As far as punchlines go it was a good one. In the prime time BBC comedy Citizen Khan the new mosque manager says he wants to help ‘the weak, the downtrodden and people who have lost all hope’. The reply comes: ‘In that case you want Wolverhampton.’
So synonymous is the city’s name with dreary, depressing decline that the joke needed no further explanation.
At least it seems that way to people who do not live in Wolverhampton. Those working to make it better think it has far more going for it than some would have us believe.
No-one who walked around the area of the city centre that was supposed to become a £300 million shopping centre only for the scheme to fall through would have disagreed with criticism.
It took the best part of a decade since Summer Row was thought up for it to be scrapped, with compulsory purchase orders on shops and businesses never followed through and just a legacy of boarded up buildings to show for it.
And people who have watched ambitious plans drawn up, computer images of a gleaming new rail station or of Midland Metro trams gliding past the Grand Theatre are fed up of being told that there is still no money to make it happen. But that does not mean it is a city without potential.
Summer Row may not have happened but efforts are now being made to use the land for something else, to spruce it up and to encourage independent traders into vacant units by giving them favourable rates and rent. So does Wolverhampton really deserve to be abandoned to nothing more than managed decline? That is effectively the suggestion of the highly respected news magazine The Economist. It is read by the sort of people the city council is desperate to attract to Wolverhampton to bring in new investment.
The city, like the rest of the Black Country, has embraced the concept of George Osborne’s Enterprise Zones with open arms and council bosses worked with their opposite numbers in Staffordshire to do a deal that brought Jaguar Land Rover to the i54 along with 1,400 jobs.
Work is also due to start imminently on a multi-million pound revamp of the city centre including Princess Street to make the area more attractive.
But in a leader column The Economist says these efforts are ‘kindly’ but ‘misguided’. It lumps Wolverhampton in with northern towns like Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Burnley and the city of Hull which it says are ‘quietly decaying’. Its solution is not to invest in regenerating them but to help the inhabitants ‘commute or move to places where there are jobs’. Essentially then, all the efforts to bring in new business, to revitalise the city centre, should be scrapped as far as The Economist is concerned.
The article was roundly condemned by politicians on all sides. Wolverhampton North East MP Emma Reynolds, now in Labour’s shadow cabinet, called it a ‘rushed job’ on the part of The Economist, which did not consider the strategies to attract investment.’ The council’s leader Roger Lawrence points out that the population of Wolverhampton is growing.
More and more people are coming to the city, which is hardly a sign of a city in decline or whose inhabitants want to go elsewhere. Conservative MP Paul Uppal, who is part of a policy board that advises the Prime Minister, said: “Whilst The Economist ignores the positives in Wolverhampton, businesses such as Jaguar Land Rover recognise them.
“Our Enterprise Zone has been a massive success, and we continue to invest time, energy and money in our schools to ensure that our children have the best education possible. The opening of the city’s first free school last month demonstrates the passion and loyalty that residents have for Wolverhampton and its continuing development – a passion I share.”
For years, the city council and MPs have tried to tap into different sources of government funding to rebuild the eyesore rail station and have been re-buffed.
But they remain convinced that it is worth getting backing for the £96 million scheme which they believe will bring up to 1,400 jobs to the city. In the meantime, work is being planned on a new office and shop complex next door to the bus station, which has been rebuilt to the tune of £22.5m. The city council has come up with a masterplan for the area it calls Westside – running from the Penn Road island to Chapel Ash, where it is offering the chance for developers to build hotels and offices. The big anchor is Sainsbury’s, which is building a superstore worth more than £60 million. That project is getting under way now.
But Councillor Malcolm Gwinnett, a former mayor who continues to campaign for regeneration in the city centre, is in no doubt about the challenge ahead, particularly when the likes of The Economist, and prior to that The Times, are prepared to write the city off. When he watched Citizen Khan and heard the joke about Wolverhampton, he admits he smiled, albeit sadly.
He said: “People have this idea of Wolverhampton as a place that’s just been forgotten. We have to show them what we can do. What we need now is the money to put where our mouth is.”