Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Ex libris

Inevitably, the DCMS has decided not to put the Birmingham Library scheme forward for the next stage of the PFI bid process.

So, we're left with a creaking building which remains the most-used library in the country - more than one and a half million people use it annually. The roof is leaking, the concrete is decaying and the escalators are on the verge of breaking irrepairably. Far worse, the archives in the building, regarded as of national, if not international importance, are at serious risk of damage, to the point where the National Archive is recommending that the collection be shifted to safety at Kew and out of our City entirely.

Let's return to the consultants' report which the council tried to bury, for fear of embarrassment.

This notes that each option for replacement of the library was judged against tests derived from the policies of key players - the City Council, Advantage West Midlands, the European Regional Development Fund, the Arts Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund and, crucially, the Department of Culture, Media & Sport. All of these would be expected to have significant impact on funding the project - the DCMS was expected to agree to £55 million of PFI credits to support the development. Not only did it bear the policy implications in mind, the report also worked to the Treasury and DCMS cost-efficiency guidelines and the consultants note that

'the carrying out of an appropriate Options Appraisal - such as this - will be a pre-requisite of making applications to funding bodies'
It is impossible to stress how important this report is to the success of the bid process. Given that the Tories and Liberal Democrats ignored the results of that appraisal, is it any wonder that the DCMS chose not to support the bid? At this point, I'd note that all the successful library bids put the lending/reference sections with the archives - logically enough.

Instead of a detailed options appraisal, they have this cobbled-together five-page document unworthy of the council officers whose names are attached, which is long on unsubstantiated statements and short on supported fact and pales by comparison with the detailed report prepared at the start of the year.

John H accuses the Labour group of shedding crocodile tears and of not pursuing the development enough to assemble a PFI bid, loyally backing the story put about by his Tory leader. While it is true to say that the bid hadn't got to the PFI stage, it was certainly advancing in that direction at a fair pace. Oddly, you don't draw up plans for this sort of project on the back of an old envelope (unless you are a Tory, obviously), so there are a whole range of things to do to ensure that the bid submitted to the DCMS is workable and can be put into practice. Terry Grimley made note of a seven page document that detailed the progress and plans in place by late November 2003 to take the bid forward - discussions were advanced with Heritage Lottery Fund regarding a funding application. Regardless of that, there had been an international design competition so we actually had an idea of what the building might look like (unlike the new projects). Progress was only stalled by the stitch-up in June 2004 that brought the Liberal Democrats a share of the Tory power.

Even if the new council had gone with the updated recommendations of the consultants, they could have had a full business plan ready to submit in April this year, months ahead of the government deadline, rather than a bid that (in John H's own words):

'did not specify where the Library would be or whether or not it would have the archives united in a National Centre for Family History.'
The 'bid' submitted to the DCMS appears to amount to little more than a vague request for money, rather than a detailed business plan.

However you look at it, we were further down the road to a new Library of Birmingham than we are today. A year of Tory/Liberal Democrat indecision and political vacillating have probably killed the project for the foreseeable future by throwing everything into reverse. It will be increasingly difficult to obtain funding from the usual sources as the London 2012 Olympic bid absorbs whatever money it can touch. If the Tories/Liberal Democrats had been able to suppress their anti-Labour obsession, we could have been celebrating some good news today.

The Tories and Liberal Democrats may have blown this completely and they can't shift the blame this time, no matter how much they whinge about it.

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