One of Birmingham’s best kept secrets

Chamberlain Square, Birmingham

Chamberlain Square, Birmingham

By Alan Clawley.

One of Birmingham’s best-kept secrets is what goes on inside the suite of buildings in Paradise Circus occupied by Birmingham City University’s School of Music, otherwise known as the Conservatoire.

If you do look inside you will find sound-proof practice rooms, lecture rooms, offices for teachers, rehearsal rooms, band rooms, green rooms, a foyer bar, a coffee bar, a recital room, and a 520 seat concert hall, the ‘Adrian Boult’. Its such a fine suite of buildings that it is used for conferences and other events. The Green Party held its autumn conference there in 2010 and liked it very much. As you would expect, the acoustics and audio systems are superb and you can hear every word even if you are hard of hearing.

So why would anyone want to knock it all down and then re-build the concert hall just a few metres from the present one whilst decanting the rest of the Conservatoire to a Victorian office block 300 metres away in Newhall Street, the city’s office quarter?

It reminds me of the ill-fated Split-Site Library proposal that was condemned by a former senior city librarian Vivian Griffiths in the Birmingham Post in March 2006. She said, ‘ The decision effectively to downgrade the Central Library to a split-site development is a great disservice to the future of the city and its people, whose views have been totally ignored. The proposal flies in the face of all the evidence presented by all but one consultant. If it really does go ahead, Birmingham will live to regret what will be seen as a hasty and ill-conceived decision.’ Ms Griffiths said she intended to resign her position from the Library of Birmingham Steering Group if she was required to ‘slavishly support a decision taken using such an unsound and dubious process.’

The half-baked idea was eventually dropped but Councillor Mike Whitby, who is not known for giving up when he is beaten, decided to squeeze the entire Library onto the car park in Centenary Square. Friends of the Central Library (and council officers before them) warned that the site was too small and now we can see by the way the new library overwhelms its neighbours that they were right.

This is what happens when the man behind an idea is so determined to have his own way that he will ignore commonsense, good advice, planning policy and even public opinion to get it.

In the case of the Conservatoire, Argent boss Gary Taylor has a burning ambition to sweep away all the buildings in Paradise Circus so that he can create a Brindley Place Mark II. Despite the dire state of the commercial property market and the difficulties of relocating the present occupiers of the site, he remains set on his mission. And he has the city council’s unconditional and uncritical backing for his plan.

City development officer Andrew Round told me recently that ‘there has been substantial progress on what I am sure you can appreciate is a very complex scheme. The Council remains committed to the scheme and a start on site in 2014’. Mr Round went on the say, “I am afraid I can’t agree with your analysis of the property market. Paradise Circus will provide Grade A space adjacent to the existing central office core. It will provide an ideal opportunity for companies within this area to relocate, and to support inward investment. In conclusion, this is no moribund scheme. It is a key priority for the City Council to implement as a key aspect of the Big City Plan.”

In the meantime Councillor Mullaney, who has up to now promoted various options for the Conservatoire, including the former Municipal Bank and the former Registry Office in Broad Street, has told me to address my questions to the Conservatoire and Argent as it is they who must agree a solution between themselves. But a split-site option is hardly going to appeal to the staff and students and other users of the Conservatoire any more than a split-site library appealed to the former librarian. They are both botches that smack of desperation. They are not based on the needs of the organizations but on the need of the developer to press ahead as soon as possible and make the maximum profit from the exercise.

I believe it is the City Council’s job to defend its citizens and its cultural institutions from the predations of commercial developers no matter how public-spirited those developers claim to be. Left to themselves the private sector is bound to put profit first.