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13 November 2000

The town that has no middle class

In West Bromwich, where a by-election is due this month, Robert Chesshyrefinds that smokestacks stil

By Robert Chesshyre

West Bromwich has had an image problem ever since Queen Victoria ordered the blinds of the royal train to be drawn so that she would not have to gaze on the despoiled landscape that powered her empire. In 1933, J B Priestley, exploring the Black Country while writing his English Journey, was more shocked by what he found in the town than by all the other impoverished horrors of England in the grip of the interwar depression.

Visiting a street that he dubbed “Rusty Lane”, he wrote: “If you put it, brick for brick, into a novel, people would . . . condemn you as a caricaturist.” And he argued: “While [Rusty Lane and West Bromwich] exist in their present foul shape, it is idle to congratulate ourselves about anything.” International delegates to economic conferences, he said, should be taken not to Mayfair in the season, but to West Brom-wich out of season.

In Rusty Lane, he came across boys throwing stones at a factory. “I could not blame them if they threw stones and stones and smashed every pane of glass for miles. No one can blame them if they grow up to smash everything that can be smashed.”

Last week, I went to West Bromwich in conditions – at least on my first day – sufficiently out of season to satisfy even Jack Priestley at his most curmudgeonly. Rain cascaded from the market awnings; the horizon vanished in a smudge of distant grey; brassed-off people in damp anoraks hauled plastic wheelie baskets in and out of cheapo shops. I was wet from the knees down before I had gone 300 yards from my hotel.

The reason for my visit was not an economic summit – no one has yet had the guts (or vision?) to pursue Priestley’s idea – but the by-election on 23 November to replace Betty Boothroyd, the retired Speaker and, since 1973, one of West Bromwich’s two Labour MPs. Boothroyd and West Bromwich Albion football club (“the Baggies”) were all that most of the Londoners I asked before leaving knew about the town. Few of them, I suspect, would have been able to pinpoint it on a map.

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West Bromwich is in the Black Country, so named – at the time that Queen Victoria was hastily drawing her blinds – for its begrimed appearance. It lies west of the M5, near the junction of the M5 and M6 where England grinds to a halt twice daily. To tens of thousands of drivers, the Black Country is merely the drab urban backdrop on which they gaze forlornly as they inch their way through the exhaust fumes.

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Even local people join in the joke about the town’s low profile. Q: “Where’s West Brom?” A: “Somewhere near the top of the First Division.” Yet there is fierce pride in the Black Country. Geoffrey Fisher, the chairman of the Greets Green Partnership, a major regeneration scheme, remembered the first time he had to employ a worker. The foreman approached. “You can’t have anyone from across the ‘boundary’,” he said. By that, he meant neighbouring Birmingham.

West Bromwich is the main town in the borough of Sandwell (the name of a local beauty spot chosen, when local government was reorganised in 1974, so as not to offend rival towns). A lifetime after Priestley, Sandwell lies at the bottom of league tables: housing (I was told that 48 per cent of homes were classed as unfit for habitation), income, education, jobs, car ownership, infant mortality, health. Luke Borwick, the chairman of the Black Country Learning and Skills Council, flicked through a briefing paper and said: “The figures just don’t bear thinking about.”

Despite this bleak picture and the ravages of 20 years of recession, West Bromwich remains a place of considerable industry – one in three workers, as high a proportion as anywhere in Britain, is employed making things. Smokestacks still smoke, steel is still processed and metal bashed; and along the banks of the canals, the juggernauts come and go, bringing raw materials and carrying off finished goods.

The town’s homes were built for industrial workers; the villas once occupied by the factory owners were converted to multiple occupancy after the Second World War. So (and this I was told time and again) there is almost no resident “middle class”, those who in more balanced communities have the professional skills to fight for the quality of local life. When people make their way in the world, they head out of West Brom, taking with them their spending power from the shops and their highly motivated children from the schools.

Some of the kids who are left still throw stones. As I talked to the Reverend Nigel Marns, vicar of the Good Shepherd with St John, near the town centre, a glazier made his routine visit to repair the church windows. Marns, who was ordained in the Eighties, when the Church of England seemed the only effective opponent of Thatcherism, walked me round a nearby estate. A few wretched people still live among the boarded-up flats, which were built 30 years ago, condemned three years ago, and still await the wreckers’ ball.

