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Clive Dutton, the man with a big city plan for Birmingham, dies aged 62

Clive Dutton, the man with a big city plan for Birmingham, dies aged 62

🕔08.Jun 2015

Chamberlain Files chief blogger Paul Dale remembers Clive Dutton, Director of Regeneration and Planning at Birmingham city council from 2005 to 2009, who died on Saturday.

Clive Dutton came to Birmingham in 2005 to do a very specific job – get a stalled regeneration programme back on track and deliver council leader Mike Whitby’s mantra of global city status.

His arrival coincided with a low point following the collapse of MG Rover and the Lozells riots. And he inherited a planning department that, to put it kindly, had been plodding along for a while.

The Labour-led council under Albert Bore between 1999 and 2004 delivered Brindleyplace and the new Bull Ring shopping centre as well as the pedestrianisation of New Street, and proposals were in place to smash the ‘concrete collar’ of the inner ring road to stimulate development at Eastside.

But the pace of change had stalled alarmingly, not helped by a planning committee pre-2004 which took too long to make decisions on any scheme that had a whiff of controversy about it.

There was then, as now, a certain amount of scepticism among some Labour councillors about the wisdom of concentrating attention on “glitzy” city centre office and shopping projects and the impact that so much glass and steel would have on the aesthetics of the historic Colmore/St Phillips area.

Whitby wanted someone in post who would be an obvious first point of contact for inward investors. Someone who exuded confidence and, crucially, had open access to the council leader seven days a week. Clive who had worked in both the public and private sector, was to be a breath of fresh air.

Part showman, part politician, with plenty of what he described as “swagger”, Dutton believed passionately he could deliver any project, however challenging, if he could demonstrate that to do so would be for the good of Birmingham.

Possibly his most unlikely achievement was to persuade the planning committee to approve the British Land Tower on the corner of Colmore Row and Newhall Street, a soaring, shimmering glass-covered structure that, if it had ever been built, would have provided an eye-catching burst of modernity towering over the Victorian Council House and St Phillip’s Cathedral.

Conservationists and the Civic Society fought to prevent the tower from being built. Dutton threw everything into his closing speech to the planning committee, claiming that to reject the tower would send a terrible message to the rest of the world that Birmingham was an insular, backward-looking place and that this would inevitably hit job creation and harm the economy.

He got his way, thanks in a large part to some behind the scenes arm-twisting of Tory councillors by Mike Whitby, although the subsequent recession meant that the tower failed to get off the ground. New plans have recently been approved for another tower on the site.

A snappy dresser, with a penchant for scarves and often with a colourful tie, or no tie at all before such liberalism became popular among executives, Clive could certainly talk a good game and would hold court from his office on the top floor of Alpha Tower with its breathtaking views of the city he hoped to kick some life into.

When he arrived in Birmingham Dutton was astonished to discover the council had no city-wide strategic plan for regeneration. There were a great many individual plans for different locations, but no all-encompassing vision setting out what Birmingham might look like in the future.

He and Whitby set about compiling the Big City Plan, a 20-year vision to create a world class city centre. The plan, which had been subject to an unusually extensive public consultation exercise, was then touted around the world, particularly in China and the USA, as Dutton and Whitby wooed would-be investors who might be prepared to take a gamble on building in Birmingham.

The council also published High Places, a document setting out the benefits of building skyscraper offices in the city centre, changing the Birmingham skyline in a dramatic way. Clive Dutton was particularly keen on this and often said that he wanted Birmingham to be far more recognisable to motorists passing along the M6.

His proposal to floodlight and turn Spaghetti junction into a tourist attraction, though, proved to be an out of the box idea that even Clive could not sell to the politicians. His championing of the Big Screen television in Victoria Square was not his finest hour, but he could at least argue he was delivering policy laid down by the council’s leadership.

Clive described the Big City Plan as a statement at the beginning of the new century underlining Birmingham’s ambition and self-belief. It had “chutzpah” and demonstrated an intention to “take on the world”, he once said.

Many of the projects that Clive was involved in have already made their mark – the refurbishment of New Street Station with a John Lewis store and the Library of Birmingham being two of the most obvious examples. Beetham Tower was built on his watch, as was The Cube and plans for the Eastside City Park were pushed forward alongside the Longbridge redevelopment masterplan.

Clive Dutton was awarded an OBE in 1998. He produced the Dutton Report on how to regenerate West Belfast, following the Good Friday Agreement.

He left Birmingham in 2009 to join the London Borough of Newham where he had responsibility for overseeing post-Olympic Games legacy projects.

Philip Singleton, who worked with Clive in Birmingham and followed him to Newham before returning to become chief executive of Millennium Point, described his former boss as the type of person who would “shoot for the moon and leave you to build the rocket and figure out how to get there”. Singleton also notes correctly that Clive built “trust, vision and advocacy” for the then ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and then he delivered, “so his ratings were very high indeed”.

In June 2013, at the age of 60, he formed his own regeneration consultancy, describing himself as a “cities impresario and creative communicator who makes things happen”.

That month he told Architects Journal he was relishing new challenges:

The biggest kick I get is making projects move from concept to inevitability. To reach a point where commitment is beyond the point of no return.

“That it may then take years to build something is not the point. Others can and will take the credit once the last rivet is driven in. That’s fine and my loved ones will know that, back in the day, I was amongst those that made it happen.

Launching his new venture, Clive described himself as describing himself as a “cities impresario and creative communicator who makes things happen”. It would be difficult to come up with a more fitting assessment.

Clive Dutton, a burst of colour in the grey world of local government, was certainly someone who made it happen in Birmingham. He will be missed.

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