History of the West Midlands

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Although the metropolitan county of the West Midlands has only existed since 1974, the settlements within its borders have long been important centres of commerce and industry. The area straddles the historic border between the counties of Warwickshire (Birmingham and Coventry), Staffordshire (the north), Worcestershire (the south).

Industrial history[edit]

Coventry was one of England's most important cities during the Middle Ages, with its prosperity built upon wool and cloth manufacture. Birmingham and Wolverhampton have a tradition of industry dating back to the 16th century when small metal working industries developed. Birmingham was known for its manufacture of small arms, whereas Wolverhampton became a centre of lock manufacture and brass working.

The coal and iron ore deposits of the Black Country area provided a ready source of raw material. The area grew rapidly during the industrial revolution, and by the 20th century had grown into one large conurbation. Coventry was slower to develop, but by the early 20th century had become an important centre of bicycle and car manufacture.

Civic history[edit]

During the 20th century a number of attempts were made to improve the local government of the area.

The West Midlands was one of five "Special Review Areas" named in the Local Government Act 1958. The Local Government Commission for England established by the Act was charged with:

"the duty of reviewing the organisation of local government... and of making such proposals as are hereinafter authorised for effecting changes appearing... desirable in the interests of effective and convenient local government."

The West Midlands Special Review Area was almost identical to the metropolitan county as created in 1974 (with the exception of the Meriden Gap and Coventry).

The Commission's report lead to a substantial reform in the local government of the area in 1966 as the patchwork of county boroughs with municipal boroughs and urban districts in between was replaced by a core of county boroughs covering a contiguous area - specifically Birmingham, Dudley, Solihull, Walsall, Warley, West Bromwich, Wolverhampton. The urban districts and boroughs abolished included Amblecote, Bilston, Brierley Hill, Coseley, Darlaston, Oldbury, Rowley Regis, Sedgley, Smethwick, Tipton, Wednesbury and Wednesfield.

Warley was entirely new, formed by the merger of the county borough of Smethwick with Oldbury and Rowley Regis, whilst the other districts and boroughs were partitioned variously between the existing county boroughs. Solihull had been newly promoted to be a county borough in 1964, whilst Birmingham, already by far the largest county borough in the country, did not expand any further at this stage. A single West Midlands Constabulary was formed for the Black Country county boroughs, whilst Birmingham retained its Birmingham City Police and Solihull continued being policed by Warwickshire Constabulary. 1968 also saw the West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority set up, which covered the county boroughs, the urban districts bordering these, as well as Cannock, Redditch and some surrounding rural districts.

The Redcliffe-Maud Report commissioned by Harold Wilson's Labour Party government recommended that a large "metropolitan area" be created around the Birmingham/Black Country conurbation, also including its rural hinterland. This was to have been divided into seven districts: Mid-Staffordshire (Tamworth, Rugeley, Lichfield, Cannock, Stafford), Wolverhampton, Walsall, Dudley, West Bromwich-Warley (later Sandwell), Birmingham/Solihull, North Worcestershire (Bewdley, Kidderminster, Bromsgrove, Redditch).

In the event the Conservative government of Edward Heath was elected in 1970 and the original plans for local government reform were radically altered. The West Midlands county was created in 1974, under the Local Government Act of 1972.

This area was based on the seven county boroughs and four other non-county boroughs and urban districts around the fringe of the conurbation - Aldridge-Brownhills, Halesowen, Stourbridge, and Sutton Coldfield. The area was divided into seven new metropolitan boroughs - Aldridge-Brownhills was added to Walsall; Halesowen and Stourbridge to Dudley and Sutton Coldfield to Birmingham. A new borough of Sandwell was formed by the merger of West Bromwich and Warley, Solihull took in much of the suburban fringe to the east of Birmingham and the gap between Solihull and Coventry, whilst Wolverhampton and Coventry themselves were taken in more-or-less unaltered.

This led to (apart from in the east, with Coventry and the Meriden Gap) quite a tightly defined metropolitan border, excluding such places as Burntwood, Bromsgrove, Cannock, Kidderminster, Lichfield and Wombourne which had been considered for inclusion in the West Midlands metropolitan area by the Redcliffe-Maud Report, but excluding only a small amount that was considered part of the contiguous built-up area of the West Midlands conurbation in 2001.

The inclusion of Coventry into the new county was at the time highly controversial, as many people felt that Coventry had more in common with the surrounding Warwickshire area then with the Birmingham conurbation. To this day there have been calls for Coventry to be more integrated with the surrounding Warwickshire area — which to some extent have been heeded with the creation of a Coventry and Warwickshire NHS trust and a C&W chamber of commerce.

The 1974 reform created a West Midlands County Council that covered the entire area and dealt with strategic issues. A new West Midlands Police service was formed covering the entire area, with the West Midlands Constabulary and Birmingham City Police abolished, and also taking over responsibility from the county forces.

Margaret Thatcher's government abolished the metropolitan county councils with the Local Government Act 1985, in 1986, causing the seven metropolitan boroughs to become de facto unitary authorities.

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