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Library of Birmingham a ‘totemic virility symbol’, but business case didn’t add up

Library of Birmingham a ‘totemic virility symbol’, but business case didn’t add up

🕔11.Dec 2014

The Library of Birmingham became a totemic virility symbol for the city council’s former Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition, but the business case never stacked up argues chief blogger Paul Dale.

The gift of hindsight is a marvellous thing, but it is becoming clear that a £100 million estimate in 2008 to renovate and turn Birmingham’s Central Library in Paradise Forum into a modern facility might not have been the ridiculous waste of money it seemed to be at the time.

Of course, it didn’t really matter what figure was placed on the refurbishment bill. By then building a new library in Centenary Square had become a totemic virility symbol for the city council’s controlling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and in particular for council leader Mike, now Lord, Whitby who was determined to deliver a world-class public building for which he would be remembered.

There were abundant warnings that the business case for the new £187 million library was pretty much wishful thinking. And as 2009 approached and the credit crunch and recession hit home, the financial policy underpinning the Library of Birmingham began to resemble one of the fictional works that might be found on the new building’s shelves.

It had been envisaged that £50 million of the total cost of the library would be met from land sales. A further £99 million would be borrowed. A £39 million shortfall was to be made up by a combination of grants and private sector contributions, or would be under-written by the council if no other way of acquiring the money could be found.

It proved impossible to sell land. There were no grants available. Philanthropic donations failed to materialise in number. Private sector firms were battling for their own survival and had no inclination to help pay for a new library. The claim that a business, or even a charity, would pay £1 million a year for the library naming rights proved to be naïve nonsense.

But the council ploughed on anyway, borrowing most of the £187 million it needed to build the library, piling up the civic debt for future generations to pay off.

Now, a year after the library opened to national and even international acclaim, the council is counting the cost of its financial blunders. Running costs are a staggering £22 million a year, including £1 million a month in debt repayment. Incredibly, 188 people are employed at the library.

One hundred of those people are to lose their jobs and library opening hours will be cut dramatically as the council seeks to save £1.5 million a year. This is the very human side of a tragedy, and a good example of what Sir Bob Kerslake describes in his review of council governance as Birmingham’s failure to take collectively the big strategic decisions.

It’s worth recalling the events of 2002-2013, if only to serve as a warning to future Birmingham politicians. The city council in 2002, then under the leadership of Labour and Sir Albert Bore, began to draw up a grand strategy to redevelop Paradise Circus, which would involve demolishing the Central Library and building a new facility elsewhere.

Bore determined to site the library at Eastside, close to Millennium Point, in an effort to boost regeneration in that area and extend the cramped city centre to the east. The Conservatives, under the leadership of Mike Whitby, opposed siting the library at Eastside which they claimed was not in the city centre and would be a difficult place for pedestrians to access.

Sir Albert commissioned renowned architect Lord Richard Rogers to draw up outline plans for an Eastside library at an estimated cost of £150 million, although this figure was never substantiated.

In June 2004, a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took control of the city council under the leadership of Mike Whitby. Almost the first policy decision the coalition took was to abandon the Eastside library and search for an alternative site somewhere close to the Council House.

There then followed four years of mayhem. Sites were suggested and rejected in quick order. The library was going to be in Baskerville House, and then it wasn’t. A split site library was all the rage for a while with the lending section off Centenary Square and the archives at Eastside, but that was rejected as too costly and unworkable.

It should not be implied that Sir Albert and Lord Whitby were doing anything other than acting in the best interests of Birmingham, as they saw it at the time. But the yawning chasm of disagreement between them was not helpful to the city’s image.

A suggestion that council leaders would benefit from returning to the cross-party agreement approach that led in the 1970s to development of the NEC and ICC, bringing all political parties and the business sector together to plan important infrastructure, was ignored.

The only piece of available land that might be large enough for the library turned out to be between Baskerville House and the REP Theatre. Whitby and his deputy, Liberal Democrat leader Paul Tilsley, agreed to embark on an ambitious scheme connecting a new library to a refurbished REP and after much huffing and puffing about ‘world class’ designs the building finally opened in September 2013 with its ‘iconic’ to some, bizarre to others, brass bedstead exterior cladding.

A year before, in May 2012, the coalition lost control of the council to Labour, still under the leadership of Sir Albert Bore.

Labour inherited a scheme it had not backed on a site it did not favour and it became clear that most of the party’s councillors regarded the library as an expensive Tory-Lib Dem vanity project. They much preferred to protect Birmingham’s community libraries from public spending cuts than bail out the Library of Birmingham.

This week Cabinet member Penny Holbrook has defended the decision to axe library jobs and scale back opening hours, and did not miss an opportunity to lay the blame with the former coalition. She said: “It must also be remembered the library was commissioned by the council’s previous administration, and it has been well documented that the decision to proceed with the project was taken a matter of weeks before the global financial crisis which has triggered the period of austerity the council now faces.”

There are serious questions that need to be asked about this debacle, particularly the decision making process between 2010 and 2014.

In particular, when did it become clear that the running costs of the library were spiralling out of control? When did the council approve the staffing structure for the new library and why was a figure of 188 employees felt to be appropriate?

And most importantly of all, why at the end of 2012, when it was obvious that the library would run into financial difficulties as soon as it opened, did the council’s controlling Labour group not act to cut costs rather than waiting until it became necessary to wield an almighty big stick and sack 100 people?

*Lord Whitby did not respond to a request by Chamberlain Files to comment on the library.

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