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Birmingham’s triumphant new library is final chapter for grand civic schemes

Birmingham’s triumphant new library is final chapter for grand civic schemes

🕔02.Sep 2013

For once Birmingham finds itself in the unusual, possibly unprecedented, position of basking in wall to wall favourable publicity about something that the city council has achieved.

The new Library of Birmingham in Centenary Square has had praise lavished on it by national newspapers, television and radio stations and magazines. Even before the doors open to the public, the £189 million project has been judged a huge success and shining tribute to the public sector.

Really, there hasn’t been a bad word said about what will be Europe’s largest library.

It’s worth repeating that. The much-maligned city council has delivered on time and on budget a huge construction programme and every critic so far likes the building and its contents.

At a time when local authorities up and down the land are closing libraries to save money, Birmingham, paradoxically, has spent a very large amount of money and is opening a 10-storey library.

This is possibly a first in terms of positive national media coverage. The general rule of thumb is that if Birmingham is in the news, it must be bad news.

This has ranged recently from child killers who were allowed to perpetrate evil acts under the eyes of social services, to the impact of spending cuts and ‘the end of local government as we know it’.

Well-meaning schemes have not gone quite according to plan for various reasons. The £500 million refurbishment of New Street Station was panned in some quarters for being little more than the development of a glorified shopping centre when it emerged that, for all of that money, the new-look station won’t accommodate more trains and won’t allow passengers to travel faster between destinations.

Millennium Point, the largest millennium project outside of the London dome, was lampooned as a pointless, meaningless and expensive gesture. The council’s efforts to bring the Olympic Games and the national soccer stadium to Birmingham never had a hope of succeeding, leaving the city struggling with an enduring image of heroic failure.

Similarly, the European Capital of Culture bid, upon which much money was wasted in hopeless publicity efforts, ended badly with Birmingham destined to fill the spot of valiant runner-up to Liverpool.

This time, though, a carefully planned media campaign to promote the library has paid dividends.

The library has been praised as “an enchanting temple of calm” by the Daily Telegraph, a “sparkling library for the 21st century” by the Independent, a “modern behemoth that encases the past” by the Guardian, and “cutting-edge architecture by the BBC”.

The Financial Times devoted half a page to a gushing review, while the Sunday Times described the new building as “proud mixture of public forum, tribute to literature and grand gesture”.

Will Hutton, writing in the Observer, made the point, quite correctly, that the Birmingham library is likely to be the last great public sector project for years, possibly decades, as the government’s austerity programme continues to bite.

No city in England or Wales would or could consider spending £189 million on such a project now, Hutton noted.

He is right, but what he doesn’t explain is that the library was planned and largely delivered by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that ran the council between 2004 and 2012. Luckily, borrowing for the scheme was put in place just weeks before the credit crunch hit home in 2008, but the enthusiasm with which the coalition backed a civic scheme often appeared out of kilter with mainstream Tory thinking.

It is also worth recalling that the then Tory council leader Mike Whitby found himself much criticised for borrowing most of the £189 million, pushing up council debt, and was accused of pursuing a “vanity project” and turning his back on a far cheaper scheme to improve the Central Library in Paradise Forum.

Scrutiny committees gleefully attempted to unpick the project, claiming that debt repayments for the £189 million would be better spent on shoring up social services.

And while I am at it, it should not be forgotten that the then opposition Labour group on the council did not embrace the Centenary Square library with any great enthusiasm. They wanted a Richard Rogers-designed library to be built at Millennium Point in Eastside, although no proper budget or plan had been worked out when Labour lost control in 2004.

Labour lost the battle for Millennium Point and, to be fair, recognised immediately upon re-taking power in 2012 the importance of completing the Centenary Square library in a timely and efficient fashion, and the crucial necessity of a properly planned and funded media campaign.

As chance would have it, or perhaps it was planned, the Labour leader of Birmingham City Council, Sir Albert Bore, won’t be at the official opening of the library. He is in Lithuania at a Eurocities meeting and doesn’t plan to return until the day after the cutting of the ribbon.

Perhaps he simply couldn’t face having to pay tribute to a stunning Tory-Lib Dem success story.

RJF Public Affairs, publishers of the Chamberlain Files, work with the Library of Birmingham Trust. The library PR campaign has been led by Four Colman Getty.

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