Its short, brutish life cycle, from “show estate” to rotted slum, says a great deal about the mismanagement of inner-city areas in the postwar years. No one responsible for planning, designing or building such an estate would have dreamt for one moment of living on it. Across Sandwell during the Eighties and Nineties, thousands of workers were thrown on the scrapheap. The consequent poverty is visible: people with pinched, pallid faces, shivering in cheap clothes on wet, cold days.

I met four Labour Party stalwarts, bundling by-election leaflets, who said that the community had been decimated in those years. Three of them had fathers who lost their jobs during the great shake-out and never worked properly again.

To them, politics was personal. There was a passion to their denunciation of the 18 years of Tory rule on which one could have warmed one’s hands. At the same time, the desire for a second Labour term forbade criticism. “If we lose the next election, I would fear for the people,” said John Giles, 46, who was once on the dole for two years.

John Davidson, 39, a train driver, said that people have short memories: “Things are getting better and we have got to get the message across that you can’t do everything in one parliament.” The volunteers were confident of holding Boothroyd’s seat (reassuringly, the town motto is “Labor omnia vincit“) and, like everyone in West Bromwich, were proud of her achievements. However, they felt that her duties as Speaker had left her too little time for local concerns. This time, the constituency party has plumped for Adrian Bailey, the deputy leader of Sandwell council and a man committed to grass-roots issues. The level of interest is likely to be low. Nigel Marns’s church hall is a polling station; at previous local elections, officials were “really excited” by an 11 per cent turnout.

Not long ago, with Enoch Powell an MP in nearby Wolverhampton, the West Midlands was a racial powder keg. Race remains an issue: 17 per cent of Sandwell people are from ethnic minorities, and the figure is rising steadily. A market stallholder said: “I won’t say that people love West Brom, they think there are too many blacks. Apartheid isn’t far below the surface.”

Marns fears that Asians could be used as scapegoats if there is further recession. But, for all that, the leader of Sandwell council is Lord (Tarsem) King of West Bromwich, born in India, and successful Asians are assuming leadership roles.

Paul Bassi, 38, runs a property and investment company worth millions. His father arrived from the Punjab in the Fifties with £2 in his pocket. Bassi was born in Birmingham, grew up in London, moved to Sandwell College to take a business studies degree and stayed. He was in his early twenties when he and a partner bought the company they worked for. “Things were not as they ought to be,” he recalled. “It was either that or leave.”

Bassi is proud of West Bromwich. “London would not be the city it is today had it not been for the success of the industrial revolution, the heart of which was the Black Country,” he said. The rest of Britain knows little about the area, he argued, because local people don’t blow their own trumpets: “Black Country folk believe self-praise is no praise.”

Money has been spent on new roads; developers are opening up industrial sites. A recent report even named West Brom as the best place in Britain for new investment. “Companies relocate because of the committed, hard-working people,” said Bassi. He finds less racial hatred locally than elsewhere, and said that the reason why ethnic minorities settle in the Black Country is that they share the loyalty and work ethic of local people.

Priestley had lunched in a restaurant with a businessman, and found himself surrounded by “large hearty fellows, sturdy eaters and drinkers”. Where, I asked Bassi, do today’s entrepreneurs take lunch? He laughed: “On a good day, we grab a sandwich.”

Close-knit extended families are a feature both of Black Country and of immigrant communities, and successful people from both groups are often paternalistic, in the better sense of that slippery and ambiguous concept. The business people I met, white and Asian alike, may go home elsewhere at night, but, like Geoffrey Fisher, they work hard for the bodies devoted to education and regeneration, often wearing several hats.

Michael Worley runs William King Ltd, a family business employing 195 people locally and 140 in Sunderland, producing semi-finished steel products for the car, consumer durables and packaging industries. He was about to present six employees of 25 years with long-service awards. As a private company, he said, William King was able to concentrate on long-term survival, rather than short-term profits.

“If people are treated reasonably, trained and taken along with decisions, they will feel part of the business and proud of what they do,” he said.

Although, sadly, West Brom will never be a place of beauty and riches, its problems are being addressed in a way that is more than usually effective. If Priestley were to peer from his celestial library window, he would still be dismayed by much of what he saw, but I think he would at least ask the boys to stop throwing stones.