A History of Washwood Heath

At the Westminster Hall debate on the proposed Washwood Heath Marshalling Yard Liam Byrne, MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, explained the history of the site.  From Hansard.

Mr Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab): It is a great privilege to speak in this debate, Mr Robertson…

We are dealing with HS2 Ltd, not with an organisation that has been designed according to some celestial blueprint. It is a human institution, and in all human institutions—even those appended to the Department for Transport—sometimes imperfections creep in. A big imperfection and a big mistake has crept into these plans. That big mistake is the notion that we should destroy a third of the industrial land in the great city of Birmingham and put a marshalling yard on it, just to create a few hundred jobs in a decade’s time at the cost of creating 7,000 jobs in the short term.

With your permission, Mr Robertson, I would like to acquaint the Chamber with a bit of the site’s history. I want to set out its economic potential and then conclude by putting some questions to the Minister. He is a good Minister who knows and is on top of his brief. He understands the background to this debate, and I know that he will provide us with full answers this morning.

The site that we are talking about—a third of the industrial land in the city of Birmingham—is old. It was brought into industrial use as the country passed through the high noon of the Victorian age, towards the end of the 19th century. One of the greatest entrepreneurs in Birmingham’s history, the great Joseph Wright, created what was then called the Metropolitan locomotive works on an enormous site. Over the course of 10 or 20 years, a huge industry was built up, manufacturing locomotives that were shipped all the way around the world. In the 1880s and 1890s, Britain began sending billions of pounds around the world to build the world’s railway systems; many of the locomotives that ran on the new railway tracks in India and other parts of the empire were, as often as not, built in Joseph Wright’s great Metropolitan coachworks.

As the years went by, Joseph Wright was joined by the second great entrepreneur of east Birmingham, Herbert Austin, who founded Morris cars, and who, in the early part of the 20th century, built up the great Nuffield Organisation. In due course, he built the site that was to become the great LDV site next door to the Metropolitan coachworks. At its peak in the 1920s, 4,000 manufacturing workers were employed on the site.

Around that great site in east Birmingham, the last great entrepreneur of east Birmingham—not an industrial entrepreneur, but a civic entrepreneur—C.B. Adderley, the late Lord Norton, laid out the streets of Saltley, and that is the community that we are talking about today. The de-industrialisation of the ’80s and ’90s hit our community very hard. First, what had become Metro Cammell closed down. Then, sadly, despite our best efforts and despite the offer of support at the time from my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), LDV finally went into liquidation around the time of the last election. What emerged was a great wasteland in east Birmingham, and partly as a result of the de-industrialisation, in east Birmingham—in my constituency of Hodge Hill, in the constituency of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood), and I am afraid to say, to an extent in Erdington—we have very high and unacceptable levels of unemployment. Indeed, 45% of those who are out of work in the great city of Birmingham are in Ladywood, Hodge Hill and Erdington. There are 10 constituencies in our city, and 45% of the city’s unemployed are in just three of them.

With the liquidation of LDV and the ill-judged liquidation of Advantage West Midlands after the 2010 election, something different became possible. For the first time in literally 100 years, it was possible to stitch back together a site that is the size of 105 football pitches. It is the greatest single site pretty much anywhere in the west midlands. Crucially, it became possible to develop the site holistically and put in place new access routes that were impossible in the past.

In the early part of our discussions with HS2 Ltd, we listened with increasing irritation to the idea that just because one owner of part of the site—St Modwen, which owned the western part of the site—had had planning permission, but was unable to get the site developed, somehow the site was not developable. I hope that that argument does not feature in the Minister’s remarks today. If those pages are in his speech, I hope he rips them out, screws them up and puts them on the floor. They are irrelevant to the argument.

Only when the site came together for the first time in a century was it possible to put through the site access routes from the east and to the north of the site. St Modwen’s site on its own, on the west end of this great industrial land, has only the narrowest of roads connecting it to the outside world, and it goes through a number of residential seats. It is the worst possible access imaginable to an industrial site. In putting this great jigsaw puzzle back together, the possibility is opened up of putting big new roads in, leading straight on to the M6, if we so chose. It becomes, for the first time, not just a site where new access roads are possible, but where those access roads could connect to the great backbone of the M6.

I was of course immediately taken with the potential of developing the site holistically for the first time in a century, so in 2011 and 2012 I asked the master planners at Birmingham city council to give us a sense of the jobs potential of creating an holistic plan for developing a site the size of 105 football pitches. I was pretty shocked by the answer that I got: having done some detailed work, they told us that between 5,000 and 7,000 jobs could be created on the site if it was developed holistically, with new access routes to the north and the east. A site with that power, with that number of jobs, would of course not only have an enormous impact on unemployment in the east of the city, but bring into the coffers of Birmingham city council £5 million in new business rates every year.

However, the last Conservative-Liberal administration in the city appears to have overlooked a great jewel, and to have not made sufficiently robust arguments to HS2 about a different way forward. This is a great prize for any city, and particularly for us in east Birmingham, because of the high unemployment with which we are cursed. The Library tells us that in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington, 3,917 people are on jobseeker’s allowance. In Ladywood, 7,363 people are out of work. In my constituency, the figure is 5,379. There are 16,500 people claiming jobseeker’s allowance in our three constituencies; that is out of a city total of just over 37,000, so 44% of those on jobseeker’s allowance live in our three constituencies—the constituencies that surround this great industrial space. For those who are interested, the bill that the taxpayer

picks up for those unemployed citizens—our residents—is £73.8 million a year. If we developed the site to its full potential, as set out by the master planners at Birmingham city council, we could halve that bill. We could save the taxpayer £35 million of unemployment benefit if we put jobs, not sheds, on the site. That is why we have been making this argument during the past couple of years.

Later on in the debate, Robert Goodwill, Transport minister agreed that without HS2 many thousands of jobs could be created on the Washwood Heath site.

One comment to “A History of Washwood Heath”
  1. The main argument made by Goodwell in favour of turning Washwood Heath into a HS2 marshalling yard, was that the 7,000 figure for jobs on the site if the alternative Birmingham City development went ahead, were just “aspirational” jobs, not ‘real’ jobs. But somehow Goodwell doesn’t apply that same argument to the jobs figures that he claims for the HS2 project as a whole. Somehow he thinks that the KPMG report talks about ‘real’ jobs that will be created by HS2 but that Birmingham City talks about “aspirational” jobs. Surely Liam Byrne will blow this one back in his face???

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