By Alan Clawley. Birmingham City Council’s head of Development, Mark Barrow, tells me that he expects to receive a planning application for Paradise Circus from Argent ‘within 12 months’. His reaction to the intriguing news that Gary Taylor, the man most closely identified with the project, had ‘left’ Argent but would continue to work on the project on his own was to assure me that he did not anticipate that Taylor’s departure would materially affect the development – and had received board level commitment from Argent to that effect. So the exact point of Taylor’s move seems as elusive as ever. Taylor says that he remains personally committed to the project but will have no financial stake in it, at least for the time being.
So Argent remain the Council’s chosen developer and are, according to Barrow, now moving from the two-year Exclusivity Agreement that expired in February 2011, ‘towards a more formal joint venture agreement’ with the Council. There is no point in asking for a copy of this agreement even under Freedom of Information as it is certain to be withheld on grounds of ‘commercial confidentiality’.
The small dribble of information that can be extracted from the Council suggests that between now and mid 2012 the Council planners will be working in private with Argent to prepare a planning application. We know that if the public is excluded from this process there will be little chance of having a meaningful say once an application is submitted to the Planning Committee. The council is supposed to involve the community in all major developments under its Strategic Development Protocol, a copy of which should be on its website, www.birmingham.gov.uk/majordevelopments. The aims of the Protocol that are relevant are:
- To provide greater certainty for all development parties (developers, City Council, including elected members and community) in the form of an agreed and pre-established timetable for handling major projects. The timetable will include the key stages and milestones, from inception to implementation.
- To provide clarity on how the City Council will deal with any land or property interests it has in the project.
- To provide a framework for consultation with the local community, linked to Statements of Community Involvement.
The Council can however avoid applying the Protocol by declaring either that a development is not strategic or that it has not yet reached the stage when it becomes strategic. The council told me in 2010 that the Paradise Circus development – a £500 million city centre scheme that dominates the Big City Plan – was not yet a ‘strategic development’ and was therefore not subject to the Protocol. I found this surprising at the time as the Protocol defines them as:
- Developments of major strategic significance in terms of regeneration, long term job creation and investment value (these should be of City wide importance).
- Developments with wide corporate involvement by the City Council
- Developments eligible for large scale time limited public funding
Despite this I was told, ‘We will be more clear whether the project moves beyond initial feasibility in spring next year  and should the Developer’s board approve further funding then it would likely be June 2011’. Today I am still waiting to hear whether Paradise Circus has become a ‘strategic development’ and thus subject to the terms of the Protocol. If the Council goes on prevaricating over whether Paradise Circus is or is not a ‘strategic development’ it will be hard to avoid the conclusion that they are using it as a pretext to exclude the public from the process. But, involving the people who will live with and use Paradise Circus must make for a better design in the end as it did in the case of BrindleyPlace. That is surely what the Council and Argent want, unless of course, they fear that we won’t much like what they are cooking up between them.