The West Midlands conurbation consists of Birmingham and the Metropolitan Districts of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton, and part of the Metropolitan District of Solihull. The total population in 1961 was about 2.38 millions. (It was roughly the same in 1891 at about 2.37 millions.) This was about 4.8% more than in 1951 and the increase was slightly less than the national average of 5.3%. This was due to migration from the conurbation. While Birmingham showed a slight reduction in population, some of the residential areas on the fringes showed marked increases.
This tendency continued in the intercensal period from 1961 to 1971 with more marked changes in some areas. For example there was a dramatic decrease in the population of Birmingham from 1 110 683 in 1961 to 1 013 366 in 1971, and there was generally dispersal from the conurbations to the small country towns. The dispersal in the West Midlands is, of course, assisted in some measure by the two new towns of Telford and Redditch.
A primary task for the future was seen in the late 1950s and early 1960s as the need to rehouse those living in the slums and congested areas of the conurbation, to provide for the regional increase in population and to do this in a way that was socially and economically the most satisfactory. It was estimated that it would be necessary to provide by 1981 for at least a 0.5 million persons.
Existing slum areas were at such high densities that if the rehoused population was to enjoy improved standards a substantial proportion would have to be housed elsewhere. The extent of the resulting dispersal was estimated in a memorandum outlining a policy for the West Midland Region and submitted to the Minister of Housing and Local Government by the Town and Country Planning Association and the Midlands New Town Society in September 1961 (*).
The Association and the Society proposed that the overspill should be accommodated in 2 or 3 new towns and by the expansion of several small towns in the West Midlands region. The new towns proposed were Dawley in Shropshire, one in the Woofferton-Orleton area on the Shropshire-Herefordshire border and a possible third in the vicinity of Swynnerton in Staffordshire. It was suggested that Dawley and Woofferton should be increased in size by 50 000 each, and a list of town-expansion schemes was proposed that would take another 150 000, making an overspill total of 250 000, which leaves at least another 50 000 for which provision would have to be made.
At the time this memorandum was being prepared, Sheppard Fidler, the Birmingham City Architect, was making a survey of Dawley and its surroundings as a possible site for a new town, and Fidler's report indicated that, in spite of certain anticipated site difficulties that could be overcome with some additional expenditure, the region offered good scope for a new town. The Minister's decision to issue a draft designation order for the new town of Dawley, the predecessor of Telford, in September 1962, which was confirmed on 16 January 1963, followed Fidler's report, but was also probably encouraged by the memorandum of the Town and Country Planning Association and the Midlands New Towns Society.
The area designated was 9100 acres (3683 ha) for an ultimate population of about 90 000. The existing population was about 21 000. About 11 miles (18 km) west of Wolverhampton, 23 miles (37 km) north-west of Birmingham and 13 miles (21 km) east of Shrewsbury, the site was roughly square in shape with the existing town of Dawley slightly north-west of the geographical centre. The northern boundary ran south of Wellington and Oakengates, and the River Severn was just inside the southern boundary. This is a particularly interesting part of England. In the south-west corner of the site is the valley of Coalbrookdale which can be regarded as the cradle of modern industrial progress and the very lovely stretch of the Severn Gorge along the southern boundary of the site is being preserved unspoilt as an amenity. Many attractive old Georgian houses, some in terraces, survive in the village of Ironbridge, but several are in a poor condition.
Much of the hilly character of the western part of the site originated as spoilheaps of former mineral workings now covered with vegetation and so integrated into the landscape that it is now difficult to distinguish the natural from the artificial. These conditions, together with the soil disturbance caused by mining have created large areas of derelict land which presented problems to planning and constructional work.
The existing road communications provided a good basis for development. The A464 road from Wolverhampton to Wellington traverses the northern boundary, while the A442 north-west from Bridgnorth to Wellington runs through Dawley; the B4380 runs near the southern boundary and the B4373 along the western boundary. Until recently there was an excellent railway network in the area developed in the days of industrial prosperity a hundred years ago, but this network has been destroyed by modern policy. A main line from Wolverhampton to Wellington runs near the northern boundary, a line along the southern boundary ran south of the Severn, and these 2 lines were linked by 3 running north and south. But for passengers they have all been eliminated except the first mentioned. One of the lines is kept for goods transport. We talk much in our plans of segregating pedestrians and vehicles but here was a century-old public transport system that could be efficiently modernized with many advantages over the road system, but we prefer to scrap it in the interests of the latter. In the old railway network covering the Dawley site there was the nucleus of an exclusive public transport system comparable to that planned at Runcorn, but it requires imaginative interpretation of existing potential for this to occur.