Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Borrowing time

So, they've decided. Predictably, the Liberal Democrat/Tory coalition currently ruining our city have decided to go with the flawed idea of the Centenary Square site and some new box over in Eastside.

This is a poor decision and one that has been taken solely for political reasons. It is not the right answer for Birmingham, for a whole multitude of reasons. The odds are against the Council finding the funding for it and they are so strapped for cash that they can't afford it themselves, nor can they afford to run and staff it.

Sir Albert Bore was critical of the Invigour report into the proposal - and rightly so.

The new library is trumpeted as being £30 million or so cheaper than the single-site Richard Rogers option. The Labour-backed single-site option went through a thorough consultancy process and has been priced up by the architects accordingly, following a six month report process. The costings for the split-site model have been calculated by officers based upon information from the 2005 consultants' report and on known figures from Millennium Point.

As stated in the Scrutiny Report (page 45) officers have openly acknowledged that the Two Centre option emerged so late in the day that it was inevitable that its supporting information was well short of that available for other options.
In this sense the financial information available for the two main options cannot be said to be comparable as they are based upon different levels of detail.
I can't help feeling that the officers stuck their fingers in the air and came up with a figure that the leadership would like. The single-site option, while not based upon a firm design, has gone through a significantly more robust process. The officers calculated their figures on the basis of a cost per square meter figure some 11% cheaper than the equivalent cost of the single-site option. One phrase that worried me in the Invigour report is
We have attempted to check the validity of the m2 rate used by officers
I'd like a more robust defence of that figure than just an attempt to explain of the assumptions made. The report doesn't seem too sure on this area. While it doesn't fault the basic process of a calculation of cost per square metre, there are caveats over the assumptions made and the level of available detail. My forecast on this is that the final cost of the split site will turn out to be broadly comparable to that of the single site - if not higher.

Another point to be made here is that, although they have made allowances for the cost of maintaining the current Central Library during the construction of each option, no allowance has been made for the cost of maintenance because of the delay in progressing the build. The Liberal Democrat/Tory coalition came to power with a plan in place for a new library, ready to be developed into a fully-fledged PFI proposal, in time for the 2005 bidding round for PFI credits from the Department of Culcha, Meeja n'Sport. Instead of getting on with the job, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats sat on their hands and did nothing, finally submitting a half-finished plan, which was naturally booted out. The next bidding round won't be until 2007, so that's at least another two years of maintenance costs on the existing building - that's not accounted for. That isn't strictly relevant, of course, because both projects would have to start from the same point, so the costs would apply to both, but the delay has added to the cost.

It is also regarded as acceptable to inconvenience the 60,000 library visitors a year who need to use elements of both sites. The staffing costs also seem undercooked, so that the library as proposed will not be able to offer late night weekday or Sunday opening. The overall issue about duplication of functions at two sites is referred to repeatedly, but never actually resolved.

For me, the report still leaves too many questions unanswered. The whole project seems to be too vaguely drawn and bodged together with the sole aim of shoring up a predetermined political decision. But what else should we expect from this administration? We're still not going to see a new library in our City this side of 2012.

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