were seen as not capable of dealing with its planning and development or to provide a strong enough counter weight to Birmingham City Council which was increasingly influencing regional development.

In 1958 the Conservative Government set up a Royal Commission on Local Government in England which reported in 1962. It made proposals for the future of Local Government in the West Midlands Region which the existing local authorities opposed taking the proposals through Courts to the House of Lords. It was not until 1965 that the Labour Government accepted the Commission’s proposals that the system of, Boroughs, County and District authorities be abolished and replaced by five all purpose County Boroughs. This new system came into force on the first April 1966.

The Royal Commission and the Government took the view that the new arrangement would strengthen the Black Country’s ability to respond to the challenges it faced. It attached less importance to the local community identity or the social and economic links which existed between the Black Country and the adjoining areas of Staffordshire and Worcestershire.

In 1966 a further Royal Commission was established to make recommendations on the future of Local Government across the West Midlands. It reported in 1969. It proposed that a directly elected Provincial Council be established for the whole of the West Midlands Region to deal with Strategic Planning. In the Black Country the Commission proposed four all purpose Local Authorities responsible for all Planning matters together with responsibility for major services in particular education, and social services. The Commission also proposed that local Community Councils be established.

In 1973 the Conservative Government agreed a new round of reorganisation which led in April 1974 to the establishment of a West Midlands Metropolitan County Authority stretching from Wolverhampton to Coventry and including seven all purpose District Councils for Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

The Government did not accept the Royal Commission’s proposals for a West Midlands Region Provincial Council thereby separating the planning and shared interests of the Shire and Metropolitan areas. Neither did it recognise the need for the District boundaries to include parts of South Staffordshire and North Worcestershire as proposed by the Royal Commission. The District boundaries were drawn very tightly separating the urban from the rural.

There is again anecdotal evidence that this drawing of the District boundaries was supported by Black Country and Shire members of the County Councils. The Black Country members who were in the main Labour saw the arrangements as maximising their chances of winning power and getting control of major public services. The Shire members, being mainly Conservative saw a reduction in Labour members on the County Councils as increasing their control over the Green Belt and public services for which they were responsible.

The Royal Commission recognised that there might be a case for local community councils if there was public and District Council support for them. The District Councils have consistently blocked local campaigns for powers and representation to be made more local and taken little or no action to encourage their establishment.

The Society responded to the Royal Commission and made a submission to the Conservative Government. In its 1971 Pamphlet it proposed that Local Government in the Black Country and the wider West Midlands Region be built on directly elected Community or Town Councils responsible for local services and providing a voice for local communities. It accepted that some public services needed to be provided across a larger area and proposed that major public service authorities be established for the Black Country, Birmingham and adjoining Shire Counties. It also accepted that long term development and major infrastructure investment needed to be planned for the West Midlands Region as a whole and that the region needed a stronger democratically accountable voice to engage with Government and beyond. It therefore proposed the establishment of a directly elected West Midlands Region body. The West Midlands Region needed a strong political voice which could engage with Westminster and Whitehall.

Conclusions

The question of whether the Society should be concerned about these issues was contentious during my time on the Committee. Some members were very reluctant for the Society to take a view on the future of the Black Country and the wider region. They argued that the Society was non political and should not take a view on anything that was political

As John Fletcher said in his opening address to the 1969 Conference “The legacy of the past in many ways acts as a strong limiting factor on the development of the present Black Country and in turn to some extent determines its potential”. The past, present and future are interrelated and this view underpinned his and my own view that the Black Country Society had to be as much concerned with the present and future as with the past if it was to influence rather than be influenced by events.

The Conurbation report was visionary. We can still take ideas from it to help guide development today and tomorrow. However it was not a plan and did not make out to be one. It did not and possibly could not have anticipated the very significant economic, demographic and institutional changes which were to come. It did not recognise the controlling influence of Central Government and its executive agencies – Quangos which underpinned the shift of democratic accountability from the local to London and beyond and from locally based to national and international businesses.

Conurbation assumed there would be a capability with some changes to local government to deliver its vision. It did not and possibly could not have recognised the extent to which Westminster and Whitehall and powerful, but anonymous interests would shape the Governance and Development of the Black Country and the wider West Midlands Region.

Conurbation did anticipate the demand by residents for better housing with modern amenities set in an attractive environment. It also recognised the need for industry to modernise in response to new working practices and for new industries to be attracted. Actions did not match these aspirations and many residents and businesses voted to move away from the inner areas. They have been replaced by new immigrants; large industrial sites were redeveloped for housing or divided to form small industrial estates occupied in the main by small manufacturing, warehousing and distribution employing far fewer people than previously.

The continuing uncertainty about the Governance and Planning of Development undermined and challenged Conurbations proposals. It must have reduced the ability of the Black Country to focus in the late 1950s and early 1960s on the economic, demographic, social, environmental and institutional challenges it faced.

In contrast the administrative boundaries of the City of Birmingham and the Shire Counties bordering the Black Country remained very much the same. This stability probably played a part in helping these areas to adjust to the changes going on in their areas and to plan for the future more effectively than Black Country.

In the 50s and 60s many Black Country people, businesses and local authorities showed little concern for the area’s heritage. This indifference led some to challenge and promote a different vision and action. The result was the establishment of the Dudley Canal Trust, the Black Country Society and much other voluntary action intended to conserve the best of the areas heritage for future generations. In time public opinion, local and central government came round to the same way of thinking.

As Vic Smallshire said at the gathering of boats at Parkhead locks, Dudley at Easter 1973,”turning the steamroller of beaurocracy around until it was going in our direction had been such a long process that the driver hadn’t noticed that he was going in the same direction”

In the last 50 years many new challenges and opportunities have come along which have shaped what has happened to the Black Country more recently and its future prospects. This is another story.

 

George Morran

BCS Member 1968 to Present and Committee member 1968-76. Formerly Director the West Midlands Regional Forum of Local Authorities and Assistant Chief Executive, Dudley MBC.

 

 

 

o

Advertisements