Mark Wallace of The TaxPayers' Alliance doesn't like Birmingham's Central Library but he's even less keen on the city council's plans to spend £193m demolishing and replacing it.
Like their national counterparts, local politicians are often susceptible to the lure of building expensive vanity projects or white elephants. Sometimes this is down to a desire to show that they are doing something – a big building is more eye-catching than a behind the scenes improvement in council management. Sometimes it is an attempt to win votes, taking the Gordon Brown approach that the more you spend, the better you are serving the public. Occasionally it is even just an attempt to institute a personal legacy, physically moulding an area in such a way that the council leader responsible will always be remembered.
In the current economic conditions, none of these are sufficient justifications to spend large amounts of money on capital building projects. In fact, wherever possible councils should look to maintain or renovate existing buildings instead. At the best of times, spending hundreds of millions of pounds on new council buildings must always be closely scrutinised and only done in exceptional circumstances, backed up by solid, responsible funding plans. Unfortunately, all too often councils throw caution to the wind and taxpayers end up with a huge bill to replace somewhere that might not be shiny and new but was capable of doing the job.
I don’t know which of the motives listed above has taken hold of Birmingham City Council, but reports this week seem to indicate that they, too, have fallen foul of the temptation to commission vastly expensive new facilities when the existing ones can do the job.
BCC have been pushing a proposal to spend a staggering £193 million demolishing the existing Birmingham Central Library and replace it with an all-singing, all-dancing new structure. Granted, the Central Library is a remarkably ugly building, which Prince Charles memorably described as looking like “a place where books are incinerated, not kept”, but any plan to spend so much money replacing it must have a good justification, particularly in the current recession.
That justification was supposedly that the place was structurally unsound, which the council sexed up by describing it as suffering from “concrete cancer”. It is worrying, then, that an expert report released under Freedom of Information this week says that is not the case.
The report – from engineers’ firm Scott Wilson – reveals that despite the fact that the council had been making doom-laden warnings since 2005, no actual full survey was done until 2007. When Scott Wilson did study the building they found no evidence for any structural problems. Instead of publishing the findings and either reconsidering the proposal or even saying “well, it is safe but we’d still like to spend all this money getting rid of it”, the council just buried the report.
Don’t get me wrong, I would gladly tear down every concrete Brutalist monstrosity in the land. Show me the plunger to destroy these blights on the face of our towns and cities, and I’ll press it without a second thought. However, that case needs to be made on the basis of architectural merit and public service performance – particularly given the cost involved.
Right now, there are far better uses for £193 million of taxpayers’ money in Birmingham. If the council can’t think of any, then just reducing the council tax of local residents who are losing their jobs or their homes would strike me as a higher priority. Plenty of other councils are scaling back ambitious building projects and replacing them with more affordable renovations, in recognition of the seriousness of the times.
The council evidently did not feel that the architectural argument, or the quality of service argument, was sufficient to persuade people that this vast outlay was justified. Instead, they hung their argument on a scare-mongering justification of safety, which has now fallen apart much as they predicted the Central Library was about to.