Campaigners for Birmingham’s threatened Central Library made their second submission to Culture Secretary Margaret Hodge .  Alan Clawley, Secretary of the Friends of the Central Library Group, published it in The Stirrer [7.7.08] 

Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MBE MP
Department for Culture Media and Sport
2-4 Cockspur Street
London SW1 5DH

Dear Minister

BIRMINGHAM CENTRAL LIBRARY

We have already made the case for listing the Library on grounds of its architectural merit alone and our views have been fully vindicated by English Heritage. We do not propose therefore to repeat them in this submission, but refer you to our first submission.

However as your Department has invited us to make further comments on the issue of listing we feel bound to refute the arguments against listing that we have heard being put forward in public since the application was submitted, in particular by the City Council and Birmingham Civic Society.

PARADISE CIRCUS REDEVELOPMENT

The critical reason given by the City for opposing the listing of the Library is that it will jeopardise the future regeneration of Paradise Circus.

Mr Clive Dutton (Director of Planning and Regeneration) stated (Birmingham Post 19 March 2008) that “If the Central Library were to be listed, this would have a catastrophic effect on the council’s plans for not only the Library of Birmingham…but also the future redevelopment of Paradise Circus and the west end of the city centre.”

The weakness with this argument in our view is that no developer has yet presented to the Council a viable scheme for the regeneration of Paradise Circus.

As long ago as 1999 a consensus had emerged amongst leading Councillors that Paradise Circus should be sold to a commercial property developer. At first it was not felt necessary to justify the idea, but later the concept of “repositioning Birmingham as a desirable location for international business” was adopted as a rationale.

The Council then embarked on a lengthy and complicated process with the aim of eventually attracting a major property developer to implement the redevelopment. This was to involve many interdependent elements, each of which had to work to ensure the success of the whole project.

It would be necessary for the Council to 1. Find a new site for the Central Library, 2. Re-assemble Council landholdings in the Paradise Circus site by buying back interests that it had previously disposed of, 3. Assist the Conservatoire to re-locate, and 4. Promote Birmingham and Paradise Circus as a preferred location for world-class businesses – the so-called Repositioning of Birmingham.

The consultants advising the council at the time warned it that the latter would be no easy matter and that they could not rely solely on the Paradise Circus scheme for its success.

It was obvious to anyone that from then on any buildings that stood in the way of this policy would have to be removed regardless of their architectural importance.
Nine years later the Council’s proposals for the redevelopment of Paradise Circus remain highly speculative and aspirational. Any arguments based on such vague ideas are bound to be hypothetical. (The same can be said of the proposed new library in Centenary Square, plans for which have not yet been produced.)

No-one can therefore judge the effect of the presence or otherwise of the Library on a regeneration project that at present only exists in the imagination. It is not credible to argue, as the council appears to do, that the presence of the library will be prejudicial to any regeneration or redevelopment proposals because there are many examples of regeneration taking place around existing buildings [cf Ikon in BrindleyPlace].

We therefore argue that the decision on listing cannot take into account the mere possibility that such a step may affect the viability of a scheme that has not yet been designed. The time to consider such an effect is when a developer has been publicly appointed, a scheme has been drawn up and made public, planning permission is being applied for, and redevelopment is imminent.

It was our contention at the time of the City’s application for a Certificate of Immunity from Listing that their application was premature, and that the minor planning application that was associated with it was not a genuine indication of a developer’s intention to demolish the building as a prerequisite for redeveloping the wider site.

Since then no evidence has been made public to suggest that any developer is prepared to present a scheme for planning approval. A recent Freedom of Information request from Friends of the Central Library revealed no documentation to support an assertion made by Gary Taylor of Argent plc, the only developer known to us to be interested, that he was “working ever more closely with the City over the redevelopment of Paradise Circus” (Birmingham Post 4 April 2008).

We therefore contend that the impact of listing on the proposed regeneration scheme cannot be measured because no such scheme exists on which its impact can be demonstrated. In the absence of a genuine planning application for the regeneration of Paradise Circus we urge you to refuse a Certificate of Immunity and instead agree its Listing.

Listing the building will be fair to those of us who wish to see the Library listed purely on its architectural merit and not be denied that status indefinitely. On the other hand, issuing a Certificate now, when a regeneration scheme is no more than an idea, would allow the Council more time in which to further neglect the building and erode its architectural integrity.

Furthermore there is growing evidence that the current unfavourable economic climate will cause such regeneration schemes to take longer to realise or even be abandoned altogether.

