With a proud history, the Black Country needs to find a new role in the 21st century

Proud of the past, uncertain about the future. That's the long and short of what today's Black Country folk think about the area today.

The Black Country Living Museum celebrates much of the region's history
The Black Country Living Museum celebrates much of the region's history

The Black Country has a lot to be proud of. Almost all the trappings we take for granted today are down to the skill and ingenuity of two men: Dud Dudley and his great nephew Abraham Darby. Without their genius in changing the way we used iron, the Industrial Revolution may have never happened.

And the story doesn't end there. It was in the Black Country that Thomas Newcomen produced the first viable steam engine. It was where the first branch of Lloyd's Bank opened. At the height of the Industrial Revolution, it was even claimed that the majority of the world's steel was made within a 20-mile radius of Dudley.

The trouble is, nostalgia doesn't pay the bills, and the Black Country has spent the past few decades searching for a new role in the world.

The debate about the Black Country's boundaries is almost as old as the Dudley Bug itself. But perhaps the growing trend of defining in terms of four local authorities indicates a changing of the guard in how the region sees itself.

While the older generation looks back past glories build on the Black Country's vast mineral wealth and ingenuity, younger folk merely seem to view it as a local-government sub-region.

When we held our first Black Country Census 10 years ago, one powerful memory came when I met two students at the Brierley Hill Waterfront. When asked if they knew what previously occupied the site – one of the world's biggest steelworks – they had not the faintist clue. No-one could accuse them of ignorance, they were two highly educated young men. But it showed how perceptions and expectations were changing. Today they will be in their 30s, they could, for all we know, be playing a major role in shaping public policy. I wonder if they still live in the Black Country, or have they, like so many other ambitious young people today, succumbed to the bright lights of the big city?

A generation is emerging that has known nothing other than managed decline. Millennials have no memory of the Black Country as an economic powerhouse, famous around the world, whose wealth supported bustling and thriving town centres. And as these past glories become an ever-more distant memory, so do ambitions for the area. Indeed, the idea of the Black Country as a vague partnership between four local authorities is itself a kind of admission of defeat: a resigned acceptance that these once-great towns now have to club together to make their voices heard.

This month marks Black Country Day, and if that is to mean anything, it must not be a mere celebration of the past, but also a platform that gives it a voice on where it wants to be in the future. Not as a backwater of Birmingham, but once more as the backbone of the nation.

The area that set the agenda in the 18th and 19th centuries needs to find a new role in the 21st.

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