Six years late and way over budget

Sir Albert Bore will be absent from today’s official opening, but as the media and Birmingham’s great and good fawn over the city’s new main library, Steve Beauchampé offers some facts (and opinions) that may not receive much of an airing elsewhere today.


The initial cost of building the Library of Birmingham is £188.6m and has been paid for entirely through Prudential Borrowing. Birmingham City Council originally planned to meet much of this cost by selling land at Paradise Circus. It failed to raise a penny through this method, the result of which is that once interest charges are applied (over a 40-year period), the final cost is expected to reach up to £590m (Paul Dale, The Birmingham Post, December 2009). At some future point, that sum has to be met by the city, perhaps through service cuts, perhaps by increasing Council Tax. In December 2009 then finance chief Councillor Randall Brew told the Birmingham Post that the city might be overstretching itself by racking up such expensive interest payments.

This expenditure comes at a time when Birmingham City Council is in the midst of substantial and increasing cutbacks, not least to leisure centres and its services for the elderly and infirm.

The original proposal to build a new library at Eastside (planned to open in 2007) was costed at £160m and would have provided a much larger facility than the version that has been built. An alternative, to refurbish the then existing central library, was costed at under £40m and it too would have provided more floor space than has ultimately been delivered.

An unknown quantity of books and other documents have been disposed of, both in the lead up to, and during, the move from the old library to the new building. Some of these were duplicate copies, but I understand that others were not and also that there is no inventory of exactly what has been disposed of. These disposals were considered necessary as storage space at the new facility is smaller than was initially envisaged, and there is no room on what is a very hemmed in site to expand (and the planned size of the building was reduced from eleven storeys to ten).

During the last few years a considerable number of experienced, specialist staff have left Library Services employment without being adequately replaced. For the most part, the Library of Birmingham’s often vaguely named departments (e.g. Knowledge, Discovery, Book Browse – along with the Business Department which will include such sections as Brainbox and Soundbox!) will be staffed, not by qualified librarians with a specialist and often long-standing knowledge of particular subjects, but partly by ‘floorwalkers’, liable to be assigned work across a range of departments from one day to the next.

As identified by Graham Young in the Birmingham Mail (August 24th 2013), the Council has wholly failed to integrate the Civic Gardens in Cambridge Street (immediately to the rear of the new library) into the development. A real missed opportunity.

The new Library of Birmingham needs to generate an income of £3m per annum to meet its operational costs. So expect many services that were previously free to now be charged for, and many of those that were already charged for to cost more. Thus, what for decades has been run with a public service ethic will inevitably become more commercially focused. Similarly, although proposals to outsource the running of the library to the private sector are currently on hold, it seems all but inevitable, given the direction of travel as regards the running of public services in Britain, that the day will soon come when the likes of Capita and G4S are tendering to manage the Library of Birmingham and hoping to make a tidy profit from so doing.

Subjective of course, but in this writer’s opinion, externally at least (I have yet to see the inside), the new Library of Birmingham is bereft of the integrity one should expect of key civic building, a decorative box utterly out of place and scale in its location adjacent to Baskerville House and yards from the Hall of Memory. Having been shoehorned into the limited available space it is thus largely hidden from adequate long distance views, when retaining a Paradise Circus location (rebuilt or refurbished) would surely have provided a potentially more imposing and impressive setting. When the library’s design was first unveiled, former Cabinet Member for Leisure, Sport and Culture, Martin Mullaney likened its appearance to “three mattresses with a roll of duct tape stuck on the top”. An unerringly accurate description. One may accept that the new library is more eye-catching when artificially illuminated, but that is perhaps because in the dark you can’t really see the actual building.


Given that Birmingham City Council had deliberately allowed the old central library to run down and fall into disrepair, it is no surprise that the many find the sparkling new edifice impressive in comparison. At an initial £188.6m, and with the council pulling out all of the stops, it should look good on its first day of operation. Yet those now cooing should perhaps wait to discover how successfully or otherwise the building functions as the city’s main library on a day-to-day basis before they pass meaningful judgement.

11 thoughts on “Six years late and way over budget

  1. While I share your concerns, at the preview day I found the staff quite positive in mood and I think there’s a good chance they can use their wits to evolve some satisfactory usages of the various available spaces. My general impression is that the inside is generally more agreeable than the outside would suggest.
    And if there really is an issue of limited space at the new library, and no potential for expansion, then all the more reason to retain the old central library as a potential backup, rather than end up with it left as a half-demolished eyesore in a manic scheme that is abandoned halfway through due to its rather obvious lack of commercial realism.

