The Birmingham Council myth machine

By Alan Clawley.

Here’s how the Council operates.  First it decides what it wants to do. Then it fits the facts around its decision. The story of Paradise Circus shows how the system works and what we can expect from its determination to redevelop the Wholesale Markets site.

Paradise CircusIn 1999 the Council decided that Paradise Circus was the best location in the city for top quality office skyscrapers. This was part of a strategy entitled rather pretentiously, ‘The Re-positioning of Birmingham as a Preferred Location for the Head Offices of World-Class Companies’ and another policy on skyscrapers called ‘High Places’. Chief Executive Stephen Hughes recently confirmed its policy on Paradise Circus in a letter to Shabana Mahmood MP dated 17 August 2011.

The problem facing the Council, which was entirely of its own making, was that Paradise Circus had become a complex mish-mash of existing buildings and property interests. At one time it owned the freeholds of the entire site but to make some money it had sold a number of plots to private companies and leased the ground under the Central Library to a property developer. Its own 1974 Central Library and the recently completed Birmingham School of Music occupied large parts of the site.

The Council was well aware that property developers didn’t like this sort of thing so it decided they would have to buy back its property interests and demolish all the buildings on the site if they were to have any chance of attracting a developer.

To get away with demolishing the Central Library the Council began a long campaign of negative propaganda to prepare the public for its destruction. Typical of modern spin, it spoke in easy sound-bites to establish the many myths that fitted the Council’s case.  The unpopularity of ’60s concrete architecture, aided by Prince Charles, gave the Council a head start. The opening salvo was the claim that it was ‘crumbling’ and suffered from concrete cancer, was badly leaking and therefore beyond repair (Councillor Ian Ward, Labour, 2002). The public was easily swayed by such an argument and it stuck in their minds despite it being proved to be entirely false several years later.

When one myth was exposed the Council created two more to take its place. The escalators were said to be ‘too narrow’ there was ‘only one lift’. Natural lighting was poor, the staff could not look out of the windows, the building blocked views of the Town Hall and the Council House, and stopped people walking between Victoria Square and Brindleyplace. When the council ran out of reasons they trotted out the catch-all condemnation that it was ‘unfit for purpose’ or ‘not suitable as a 21st century library’.

Birmingham library escalator

Birmingham library escalator

It was true was there was not enough environmentally-controlled space for the historic archives and the Council even had its own architects to draw up plans to extend the Library to house them. But even though the cost came out lower than the cost of the new library it was rejected. The only possible conclusion for this perverse decision is that it didn’t fit the Council’s case for the redevelopment of Paradise Circus.

In the meantime only one property developer, Argent plc, showed any interest in the site, but so desperate was the Council to get one that they granted Argent exclusive rights to redevelop it. The terms of this deal are not open to public scrutiny on the grounds of commercial confidentiality even though there is no competition.

The Council is never deterred by slow progress nor does it think twice about whether its policy is still viable in the face of changing social, technological and economic conditions. Nor does it make any difference which political party or parties or senior officers control the Council. Thus, the first real step in the process of clearing Paradise Circus of encumbrances will take place in 2013, fourteen years after the Council dreamed up its plan, when it moves its library to Centenary Square leaving the existing one empty and a target for vandalism or early demolition. This part was relatively easy because it was in the Council’s control. Other pieces of the jigsaw are not. There is little news on the relocation the School of Music and the Adrian Boult concert hall and it’s unlikely that the Council has bought back any property that it sold when times were better than they are today. And if Argent has signed up a world-class business to take an office block in Paradise Circus we would have known about it by now.

Campaigners to save the Market will have to contend with all of these tactics in the coming years because, if the Council has learned anything from the Central Library saga, it has learnt the power of myths.