The Birmingham Post reported (13 February 2007) that “Planners consider that the private sector demand for luxury offices planned at Paradise Circus will not become clear until the office element of Arena Central is on the market”.
Less than a year later (Birmingham Post 3 November 2007) and with the Arena Central not begun Mr Dutton still believed that there was “…an insatiable appetite among private sector developers to buy sites in the city centre” although he felt it necessary to add in response to doubts about the financial viability of the new library, “Please trust me that we know what we are doing”.

The Paradise Circus scheme depends on the sale of Council-owned land, the completion of a new library, and the market for Grade A office space. These are all critical factors subject to serious doubt and delay.

We also question the use of the term “regeneration” as applied to a city centre site that already boasts very high land values and which is surrounded by high status property. We contend that the scheme amounts to no more than an orthodox redevelopment scheme driven by property values and the need for maximum return for private investors. The City Council’s interest appears to be purely financial. The Council has not indicated what community benefit will accrue from the prospective granting of planning permission for the redevelopment of Paradise Circus.

Mr Dutton seems to define “regeneration” simply as the process of buying up all existing property interests, clearing the site of existing buildings and selling the land to a speculative private property developer who will then erect new buildings to let or sell them on to provide a maximum return on investment. This definition amounts to no more than physical redevelopment.

In pursuit of this model Mr Dutton says that nothing, even the listing of the Library, will stand in the way. Mr Dutton does not say what is being regenerated. But we gather from his previous statements that the redevelopment of Paradise Circus is about “regenerating” the city centre business district rather than the civic and cultural centre of which the Central Library and Conservatoire are the main elements of the City Council’s 1965 Plan for Paradise Circus.

It is noticeable that Mr Dutton makes no claims about any social or civic objectives of regeneration.  Who will benefit from the process? The private developer will benefit financially and will control who has access into and through the entire site. There is no proof as yet that the new architecture will be better than the existing architecture. The citizens of Birmingham will not benefit by the process known as trickle-down (Nevin et al) and evidence of its effect on the lives of people living in some of the poorest wards in the UK is hard to find.

We would support the Council if it were to think of regeneration as undoing the unfortunate changes that it has made to the Central Library and its surroundings over the past 10 years, changes that have seriously undermined the architect’s intentions and destroyed the Council’s original plan for a civic and cultural centre.
We would therefore welcome the removal of the fast food outlets that occupy Paradise Forum and the restoration of that space to its original civic purpose.

We would welcome the restoration of the fountains and the refurbishment of the public thoroughfares through the northern side of the building. We believe that the benefits if this kind of regeneration would be visible for all to see and greatly appreciated by the public. It is a model of regeneration that values and makes use of familiar features that are part of Birmingham’s history.

Mr Dutton dismisses supporters of Listing because they “…carry no responsibility for the economic viability of the area”. This is of course true, but it is not acceptable for a paid official of an elected council to claim that his is the only voice that should be heard on an important issue affecting all the citizens of Birmingham.

Mr Dutton does not even to bother to prove that supporters of listing are a minority but in any case we have every right to express support for listing without being publicly criticised for not having direct responsibility for its economic impact. We are puzzled as to the meaning of “economic viability” of the area anyway. This lazy phrase like all the others used by Mr Dutton, sounds important and irrefutable, but means precisely nothing.

In our view listing the Library now will allow all the interested parties due process in the form of a planning application from a preferred developer at the appropriate time when the City’s demand for regeneration can be properly balanced against the needs of our cultural heritage and when the market conditions pertaining at the time can be more accurately judged.

OTHER ARGUMENTS

The Council has also attempted to justify the demolition of the Central Library in several other ways that are unrelated to its architectural merit. 
The Council has claimed that a new library will be more green than the existing one.

We accept that any new building should be more energy-efficient and greener in use than a building it replaces. However, existing buildings can be “retrofitted” to improve their energy efficiency and equipped with “add-on” renewables such as solar panels. The Central Library is no exception.

It could have been, but was not, included in the City Council’s own Combined Heat and Power Scheme currently being installed to public buildings around Centenary Square, and solar panels could be installed on its roof.

Therefore comparing CO2 emissions “in use” between a new building and an old un-modified building is not valid. The equation is quite simple. On one side – retaining the existing building will emit no new CO2 at all. On the other side – demolishing the existing building and building a new one will be the cause of large emissions of CO2.

The existing building also represents a huge amount of embodied energy which, if the building is demolished, would be wasted, and duplicated by the energy spent on its replacement. So whatever the figures are the balance is always going to be in favour of retaining the existing building.

Mr Dutton has offered no answer to this argument.

