TO THE CHAIR OF THE OVERVIEW AND SCRUTINY COMMITTEE
We, the Friends of the Central Library are writing to you because on 22 October Cabinet will be asked, in the words of the Birmingham Mail, to “rubber stamp” the officers’ proposals for a new central library on the car park in Centenary Square.
You will already be aware of the controversial history of this project. Our briefing shows that it remains controversial. We therefore urge you and your fellow councillors to “Call In” the report.
In common with the rest of the citizens of Birmingham we have not seen the proposals and we only know what we have read in the press. We understand the cost will be £200 million and that the building will house books and archives and that some of it will have to be underground.
We do not know how much floor space will be provided, how many floors there will be, and how much land will be required. We have only the three artists’ impressions published in 2006 to indicate what it might look like. We have not been told where the money is coming from and how much it will cost the Council.
We have not been consulted about the proposals for the new library before Cabinet is being asked to approve them. We think the people of Birmingham should at least have the opportunity to see and debate them.
We do know that the underlying reason for building a new library on a new site is to enable the Council to dispose of its interests in Paradise Circus to a commercial property developer.
We have been led to believe that the willingness of the Council to demolish the existing Central Library is an essential precondition to the sale of that land.
We have not seen what the developers propose to do in Paradise Circus but we understand the Council wants a tall office building there to show where the city centre starts and to encourage prestigious business to re-locate in that part of the city.
What we also know for certain is that the Council has so far focused most of its attention on the NEW library whilst giving very little attention to the option of retaining, renovating and extending the EXISTING library building.
The public have only been asked to react to the artists’ impressions and the high-sounding rhetoric about proposed world-class facilities and “iconic” buildings. We have not been asked with like enthusiasm, whether the existing Library should be retained and improved where it has stood for the last 30 years.
We believe that the Council has therefore failed in its duty to consider all the options with equal care. We believe that the decision to demolish the existing building was taken in 2001 or thereabouts and has dictated all subsequent actions.
As a consequence the existing building with its electrical and mechanical plant has been badly neglected. No serious proposals for cleaning and repairing the concrete cladding have been considered. The intended courtyard fountains and pools have been abandoned. The possibility of extending the building as was originally intended has not been investigated in detail.
Now, even in the face of growing support for the building we understand the Council wants to make it immune from statutory listing. This is a clear sign that it is determined to demolish the building regardless of public opinion.
The Friends of the Central Library group was formed in 2007 to “..bring together people and organisations to highlight the positive features of the Birmingham Central Library, challenge the City Council’s case for demolishing it and promote the creative and sustainable use of the existing building.”
We have contributed to a growing recognition that the Library is of international architectural importance. Designed by Birmingham architect John Madin and his team over a period of seven years it resulted from extensive research and evaluation of other major library projects.
John Madin was the principal of an international practice and was recognised by the British government, several foreign states and the United Nations as an expert in planning and design.
English Heritage recommended that the library be listed in 2003, but they were over-ruled by the government.
In September 2006 an exhibition about the library entitled “Back to the Modern” designed by our Secretary Alan Clawley was shown in the Library itself and two other venues and attracted widespread praise.
The influential Twentieth Century Society also considers the building worthy of national listing.
The author of the highly-regarded Pevsner Guide to Birmingham, Andy Foster, devotes a section of the guide (2005) to the praise of the library.
He has written “At the start of his `Outline of European Architecture’, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner defines the greatest achievement of architecture as its spatial qualities – the shaping and moulding and control especially of internal volumes.
“By this standard, the Central Library starts where most other Birmingham buildings stop. Here is a masterpiece in front of our eyes, and yet every influential person in Birmingham wants to pull it down.”
When the Library was opened in 1974 the Birmingham Post called it “the finest provincial library in Europe”.
Librarians were enthusiastic too, going by this report in the Municipal Journal 1 February 1974: “Birmingham CBC’s new £4.7 million central libraries complex – rising out of the city’s Paradise Circus in a setting of pools and fountains – seems to have lived up to expectations: in a few months since it opened its doors to an awestruck public it has attracted critical acclaim from visiting librarians from all over the world.
“It will be ‘a model for the whole public library world for many years to come‘, said one distinguished visitor.”
Have circumstances changed so drastically since to justify a fresh start and a completely new building? Today the Central Library in a building described by the council in a currently fashionable way as “unfit for purpose” provides a service to 5,000 users a day, hardly the sign of a failing institution. Given the care and attention it deserves it could go on doing so for another thirty years at least.
The building has no fatal structural defects and there are no convincing reasons why it cannot perform the functions that are claimed to be only possible in a new library. The building was designed with no structural walls to allow things to be moved around and to accommodate the changes that the Council says are needed.
The Richard Rogers scheme for a new library in Eastside was abandoned in 2004 because the Council could not afford its £180 million cost. We do not understand how the Council can now contemplate a cost of £200 million, for what is likely to be a watered down version on a smaller site.
We can only guess that in its desperate effort to fit the building onto the site the Council has been forced to accept extra costs resulting from deep excavations and the need for lifts and escalators to serve a large number of floors. It is also likely that the lack of natural lighting will increase running costs and Carbon Dioxide emissions unless, as seems unlikely, the Council is proposing to rely on renewable energy.
If they are there is no reason why the same methods could not be applied to the existing library (so-called retro-fit).
We have given you an outline of the other side of the Council’s long-running and at times controversial proposals for a new Library of Birmingham. We have followed the story since 2002 when the proposals first became public and when members of the public reacted with scepticism to the Council’s claims that the building was in a terminal state of decay.
We urge you to challenge the prevailing wisdom that all other avenues have been thoroughly investigated. We know they have not and we will continue to press our case whatever the outcome.