Coming home to roost

The Library of Birmingham may be attracting both praise and visitors but Alan Clawley remains unconvinced.


As a chronicler of the Central Library saga I can look back on the conception and birth of its child, the Library of Birmingham. It was built by Carillion and opened on time within the £168 million budget but some faults have already emerged.

The Children’s Library was closed for a while for cracks in the basement floor to be repaired and the balustrade surrounding the top roof garden has been found to be too low to prevent a tragic suicide. The much trumpeted outdoor performance space, the so-called Amphitheatre, is mostly occupied by a table tennis table and gathers leaves and litter from Centenary Square. Whilst the fees of a professional musician can hardly be justified by the small audience that can gather round the opening, a small amateur choir has performed there.

The books lining the circular atrium (described by Brian Gambles as “the heart of the library”) are mostly out of reach to both library-users and staff without special lifts (which were not available for some time after the official opening). Although the building was shortlisted for the Stirling architecture prize it was not the winner. The judges would certainly have been aware in their deliberations that the case for a new library and the demolition of the old one was widely contested. Endorsing the new library could have implied support for the views of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales who famously excoriated the Central Library and other modern buildings much to the chagrin of the architectural establishment.

The LoB is certainly a big building but I never found out exactly how much of it was dedicated specifically to library use compared with the 24,700 square metres of the Central Library. Brian Gambles insisted that the new library would be 25% bigger and would accommodate every book currently held – all two million of them. The new library eventually opened with a million books.

Councillor Whitby once said that he thought its size would be 34,500 square metres but that 31,000 would be “adequate” anyway. Clive Dutton claimed that it would be 10% bigger than the existing library, which would have made it only 26,950 square metres. The area finally approved by the planning committee was 23,771 square metres – smaller by almost 1,000 square metres – but that was no problem as the new library only needed to accommodate half the number of books that were in the Central Library. In 2007 Gambles admitted that there would be half the exhibition space first envisaged in the new library [1,109sm reduced to 600sm] run at reduced staff levels. He admitted it would show less than 1% of the collection of Victorian photographs and that a room the size of half the city centre would be required to show them all.

In the Birmingham Post Gambles later remarked that the public appetite for exhibitions may not be as great as is popularly supposed, and warned against the cost of putting on large-scale exhibitions which would be the responsibility of no more than five dedicated staff. He pointed to exhibition space already provided by the IKON Gallery and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, thereby lowering expectations even before the new government called for massive cuts. A report in The Stirrer quoted him saying that his staff didn’t have the time to put on exhibitions of any kind anyway. But, he insisted, “there is no shrinkage of the vision; size is only one issue.” Ian Ward, then in opposition, was reported saying “…this project is being driven by accountants rather than librarians.”

Gambles listed the Central Library’s faults in a Post article headed How the Central Library is being left on the shelf. He said; “Our users expect an interactive and dynamic service that understands their needs, one that provides support and advice from appropriately skilled staff. What’s wrong with the CL? – It is blank-fronted and offers no clues about what goes on inside. The ground floor is far too small to accommodate the services that would best be placed there. The architectural separation between Lending and Reference libraries is no longer valid. The inflexibility of the building makes informal learning difficult. The storage capacity and environment are poor. There are insufficient areas for exhibition, interpretation and performance. It is not easy to physically move round the building. There are no stairs and one small public lift. The escalators are noisy and unreliable. Lack of natural daylight does not create a pleasant environment for the user. The building is inefficient to run and energy bills are high.”

He had no forecasts to back up his assertions. Only now do we know what running costs are after a year in operation. Granted that the environmentally controlled archive store is an obvious improvement but the rest of the claims for the new library have been shown to be spurious.


Even before the economic downturn Capita Symonds was struggling to show where the money to build and run the new library would come from. A Private Finance Initiative was suggested as a means of keeping costs off the Council’s books thus: “In terms of repaying capital cost, if the Council borrows money then it is likely to be required by regulation to make a Minimum Revenue Provision or MRP. Therefore the requirement to make the provision has been separated from the terms of the funding. To reduce the impact of this MRP the City Council must not have been deemed to have borrowed the money. This is achieved by not ‘owning’ the building: or more accurately not recognising the building as an asset in the books of the Council. This implies that another entity ‘owns’ the building and makes a rentalised charge to the Council for using the building. This is one form of the PFI model.”

This idea could have been in Whitby’s mind when he announced in 2010 that the new library was to be owned by a charitable trust. Capita Symonds’ advice on alternative sources of funding now seems prescient. They wrote, “…if the LoB were to also include substantial office space, or a hotel to sit atop the library then the scheme of funding can be looked at on more of a commercial footing… the City Council could build additional facilities and let them for a commercial rental to the private sector…maximising income from the careful exploitation of resources can potentially be introduced, in particular round archive material. This may require the appointment of a commercial director to stimulate the income drive.”

Could this explain the importance that Mr Gambles attached to the Archives? Gambles has now been the Chief Executive of the Library of Birmingham Development Trust since 2013. Its Chairman is businessman and accountant, Keith Bradshaw of the Listers Motor Group. In a Post interview (October 2103) Bradshaw explained that a strategic board with business leaders and council appointments was responsible for overseeing and providing corporate governance for the new library; the trust, he said, had been set up to raise funds and identify opportunities for the development of the library.

He claimed that in two years it had raised £3 million in donations and grants from a wide range of sources. Gambles’ plan to sell naming rights for £10 million never happened and another plan to raise £35 million from the public by emulating the success of the Staffordshire Hoard fizzled out. The Council now openly distances itself from the Trust.

The Post reported (13th February) that the Library of Birmingham had been “ordered” to make £1.65 million of cuts to running costs and “threatened” with opening hour reductions if this wasn’t achieved. Deputy Leader Ian Ward gave the knife a further twist when he said that the trust had “agreed” to find £500,000 in savings. The rest, according to Ward, would be “plugged” by the Council. He admitted that the library specifications and running costs were set out in 2007, “during very different times.” Running costs, he said, were at a different level to those of the old Central Library; costs are substantially greater.

It is hard not to see cuts in community libraries relating to the huge cost of the new library. Four of them are likely to close, with cuts totalling £300,000 to the book fund, events, exhibitions and the mobile library service. In 2007 the service in the Central Library was so bad that Andrew Lydon, a serious reference library user, wrote a letter in the Post headed, “State of current library is a scandal; I dread to think of the library’s current leadership having any say in the design of anything, and certainly not a library.”

In 2013 in an article in the Times Gambles boasted that he had accepted the cuts in his staffing budget because he had been promised they would be fully restored when the new library opened. It must be obvious by now that he was duped.

2 thoughts on “Coming home to roost

  1. Thanks for the inside line on the new library because all public facilities need transparency. But whenever I look at the new library, I do like it. And feel when I go inside ,( I still take out books because they are free and not from Amazon) that the library and its staff are a good use of public assets.

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