Friday, April 10, 2009

New Birmingham Library unveiled

The idea is to build a monumental landmark but is it right to get the taxpayer to fork out £200m in the midst of the biggest recession in sixty years?

Plans for the new Birmingham library were finally unveiled last week. Though finished products never look like those glossy designer sketches, I will admit at this stage that it does look quite impressive. Tucked between the REP theatre and Baskerville House, its six glass blocks sitting on top of each other have the potential to turn it into a truly iconic building.

However, objections are being raised on three grounds and the New Library Zealots will have to do better than repeating like a broken record that "no one else is doing anything like this" alongside the hollow ring of words like "hub", "inspirational" and "21st century".

First off, spending £200 million on any building during such a massive recession shows that Birmingham City Council may be having a problem or two with grasping priorities. It may have made sense during the credit-binge years but, with 34,000 people in the West Midlands joining the dole queue in the last quarter alone (with the total standing at more than 200,000), wouldn't the money be better spent elsewhere? Are the masses on the dole and their families going to be cheered up by a "21st century hub"?

To hear, in the current climate, the Council leader and his friends repeat that the new Library will be the most monumental ever ("Britain's biggest ever public library") and that it'll have the world's top architects flocking to Birmingham smacks a bit of Weimar-style delusion of grandeur.

Two. As a Birmingham Post reader points out, monumental library projects don't take into account the digital revolution of the last decade. Once issues of storing original material are dealt with, are we sure we're still going to require hugely expensive spaces in the future? Incidentally, restoring the current library would only cost a fraction of the £200 million needed for the new project - with estimates ranging between £30m and £100m.

Three. The issue of space. The project is most certainly ambitious, but wouldn't Centenary Square end up looking a little cramped? Don't forget that the new library would not only tower over the REP, but it will also squeeze past the 1930s grade II listed Baskerville House, with the risk of turning the most spacious Birmingham square into your nan's cluttered attic.

More on the tormented history of Brum's libraries here.

More on the new "Library of Birmingham" plan here.

Click here to read about why the current library should be kept instead.

UPDATE, 12/04/2009
The new library pockets the unexpected support of top blogger and Labour Councillor for Sandwell Bob Piper. "The New Library doesn't impress me, but I'm slightly biased", he told Hagley Road to Ladywood, citing his past opposition to the "brutalist bloody mess" that replaced the old library in the early 70s. "Whilst I may not be in love with the latest design", he said, "I think the demolition of the existing library and the revolting mall and tacky hotels, does provide an opportunity to open up the City and make a pleasant walkway from Chamberlain Square through to Centenary Square".

On the point of funding lavish projects during a crisis Councillor Bob Piper said: "I must admit to thinking the same about the ICC/NIA project when it was first mooted, but I was wrong. Sometimes iconic buildings can stimulate economic regeneration that will outlast the short term recession - the US did the same, spending their way out of the depression with big infrastructure projects like the Hoover Dam".


Stephen Booth said...

Two hundred million would probably pay for a decent chunk of low cost social housing for rental. Give those people who've been evicted due to losing their job somewhere to live at an affordable rent.


Stan Moss said...

Exactly, Stephen.
But when will our politicians learn? Or, rather, when will we learn how to put them under pressure?

Stephen Booth said...

I do feel that many people do tend to expect other people to deal with things rather than getting involved. Until recently I was a union shop steward. Part of the reason I quit was the unwillingness of members to get involved, show up to AGMs or strike; whilst still expecting stewards to solve all of their issues (often issues that only arose due to their failure to get involved earlier). A bigger part of my quitting was the refusal of paid officials (contrary to what many members seem to believe, stewards and lay officers are not paid for their union work) to get involved and support lay officers.

There are various ways for people to get involved. For example the website WriteToThem ( allows people to enter their postal code and see who their representatives are then write to them (for free) and get a response via the site. The best thing is the responsiveness of the politicians is tracked and published. As the business writer Peter Drucker said: "What gets measured gets done." I've found that a message sent through the site will almost always get a response, a letter sent through the post rarely does.

TheyWorkForYou ( is a good way to get information about what your MP has been up to.

Another site I use a lot if WhatDoTheyKnow ( Thso site can be used to send Freedom of Information requests, for free, to public bodies. Again, responsiveness is tracked so tends to be good. In this site the requests and responses are accessible by anyone so you can see what others have asked and set up email alerts for requests to bodies you are interested in.

