Spinning professionals

Alan Clawley is learning to manage the disappointments his dealings with Birmingham City Council engender.

Entrance Paradise Forum-2011

Entrance Paradise Forum-2011

As I expected, no-one has emerged to answer the questions about Sovereign Wealth Funds for Paradise Circus that I asked in my last article. In the meantime, the Council’s own official heritage watchdog has roundly criticised Argent’s proposed designs for Paradise Circus.

I couldn’t help wondering why the Council didn’t show us what it had in mind when it first decided to redevelop Paradise Circus 10 years ago. If we had seen then what we see now perhaps few people would have thought the result worth the effort. But instead of concentrating on the future of Paradise Circus, the Council has been fixated with the Central Library project and still has no clear idea what it wants in Paradise Circus after its land has been cleared of ‘obstacles’.

This is both typical and shocking. The desire to sweep away ‘undesirable’ bits of the built environment before knowing what is to replace them, has a long history in the city. Slum clearance certainly got rid of swathes of bad housing but the huge council estates and tower blocks that replaced them decades later created new problems. And so the cycle is repeated. The City Council has no collective memory and doesn’t learn from past mistakes.

The Inner Ring Road was no sooner completed than planners began to question the wisdom of encircling the city centre with a ‘concrete collar’. Having demolished some parts and downgraded others it is still unclear what the Council wants to do with the land that was released. Highways and public transport managers fiddle about once again with the Moor Street ‘boulevard-transport-interchange’ and shave bits off perfectly good roads all over the city to use up their budgets.

City councillors, it seems, live in hope. They also tend not to look too far ahead. They don’t know if they will be around when a big project is finished, so someone else will bear the political consequences of their decision. The present Leader, Mike Whitby is unlikely to be in office when his pet project, the Library of Birmingham is opened in September 2013. Another leader will be faced with staffing and running ‘Whitby’s Folly’.

Birmingham Central Library - under construction

Birmingham Central Library - under construction

Hypocritical as it may seem, the incoming administration will not hesitate to criticise its predecessor for extravagance and for having to raid other budgets to pay the cost. The pattern can be seen at national level too. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats still blame the previous Labour Government for forcing them to make cuts in public services although they said nothing at the time about the impending crisis.

Professional staff employed by the Council, on the other hand, are supposed to have a more detached long-term view and behave according to a code of conduct, but in recent years it has been hard to see the distinction between the politicians and the professionals. They are all highly adept at spin and use it without compunction to get their own way. When Clive Dutton advised the Cabinet in 2007 (see The Stirrer) that the Central Library had ‘no architectural merit’ he was not offering councillors balanced advice so that they could form their own judgement. He knew at the time that many experts including English Heritage disagreed with him, but giving councillors that information would only have made it more difficult for them to make up their minds in they way that he wanted.

Since then the Council has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds ‘marketing’ a new library that we will have to use whether or not we wanted it in the first place.

The professionals in charge of the Paradise Circus redevelopment have a responsibility that goes beyond profit or politics. If we can’t rely on their professional integrity to guide us through such complex projects the spin doctors and most vociferous politicians will no doubt be the ones to get their own way. That is, until a new generation of spin doctors takes over the reigns.