We can therefore say that retaining and upgrading the existing library will produce less Carbon Dioxide than would be produced by demolishing it and building a new library in Centenary Square and new office buildings in Paradise Circus regardless of how environmentally friendly they may be in construction and use.
The Council claims that the new library will be good value for money for the taxpayers of Birmingham who will be footing the bill.

Our view is that the city already has an excellent and popular library housed in a purpose-built building that is only 35 years old, so the benefits of replacing it with a new building will only be marginal to the central function of a Library.

There is also the possibility that some or all of the claimed benefits could be achieved by refurbishing the existing library but the city has made no attempt to find out whether this is feasible. The City Council has made many grand statements in the Birmingham Post about what will be gained by building a new library, but as yet they are merely subjective aspirations that cannot be proved, a selection of which follows:

“…the best public library in the world”. Asked what the final design will look like Mr Dutton said “We will know it when we see it” (23 January 2008 )
“…a quite extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime facility” (19 March 2008)
“…iconic may not be the right word, but certainly the most impactful, durable and sustainable development in the city” (9 April 2008)
“…an iconic landmark”  “ …a seminal moment in our city’s regeneration” (26 June 2008)

The £193 million cost of building a new library is excessive compared with other similar library projects. This is the result of the Council’s insistence on shoe-horning it into an inadequate site in Centenary Square and having to build four storeys below ground.

In an effort to gain more space the City began negotiations with the adjacent Birmingham Repertory Theatre to share some facilities such as the entrance hall by building around and on top of the existing theatre building. The Repertory Theatre will be making no financial contribution to the project.  The practicalities of the concept remain untested and the Repertory Theatre has made no public statement about their involvement for some time. This suggests that the scheme remains protean and its realisation uncertain.

A report by Paul Dale in the Birmingham Post 25 October reads, “It has…emerged that the cost of delivering the Birmingham library will be significantly higher than similar landmark projects looked at by the council. Schemes against which the Centenary Square proposal were benchmarked include the Civil Justice Centre in Manchester… the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff…Singapore Library…and Seattle Library. Birmingham’s new library will be smaller in size than all the benchmarked schemes …at £557 per square metre dearer than the average benchmarked project.”

Despite its high cost, the new library will be a mere 10 per cent bigger than the existing Library (19 March 2008 Birmingham Post). It is therefore our view that the best value for money lies in the retention and refurbishment of the existing library.

OTHER PUBLIC STATEMENTS MADE BY MR DUTTON

We take this opportunity to refute below a number of statements made in the Birmingham Post by Mr Dutton which, although not related to the architectural merit of the building, you may be asked by the Council to consider as background information.

Mr Dutton has increasingly of late acted as the sole Council spokesman on the issue of the Library and his opinions have been widely reported in the press. We therefore make no apologies for responding specifically to statements attributed directly to him.

Mr Dutton complains about the “Poor physical state of the building”.

This should be the cause of considerable embarrassment to Mr Dutton because the Council that employs him is itself responsible for the conscious neglect and under-investment in the building’s mechanical and electrical services that has allowed it to be run down, no doubt to help justify its eventual demolition.

However Ernest Irwin the Arup engineer who designed its structure testified at a public meeting in February 2007 in front of Mr Dutton that it was a very strong building that would be extremely difficult and costly to demolish. Although some of the concrete cladding panels show signs of weathering that is not a problem that warrants its demolition. Any building that handles large numbers of people like the Central Library shows signs of tiredness after 35 years and needs a facelift not demolition.

…uses phrases such as “decrepit”, “charmless”, and “unfit for purpose”.

These phrases carry no widely accepted meaning and he has made no attempt to explain them in the media. The use of such words amounts to propaganda. His language is not the carefully worded rational language of a professional advisor. These are his personal opinions and worth no more than those of anyone else. We refute them entirely. The Library is not decrepit, charmless or unfit for purpose.

The Central Library was specifically designed for its purpose after seven years of research into libraries here and the United States. In a recent CIPFA survey (Birmingham Post 16 January 2008) it was voted the second most popular library in the UK with just under 1.5 million visitors and was only beaten by the Norwich Millennium Library.

This is a sign of a building that does indeed fit its purpose and is capable of continuing to do so for many years to come. Furthermore its column-free floors, designed to accommodate changes in the layout of furniture and equipment, allows the building to be easily adapted to new purposes, the most significant of which, information technology, was in fact anticipated when the building was being designed.

…says the cost of modernisation of building is too high

The first figure published in 2002 for bringing the Library up to scratch was £20 million. Since then figures of  £100 million, £124 million, £130 million and £166 million have been bandied about. The truth is that Mr Dutton has no idea because none has been properly costed against an agreed schedule of works. His guess is no better than anyone else’s.