  2. The new library is a fine facility, inside a rather banal and jazzed-up envelope. I expect it will be popular, and will also confirm outsiders’ beliefs about Brummies’ liking for bling. The site allocated for it was inadequate, but Mecanoo, as good architects, have done their best with it. (As an architect, I know that, in explaining what we have designed, we often tend to misrepresent unavoidable limitations as deliberate intentions. So in this case, the demolition of a large recently-completed part of the Rep, in order to enlarge the library site, is interpreted as a lofty cultural statement about joining together the written and the spoken word).

    Being old, I am aware that all of the proud statements about the building, made at last night’s party in the new library, and no doubt this morning as well, had their exact parallels in the opening of the previous library in 1974, and even more so at the previous library opening in 1882. Yet Birmingham, the city without memory, is now intending to again erase the monument of which the previous generation was so proud, which could continue to be useful with a different purpose. How does that quotation go? “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it”. If only we could have more historical awareness brought to bear upon the making of decisions about the form of the city………..

  3. Actually there was an oversight in the latest design in that they didn’t get the crucial feature of having the metro line passing through all the reading rooms in turn (are there any reading rooms?). I guess within the next 2 decades we can justify a new library on the basis of incorporating that invaluable concept. I would joke that it could replace a couple of far from modern buildings near the statue of Victoria, except that I wouldn’t put it past these jokers to take that idea as a serious business proposition.

  4. Is it fair to blame “the council” as if it were one entity, the same year in, year out? The council who saw this through the planning process was surely a different one to the one currently overseeing it’s future?

    • Is it fair to blame “the council” as if it were one entity, the same year in, year out?

      Yes. Because they are indeed just one entity to a far greater extent than you would ever imagine. The whole of uk “democracy” is pretty much a figleaf for the fact that we are ruled by big money big business big corruption. BCC’s decisions ALWAYS go with the big money and big people. It matters not a whit which flavour of tricksters are in the majority at the time.

  5. Actually one good thing about the new lib is that it not only has no car parking but has been built on the site of what was an important car park. But then there are no councillors or other bigwigs living in the nearby Civic Close and St Marks estates which will have the ‘benefit’ of this situation. If it had been Moseley or Harborne things would have been handled very differently.

  6. The new library is not (yet) fit for purpose, rather it is a joke.
    Not so much reinventing the book as reinventing the wheel with a “modern improved” square shape (to roll more interestingly).

    In any other library over the past zillion years, you take a book or three off the shelf and right there you have a table handy to put it down on and work with. But why bother with the past, we’re all hons graduates now and have advanced to better ideas! You find the bookcases over here and half a mile away the tables over there. People do need more exercise carrying things of course. Meanwhile in the several minutes you took to find and bring back the books someone has given new ownership to your coat and bag and laptop and phone.

    And when you do find the table it is round. Well, people have been using rectangular tables since Aristotle’s granny so it was about time for some new thinking there. The problem is that to use a table you will want to put your notepad etc in front of you, your book to one side, another thing to the other side and so on. The traditional straight-sided table is ideal whereas the round table has a tediously conspicuous lack of real estate within cosy arms’ reach. Have you got a round desk at home or office? Why not get one now before they’re all sold out?

    Actually there are indeed a few tables among the bookcases, but they are all even more tightly-rounded ones and devoted to computers such as to leave almost no room for anything else. As if computers are more fun to use if there are bookshelves irrelevantly arrayed either side of them.

    Hopefully there will be enough cash left over from the £188M (or whatever) to pay for a hundred or so decent tradtional office tables. Even second-hand ones from an auction would be better than the current trash in there.

  7. We all need elephant guns. The way things are going Birmingham and the Black Country will soon be full of white elephants and nothing else. Pink boxes and colleges with wave shaped roofs, now this monstresity made from Meccano!

  8. Actually correcting my above – there are quite a lot of traditional rectangle shaped tables. But still not in the right locations and not any nice semi-secluded locations such as most scholars would prefer to work. It appears that the principles of a prison are preferred: all set up so that there’s nowhere for the visitors to get out of view.

  9. Pingback: Round up | Alan Gibbons' Diary

  10. Pingback: Libraries News Round-up: 7th September 2013 | The Library Campaign

Comments are closed.