Saturday, September 10, 2005

'We should not be interested in prestige'

Well, colour me surprised.

Last week, I wrote that

A year of Tory/Liberal Democrat indecision and political vacillating have probably killed the project for the foreseeable future by throwing everything into reverse.
After scrapping a fully formed development plan for a replacement library, ignoring a report that did not give the answer they wanted and then knocking up an alternative plan on the back of a council envelope, our civic leaders have admitted that they might not even be able to deliver their split-site library. Apparently, a scrutiny inquiry has revealed that they need to raise almost £100 million of external funding to complete the split-site project and. This isn't news - the original plan was predicated on access to PFI and other sources of funding and no serious attempt has been made by this administration to obtain that funding. It should be remembered that the consultants indicated that the original project was most likely to draw in stakeholder funding and leave the council with the lowest share of the costs - some £50 million out of the total cost of £180 million. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that getting the money would be easy - failure was always a possibility - but the whole project was designed to ensure that it would be attractive to external funding.

As we have seen, the council ignored the evidence of several years of work plus their own consultants to plough their own particular furrow with this split site option. As this does not tick as many boxes with the funding stakeholders as the original plan - falling significantly short in the crucial regeneration aspect - it is unlikely in the extreme that a bid would have been able to raise anything like as much externally as the original plan.

The fallback position is to keep things as they are and somehow keep the rotting Central Library from falling apart a while longer. This won't be cheap - the consultants noted that maintaining the status quo costs over £2 million annually and also that the existing library requires urgent work, which was estimated at £24 million back in the 1990s and could be substantially higher now. Additionally, the consultants highlight risk factors that should be considered on this 'do nothing' basis - the building's rate of decay will increase exponentially; failures will cause unpredictable service interruptions and repair costs; and shockingly, they actually note the risk of death or serious injury caused by the building's state of disrepair.

Should they wish to invest any money in the building, that will have to come from existing budgets with little investment from external sources - the council could end up having to find twice as much as they would have to get to finance the original project.

Whether the new proposal to build an archives 'box' on Eastside will meet the requirements to store the archives safely and keep them in Birmingham remains to be seen. Don't forget that these are so important to the nation that the National Archive is minded to have them removed and stored safely at Kew following a survey conducted in 2001. Incidentally, that survey by the Historical Manuscripts Commission also noted that staff were spread thinly, so giving them two sites to run won't make life any easier. Predictably, there won't be any more staff.

I have a distinct suspicion that the Tory/Lib Dem administration regards the internationally-important archive as an unneccesary drain on City resources and would secretly like nothing better than for the HMC to cart the whole lot off to Kew, thus taking the responsibility and the cost away (and saving on this new building at Millennium Point into the bargain). The fact that this resource would then be lost to Birmingham forever doesn't appear to matter.

The opposition have come out fighting on this one, with Chris Watson, a partner at Gardiner & Theobald, who wrote the council's review, explaining that the original Richard Rogers scheme would appeal to the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, as a way of bringing innovative architecture to a regional centre.
'Creating an initiative that can stand on the world stage might be the sort of thing that Mr Prescott is looking for. The Eastside library would have set new standards worldwide.'
Sir Albert Bore laid into the Tory/LibDems adding that
'This council's leadership [sic] is living in an Alice in Wonderland world if it thinks it is going to get PFI funding for a split site library. It is dishonest for anyone to say at this point that the Rogers scheme is not deliverable.'
Despite the fact that leadership has been noticeably absent from the Council House in recent months and the Mad Hatter is certainly in residence, time is running out for the Rogers scheme and there seems no chance of those in charge changing direction. The future for the library service in Birmingham is particularly bleak.

The whole fiasco is summed up for me by the inane comments from Alistair Dow, Liberal Democrat councillor who illustrates the lack of vision that infects this current administration:
'We should not be interested in prestige. We don't want iconic buildings.'
And this man was elected to public office. To hell with it, let's just buy a couple of shipping containers and shove everything in there.

No, we don't want iconic buildings to identify our city, do we? Anyone remember the international buzz that Selfridges caused when it opened? What about the magnificent Symphony Hall - one of the finest spaces for live music in the country? From an earlier age, look at the Town Hall, the Council House or any of the great Victorian buildings around our city and see how the power that fine architecture has to inspire human beings. Cheap metal sheds don't really do it for me - how about you?


Anonymous said...

Last time I looked buildings and architecture played the major role in 'selling' a city as a tourist venue and instilling a sense of local pride . The Lib Dems do make a fuss about about these things in the hope of getting the idiot vote.

Something along the lines of "£3 million for a new building and someone has left a bin bag on the local playing field, typical Labour/Tory/SNP/PC /fill in the blank Council/ priorities"

Anonymous said...

Can I just add a bit of reality here.
We lost a beautiful library building in Birmingham thirty years ago. We replaced it with a modernist monstrocity which was then updated by adding a MacDonalds! (was this PFI?)
Leave the damn thing alone every time we get a new plan it gets worse. I'd rather be left with the current building than risk a change.
There is too much change going on in Birmingham already. Let's slow it down a bit so those of us who live here can get used to the changes already under construction.

PoliticalHack said...

We did lose a fine Victorian library in favour of the current carbuncle, but inaction isn't a solution to the massive problems that the current building faces.

It is crumbling and the fact is that for the amount it would cost to repair, we can build a new library which better meets the needs of the City.

Change isn't an option here, it's an imperative