The Town Hall cost £35 million to refurbish and everyone thinks it was worth it, but most of the money came from the National Lottery, an option not available for a statutory service.

In effect Mr Dutton is using a circular argument: the Council objects to spending any money at all on the Library because they have decided to demolish it anyway. Its neglected condition then strengthens their case for its demolition.

We have been told that money is no object when it comes to building a new library because that is what they want to do. First comes the commitment, then the money.

The architect of the Central Library, John Madin FRIBA, who knows more about the building and its services than anyone including Mr Dutton, estimates that it can be refurbished with enough space to house the archives for no more than £30 million.

…promises that the demolition of the Library will “Provide an opportunity to replace existing building with a new building of greater quality”

We do not know whether Mr Dutton is referring to the new library in Centenary Square or an as yet unidentified office building that will take its place on the Paradise Circus site. In either case we have no reason to have confidence in the architectural judgement of Mr Dutton and the members of the Planning Committee.

It was Mr Dutton who advised Cabinet that the Central Library had “no architectural merit”. If this was his professional judgement then it is at odds with English Heritage which is as you know the official body that advises the government on these matters. The other evidence of his lack of architectural appreciation can be seen in the buildings that he admires or approves of.

One recent example is the proposed and much criticised 35-story British Land office block in the Colmore Row Conservation Area to replace Madin’s NatWest Tower.

There is a consensus amongst informed opinion that the Central Library is a building of great quality and national importance and should be listed as such.

Even before Mr Dutton has seen the plans and elevations of any new buildings he tells us they will be better.

He dismisses the recommendations of English Heritage because he says they are only an opinion, but he considers his own opinion to be superior. Mr Dutton is a town planner (Member of the Royal Town Planning Institute) with a previous career in property development. City Councillors have not been able to seek the advice of a City Architect for the last ten years now, and it shows.

…says that removing the Library will “open up view of buildings the very essence of Birmingham, the clock tower on the Art Gallery and Museum and the dome of the Council House are views which haven’t been seen for 35 years”

Mr Dutton implies that the Central Library has blocked the only or best view of Big Brum and the dome of the Council House since it was built in 1973. The best place to see the dome is in any case from Victoria Square where it rises above the front of the Council House.

Both the dome and the clock tower known as Big Brum used to be more visible from the open atrium under the Library – known as Paradise Forum – and even on the escalators in the main entrance hall before the Council glassed in and let off Paradise Forum to fast food outlets. They still are visible but, as it were, ”through a glass darkly”.

The new NatWest building proposed in the Colmore Row Conservation Area and the tall tower blocks that we suspect are being planned for Paradise Circus will almost certainly cut off existing views of the dome, so we are at a loss to see how Mr Dutton can use this argument to oppose the listing of the Library.

Neither does Mr Dutton show us plans of how the redeveloped Paradise Circus will restore the views that he alleges have been lost. Once again Mr Dutton offers no real evidence to support his case. There are no plans and elevations or computer-generated images of what is proposed in Paradise Circus if the Library is demolished. We are merely given hints that it will be something like Brindleyplace.

We say that the views that Mr Dutton refers to can be enhanced now by removing the junk food outlets in Paradise Forum.

… implies that the demolition of the Library will allow the planners to “take out traffic that goes thundering past the Town Hall”

We would all like traffic not to thunder past the Town Hall but Mr Dutton does not show us how he will achieve such a worthy outcome. Neither does he say why it cannot be done without demolishing the Library.  If Mr Dutton already has a fully worked out Traffic Management Plan for Paradise Circus to support his vision we should be given a copy now so that we can see whether his claims are justified.

…believes that the demolition of the Library will “create a 360-degree view of world class buildings”

This is Mr Dutton’s most mind-boggling idea so far. It begs the questions as to which buildings, existing or proposed, he considers to be “world-class” and from what point in Paradise Circus we are meant to stand to enjoy a 360 degree panorama of them. We should not have to guess what is in his mind. Mr Dutton is a public servant not an entrepreneur, property developer, or even an architect or urban designer.He has a duty to make objective professional judgements and express them in clear language so that the people of Birmingham can understand what he means. If he cannot do that himself he should employ someone who can.

CONCLUSION

We are grateful for the opportunity to reiterate our support for the Listing of the Central Library. We refute entirely all the Council’s arguments because they are either predicated on what is at present a speculative proposal for the redevelopment of Paradise Circus and an untested concept for a new library in Centenary Square, or rely on highly contentious subjective statements about the condition, architectural merit, and fitness-for-purpose of the existing Library.

We urge you to refuse the Council’s application.

Yours sincerely

Alan Clawley

Secretary, Friends of the Central Library