No one loves a conurbation

Birmingham was never really going to have a chance to host the Millennium Festival; it was mean-spirited to pretend otherwise
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How do we know Birmingham, Britain's second-largest city? Let me count the ways: Spaghetti Junction, the Bull Ring, flattest accent, cricket ground at Edgbaston, NEC, flamboyant public sculpture (the biggest, and dottiest, is known locally as the "Floozie in the Jacuzzi"), the ghost of Joseph Chamberlain (dynamic Lord Mayor, deceased), reputation as "workshop of the world" (deceased) and, well, you know ...

This may seem a peevish introduction to the city that ran London second in the competition to host the much-feted Millennium Festival that will see EuroBritain plc into the 21st century and beyond. It does, however, help to explain why Birmingham never stood a cat's chance in Hell of hosting the festival (the Government announced last week, after a numbing delay, that it preferred Greenwich).

Birmingham may have a lot to offer, but what it lacks, and what London has by the bodice-full, is glamour. Greenwich is a magnificent place, sited on a spectacular hairpin bend on the River Thames. It boasts some of Europe's greatest architecture and one of its loveliest parks. It is where time past meets time future in time present. It is both a lovely home and an unforgettable tourist attraction. Anyone who has been to Greenwich and says, hand on heart, that he or she prefers to be negotiating New Street shopping centre is either a gifted liar or a Brummie in the habit of seeing his city through the bottom of a pint glass of Ansells' ale.

What was wrong with the Government's decision to choose Greenwich is that it took so long about it. While it made up its mind, Birmingham's hopes were raised unfairly. Time, energy, goodwill and money were promiscuously expended as the Government and the Millennium Commissioners flirted with Birmingham, knowing all along that they really wanted to walk up the aisle in 2000 with London. Their behaviour has been capricious, insensitive and demeaning.

If, from the outset, Greenwich had been chosen (London is, after all, our capital city; it is where we should expect to host our biggest national celebration since the Festival of Britain of 1951, or even the Great Exhibition of 1851), a complementary role might have been found for Birmingham.

Even then, Birmingham's lack of glamour and lack of identity in the national mind make it a poor second-best to, say, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle or Bristol, to name but four energetic and characterful English cities. As for Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, they are glorious world cities in a league from which Brum is excluded.

Although Birmingham has size on its side, it seems something of an urban lightweight in terms of sophistication when compared to the likes of Lyons, Munich, Milan, Barcelona, Antwerp, Geneva or St Petersburg (all of them first-class second cities). Size alone, as other jewel-like British and European cities prove - Bath, Bruges, Durham, Naples, Norwich - is not everything.

Birmingham does boast many of the features a second city requires to make the right noises on national and international stages; it has a capacious airport, comprehensive road and rail links, a National Exhibition Centre, a National Convention Centre, a National Indoor Arena, a world-class orchestra (nurtured, until now, by the departing Sir Simon Rattle), public art in abundance, a City Museum and Art Gallery offering a cornucopia of grandiloquent 19th-century canvases.

It has these things, yet it stands on no great river; it has canals instead. No great river means no romantic bridges upon which to stand and stare, no reflections of the city skyline in sunset waters, no sunrise mists on moisty mornings. Look at a map of London and you see a great blue ribbon woven through its dense fabric: this is the Thames. Study a plan of Birmingham and you see a blue band snaking its way through the city: this is the M6.

While other cities are bounded by the sea, by hills, mountains and tributaries, Birmingham is ringed by fuming motorways: M5, M6, M52. Motorways and dual carriageways are to Birmingham what canals and lagoons are to Venice.

The car dominates the second city. Study the map again; in the way a Russian doll opens to reveal a succession of diminishing dolls inside, so the centre of Birmingham is squeezed by the hoops of a concrete corset of ever-smaller ring roads.

At the hub of these roads is no great spire like Salisbury's or dome like St Paul's; all Birmingham can boast is the Rotunda, a banal circular office block invested, not with the spirit of God, but that of Harold Wilson's white-hot Sixties technology.

Perhaps this is as it should be, for Birmingham is - was - above all an industrial city. In the heyday of Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914), the great Liberal free-trader, Birmingham made everything from nails to glass beads and sent them by canal and railway to Hun and Hungarian, Hindu and Hottentot. The sun shone on the Empire then, but not on the noisome workshops of profitable, smoke-smothered Birmingham.

Despite its Victorian and Edwardian wealth, Birmingham has left us precious little in the way of beautiful monuments, parks and architecture. Because of this, its city centre is hard to conjure in the mind's eye. While we carry illustrated guides of London, Edinburgh, Bath and Liverpool in our heads, however romanticised or inaccurate, the shelf labelled "Birmingham" is bare.

Birmingham lacks a medieval cathedral (St Phillip's is an 18th-century church upgraded to cathedral status; St Chad's, the Victorian RC cathedral designed by AWN Pugin, is hidden away on a traffic island); it has no truly grand avenues, few superb buildings (although many fascinating ones, which is not the same thing).

"You've either got or you haven't got style/If you've got it, it stands out a mile," sang Frank Sinatra in the Hollywood musical Robin and the Seven Hoods. Birmingham has the nuts and bolts, the National Centres and buildings that make it seem, on paper, the sort of second city that might host a Millennium Festival. It does not have London's sense of style. Nor does it have the capital's sense of identity.

Even as the Millennium Festival begins to take shape on the banks of the Thames, Birmingham is becoming ever more a sprawling mass, its parts confused increasingly with those of Walsall, Wolverhampton and Coventry. And while it is possible to love a city, not even the most die-hard millennialist could even begin to love a conurbation. It's a pity they didn't just own up to that fact in the first place.