Sunday, 17 January 2010

Wolverhampton - an opportunity not to be missed?

In October 2009, a seemingly innocuous article published online by Lonely Planet, the guidebook publishers, showed which cities were "favourited" least often by online readers. By December, an updated article based on hundreds of online comments, was published which added Wolverhampton to that list. A great deal of journalistic licence prevailed and suddenly Wolverhampton was proclaimed one of the worst places to live, be in or visit.

Predictably, many rose defiantly to defend Wolverhampton and her people, although the misguided PR efforts of some actually made the situation far worse. There were suggestions from elected officials that the town should be visited "because it has a Premier League football team" and "a park" and because the nose cone of Concord was built in the town. Former local football legend, Steve Bull, went as far as to say, in effect, that Wolverhampton was no worse than Dudley or Birmingham. The subsequent attempt by Wolverhampton netizens to add "Wolvo-positive" comments on Lonely Planet has been equally creepy. It's been like watching a real-life Frank Spencer.

I love the whole of the West Midlands area, and especially Wolverhampton. I was born locally, went to university in Birmingham and make a 250-mile round trip every couple of weeks as a Wolves season-ticket holder. I spend many weekends boating or walking the canals of the region.

I believe that the Lonely Planet article, disgraceful as it is, should be used as a rallying call to help Wolverhampton grow, because - bluntly - there is a good reason why Wolverhampton is not "favourited" by readers of These reasons are complex but it is not a phenomenon unique to Wolverhampton. Those who live or work in attractive or interesting tourist destinations trend to take them for granted, while people in most areas see no tourism merit in the area where they live.

There is no point simply reacting angrily to Lonely Planet. It was certainly disingenuous to add Wolverhampton to a list based upon one (actually quite logical) criteria simply because it fits another unrelated criteria. There are tens of thousands of cities that are not covered by Lonely Planet: there is no more reason to pick on Wolverhampton than there is Jiaozuo in China or Sugar Land in Texas.

But maybe it is worth setting the hyperbole and Concorde nose cones aside and consider whether the people of 21st Century Wolverhampton have been served well by the officials, industrialists, bankers, politicians and planners over the last 50 years. It would be a question worth considering for the whole Black Country and maybe even the West Midlands. In fact, Wolverhampton's history and heritage actually does provide sufficient reason if there was investment and a real vision that included a wider set of indicators than presently used in Britain. it is interesting to see how Asian cities understand that they are in a global dogfight for inward investment and understand the need to build on heritage, build, suport and promote entertainment and incidentals.

It is interesting to see how, for example, the Korean city of Suwon and the surrounding province of Gyeonggi-do has developed in the last ten years, although - admittedly - it does have a UNESCO World Heritage site in the city. It is, however, an industrial city in the shadow of much bigger Seoul, ironically also on the Lonely Planet list. Suwon and Gyeonggi-do have invested constantly and tirelessly in education, industry, housing, parks, museums, art, infrastructure and all the little things and is a flourishing dynamic city. Even on a misty, wet November Tuesday evening.

Suwon commissioned architects to make all the public toilets in the town (you do remember public toilets, don't you?) architecturally unique: each one is amazing. Can you imagine the response in Wolverhampton or pretty much most parts of Britain, if residents were told that the city officials had commissioned architects to build stunning toilets? "What a waste of money", "They should spend it on this, that or the other!", moan, moan, moan. Look at The Cube in nearby Sandwell. Building a vibrant future for cities means investing in a whole range of different things, many of which might not make sense but when taken together start to differentiate Town X from Town Y.

The city of Jiaozuo in China is another case in point, although there is very little information available about it. This city of around 1 million people in north-western Henan province in China used to be a cold, miserable, desperately polluted place. It was a desperate place, full of badly designed, half-working rust-bucket steel mills and chemical plants. I spent a week there in 2002 and it was absolutely dire. There was a permanent smog because of the coal dust and pollution and it was grey and grim. I vowed never to return because it was just awful.
Then, five years later I heard that there had been a curious revolution in the city. The mayor and various officials had decided that the city's future needed to be different and they worked to unearth every possible aspect of the city's cultural and natural heritage. They invested massively in parks, roads, education, marketing, promotion and cleaning up the air and water. They pressed local companies into working with them, despite some opposition - even from many residents. They had this vision that was ridiculously expensive, ridiculously over-ambitious and unworkable.

They then went and did it.

Within a short time period, Jiaozuo had been spectacularly changed. A Chinese language tourism journal has written up the achievements (and unfortunately I cannot find the article right now) but the city leapt into the big time. It became - and possibly -still is one of the fastest growing tourism places in northern China, competing...remember...against the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, the temples and warriors of nearby Xi'an and Luoyang and the Shaolin temple, also not too distant.

Jiaozuo officials created a hopelessly unachievable vision and simply made it happen. They brough sceptics around and worked with equally cynical media. The upshot now is that I understand that it has attracted inwarded industrial investment to the city, more than replacing the rust-bucket industry that previously belched out smoke and filthy water.
Wolverhampton needs a visions. It needs policiticans, officials and civil servants who will - just for a short time - forget about disagreeing with each other because they are Labour/Conservative/LibDems or whatever and start building a new Wolverhampton. One that includes more museums, more galleries, more human spaces, more heritage interpretation, more jobs, more inclusiveness.

The people of Wolverhampton have been fired up by the Lonely Planet (even if Wolves forwards haven't) so maybe it's time to consider what would be a suitable city for them, their children and grand-children. It's not about minimising public spend but about creasting a future. Maybe, come May, it's worth asking prospective political representatives "What's your vision for the area? And drop the party political stuff for a few minutes. Talk like a leader, for once"

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