Book Review: ‘Our City’ explores how immigration changed Birmingham

Richard Lutz reviews an investigation into the changing face of our urban landscape.

credit: Pogus Caesar



Shhhhh. I have a secret. It’s only a month ’til we leave the EU. Keep it quiet. No one knows about Brexit.

But in case you want to learn a little more – especially about immigration – open the pages of a new book called Our City which portrays how migration changed the face of Birmingham over the past fifty years.

The publication, out next month, is by urban policy specialist Jon Bloomfield and his 250 page investigation, using a breezy collection of personal tales buoyed by statistical research, shows how the influx in recent decades from, among other places, the Indian sub-continent, Ireland, the West Indies and Poland, has helped this city prosper.

Yes, Bloomfield acknowledges, there are problems. There’s close-mindedness inside some communities; there’s racism, low grade jobs, there’s extremism and, early on, low expectations from teachers. But in all, he says, immigration has been a boon. Though he does warn: “The starting point has to be economic. If a city cannot offer a decent range of jobs at reasonable pay to its residents then it is storing up trouble.”

The book reads quickly. As a technocrat with deep experience in city councils, the EU and academia, the author’s writing could have come to a shuddering halt with a blizzard of content-heavy statistics. But Bloomfield uses a pen deftly.

There are fifty tales of migrants’ lives, from the Indian postal worker to the Nigerian academic to the Mirpuri newsagent. And the structure works fine. There’s nothing like good stories to drive a long read forward. And Bloomfield delivers with punchy narrative.

But there are longueurs: A strange six page digression on the German Christmas market which really doesn’t seque into his main arguments; a reliance on quotes from former council leader Albert Bore and, to be fair, some  interviews that seem clunky and crowbarred into a stream of thought. 

But the main thrust of Our City is cogent. Bloomfield’s take is that Birmingham is a city not so much of a thousand trades these days as a  thousand cultures.

And this new influx has not only propelled it into new times but very dramatically helped it succeed and grow. As one interviewee said: “Birmingham is still a place where you can do anything.”


Our City is published by Unbound on 7th March.