There's a bunch of other similar sites as well, some are listed on MySociety ( I have no connection with these sites other than as a user.

As for why people are so apathetic now, I think there are a number of reasons. The turmoil of the 1970s followed with the changes of the 1980s that lead to politicians moving away from representing their constituents to managing them no doubt play a big part. Changes to teaching have had an impact. The political relevance of events seems to have disappeared from the curriculum for a time, although I gather it's slowly coming back.

Specifically in terms of the trade union movement and the left I think the biggest negative has been the rise of single/few issue political parties. By concentrating on single issues, mostly symptoms, these have factionated the left and distracted from efforts to address the underlying causes. Many of these use techniques previously used by religious cults, the NAZI party (who, remember, originally styled themselves as a workers, socialist, party) and the Italian Fascist party of Mussolini (from whom the Nazis got many of their ideas and tactics) to gain members and control and indoctrinate them.


claude said...


interesting analysis and I have to say I agree on many levels. Also, it's nice of you to give us a few relevant websites.

Also, as a former shop steward (albeit short-lived) myself, I must say I know what you mean about "the unwillingness of members to get involved" - unless of course, it's something that involves "no.1", if you know what I mean.

One issue you didn't mention, however, and one that I think is crucial for us to insist on, is the fact that participation in Britain is stifled by such a crap voting system.

The First Past the Post seems to be designed exactly to get ordinary people to go "what's the bloody point?"

Here I explain exactly what I mean.

Chris Baldwin said...

Please tell me they're not going to get rid of the current library building.

claude said...

Well, Chris, it's been a long-winded process, but it looks like that's going to be the most likely outcome.

Are you a fan of Madin's building?

Jona's Stepbrother said...

Bottom line: when did we as Brummies actually say we wanted a new library?
We may have said that the current one's mingin, but you ask most people what they'd spend £200m on in the city and I strongly doubt if the New library would come out on top.

Chris Baldwin said...

As a building, yes I quite like it. Whether it should stay as the library I don't know, but I think it's one of Birmingham's more distinctive buildings and it would be a shame to lose it. I don't live in Birmingham any more so it doesn't really affect me much, but I do worry that we're sometimes too ready to knock down buildings from a few decades ago. Sure some of them are awful, but the library actually has quite a lot of character.

Iain said...

Two hundred million would allow for an decent chunk of low cost social housing. But any council that did this under the current rules for social housing funding needs locking up.

Firstly, it wouldn't be 200 million, that money (not all of it identified is coming from a wide range of different pots, several of which are tagged for "culture" etc.)

Secondly, you'd probably only get permission from the government if the houses were to be managed by a social landlord and if the usual high percentage of them were for purchase by key workers, shared ownership and other intermediate tenancies (i.e. temporary letting at market rates). Given the current markets for most of those are pretty dead, it would be a disaster. Also they would be subject to higher rents than ordinary council rents if they were managed by another social landlord or an ALMO. Don't be fooled by last summer's announcements of money to build council houses - it was only available to authorities with an ALMO or who would set one up. Remember, the tenants of Birmingham have rejected Stock Transfer (quite sensibly in my view) twice.

Thirdly, if the council did manage to build them itself and manage them itself, then they would owe additional HRA subsidy to the government, currently in Birmingham running at over 10 pounds a week per tenant.

Fourthly, they would become subject after the usual time to "Right to Buy" and if they were bought, then 75% of the receipts would have to be sent to central government.

There's a reason why councils build very few properties these days and most of it is down to central government.

Now to be fair, the government has said that it will review HRA subsidy and the returning of right to buy receipts on new buuld properties not subsidised centrally. But I suspect this lot will be out of power by the time they get around to finishing the review.

dunc said...

There already is a pleasant walkway from Chamberlain Square through to Centenary Square, through the current library. It's the shops that make the walk seem cramped and give a bad impression.

The Birmingham Post have an image of what it looks like without the shops -

Spacious eh?

Anonymous said...

Firstly, blimey Bob Piper still around...

Secondly, spent many an afternoon in B'ham Central Library during the 1980s for school homework.
Nowt wrong with that building.

Thirdly, why do they spend millions on a swanky glitzy building when they will cut costs on book stock etc. and workers pay and conditions...? Cos that is what will happen.

Martin Packer said...

I guess the poster touched upon it but nobody said openly; How about sheer political ambition and egomania? Could it be that some of the local political high ranks involved are desperate to be remembered as "the ones who commissioned the most ambitious building in the history of Brum"?