Sunday, October 28, 2007

Booked

The Library of Birmingham hasn't appeared on the radar for a few months now, but a while back, Whitless announced that Plan D? E? F? (I lost count) was the new kid on the block.


Plan A, you might remember, was the original Labour proposal for Eastside, which was making good progress prior to the 2004 election and the accession of the Regressive Partnership, whose aversion to all things Labour knew no bounds. Plan A therefore bit the dust - scrapping a plan with a design and a site, with moves advanced towards developing funding. Indeed, a review cited it as the option with the best chance of securing PFI funding.


After much consideration, Plan B was launched - the much-ridiculed split site library. With no business case behind it, this unsurprisingly fell at the PFI credit hurdle in 2005. 2006 saw Plan C being floated, which involved scrapping the Arena Central redevelopment (alongside an equally half-baked plot to put the whole thing into Baskerville House - which was too small and had just been expensively redeveloped by a private sector company). That came to nothing and another proposal was raised at the start of this year. This latest idea is to go with a new-build library sited on Centenary Square, attached to the Birmingham Rep, with nine storeys above ground and a further four beneath.

The City Council went through an 'Options Appraisal' rubber-stamping exercise to justify the original decision to scrap the Labour Eastside plan. That did consider the Centenary Square site - both as a minimum cost option and as a prestige build. It has some good points -
It is near enough to the present site that the existing patterns of use would be little disturbed by the relocation. There could be the opportunity to build an attractive landmark building on this site which could strengthen the Library’s image as one of the city's major cultural institutions, and therefore to draw in new users.
However...
There is, however, a serious concern about the site capacity. It would appear impossible to fit the library onto the site even using the land to the rear of the Cambridge Street car park.
Oh dear.

More importantly, there are other issues - the document specifically warns that the size of the site might make achieving the BS5454 archiving standards impossible as it might be difficult to separate functions in the way that the British Standards guidelines require. These are standards that most public collections are working towards - but not Birmingham, it would appear - despite the international importance of the materials currently sitting under the leaking pipes in the Central Library. The options appraisal reckoned that it might even take two buildings to make the site work in any way, which only revives the problems of Plan B.

Splitting the library functions between this site and the land to the rear of the Cambridge Street car park, would cause difficulties for users wishing to use material in both parts of the library. It would also mean that any potential savings from the more efficient operation of a new building could be jeopardised by the extra maintenance, delivery and security costs of two buildings.

The Centenary Square option didn't even make the shortlist of the Appraisal, so I think it is a fair question as to why it has been revived. There are technical issues with the site - it would need sub-basements and there are known problems there with the water table, as well as a nearby rail tunnel.

The whole process has been nothing short of a joke, which is a tragedy given the importance of the issue.

Predictably, the chain of incompetence continues. At the Cabinet meeting which rubber-stamped the decision, Albert Bore pointed out the glaring holes in the 'funding plans' (sic), whereby gains from the redevelopment of the Arena Central site had already been allocated to the extension of the Metro.

That wasn't the best of it, though. There's still a £39 million gap in the funding, which the City Council will have to underwrite. So, what plans are in place to fill this (assuming that PFI and the other plans all come together)? The director of Planning and Regeneration explained that he expected planned land sales to deliver, or there was always the alternative of 'serendipity.'

In short - Clive Dutton (for it is he) is hanging his hopes that something will turn up to chuck £39 million into the accounts to cover the costs.

I tried that on my bank manager when I asked for an extension of my mortgage. He didn't buy it.

Frankly, that kind of comment from a senior council officer is disgraceful and it is even more unacceptable that nobody seems to have challenged it. Compare and contrast with two years ago..
Cabinet leisure, sport and culture member John Alden said the consequences of pushing ahead with a new library without securing a deliverable funding package would be catastrophic. Coun Alden (Con Harborne) added: "We do not have unlimited capital. If we cannot make the new library sustainable for future generations we are providing a maintenance timebomb."
Scrutiny have called in the decision and perhaps we can hope for some common sense from them. I'm not holding my breath, mind you.

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