Thursday, July 28, 2005

Reading between the lines

Last week, the Tory/Liberal Democrat announced the results of their deliberations over the issue of the new library for Birmingham and I vented my spleen on the issue, given that the press reports stated that the reference and lending sections would be in different locations. Given that Paul Dale, one of the journalists close to this administration, had written the article for the Post, I thought I was on safe ground. Here's the relevant paragraph from Paul's piece:

'The city council last night revealed plans for a split-site scheme - with the lending library in a purpose-built building next to Baskerville House, off Centenary Square, and the city archives and reference section in an extension to Millennium Point at Eastside.'
But apparently, this isn't correct. John Hemming added a comment

What split site Library? The "National Centre for Family History" has been a proposal on the web for over a year now. Reference and Lending will be on the same site, however.
So what's the truth? Here's the press release from the City Council which doesn't make mention of separating out the reference and lending sections. One question is who briefed the press so badly that they got the story wrong (although the as-yet-unpublished report does make the point that people don't use the archive material in isolation of other reference works).

The more important question is why the councillors, in their infinite wisdom, paid out £80K of my money on a consultants' report on how to proceed with the library redevelopment and then ignored the conclusions to pursue a wild scheme of their own. Terry Grimley returned to the fray in the Birmingham Post on Tuesday and revealed that the Labour team of Albert Bore and Ian Ward were provided with copies of this report (which us poor members of the public have yet to see) and sworn to secrecy. Perhaps they should have asked John H's view on leaking information to the press - he escaped punishment last year for leaking commercially sensitive land pricing information to the press (Paul Dale, coincidentally).

Terry Grimley quotes the report at length. On the original single-site Eastside option:

'The report concludes that this is "the most fundable option", that it " represents the best value for money ( irrespective of fundability considerations)", that it "provides the greatest number of outputs and outcomes for money invested" and that it "provides best fit with the objectives'
The report pours cold water on the split-site idea:
'The archival materials are often used in conjunction with other materials held in the library. Very seldom do people only use archival material without using material from elsewhere in the library. Splitting the library means that there would no longer be a central library.'
So the consultants rejected the option and it would mean reversing almost 150 years of Birmingham history by splitting up the collection. But why should those little problems stop Whitless? Bravely ploughing his own furrow, he can't possibly accept that Labour might have been right to go with the Eastside option and has to scrap it. Don't worry that it will probably reduce usage and will add extra costs estimated at £1 million a year - he promised to scrap the plan and he WILL scrap the plan.

It seems that the Cabinet decision has been called in for review by the scrutiny committee, although it would take a brave man to bet on the LD/Tory controlled committee failing to back their masters. We will get to read the report, eventually. Probably. If they can find a copy.

Naturally, this wasn't attached to the agenda for the Cabinet meeting on Monday - they don't want us to read it yet. Let's have a glance at what they don't mind us reading.

The original Eastside plan offers 'significant regeneration benefits in a contemporary building of 38,000 sq m bringing all library services and the archival material together in one place.' It is forecast to cost £179.5 million - so when Ken Hardeman plucks a figure from thin air and predicts costs of up to £250 million, he's talking cobblers - the new Tory/LD plans are as likely to increase in cost as this is. While the old proposal is supposed to attract external funding and 'the PFI bid is progressing,' there is risk involved. Intriguingly, one of the reasons for rejecting the proposal is that a decision is required urgently to prevent problems with other regeneration issues with Eastside. All this political dithering by our local leaders has endangered the rebirth of a run-down area of the city - and all for cheap political reasons.

Regeneration, development problems and issues around obtaining external funding put a stop to plans for Baskerville House or refurbishing the existing library above Paradise Circus, which only leaves the two site option (surprise, surprise). The only justification posed for this option is that the cost could be £147.4 million and could attract external funding - given that this is a major decision, the statements are remarkably vague and I'd question the Cabinet's ability to decide on this evidence. There's no design in place for this, there's no PFI proposal to fund it and we're no further forward than we were at the start of the week - they still need to appoint a team and conduct more feasibility studies into both sites.

It couldn't be that the council are actually building this up to an election issue - recommending a plan that they know won't survive government scrutiny and won't get PFI funding approval so that come the elections next year the Tories and Liberal Democrats can blame Labour for blocking Birmingham's new library?

They couldn't be so cynical as to believe that we'd fall for that one, could they?


conal said...

Two points.

Firstly Paul Dale's 'interview' (in inverted commas since only one question - 'Mike, tell how wonderful your plan for the new library is') seems to cross the line between comment and reporting in that it is not clear who is talking up the two site option. Perhaps it was just bad editing - you choose.

Secondly I seem to recall hearing Whitby saying that the consultant's report what be available last Monday (25/7) - not on the BCC web-site as far as I can see.

PoliticalHack said...

I understand that at least one Freedom of Information request has been submitted. The report wasn't cited as supporting documents for the Cabinet meeting, as that would have produced additional pressure to release it.

john said...

I have read the press release and can understand where some of the confusion came from.

As far as I know the report is going to be released at some date in the future.