To absent friends

Alan Clawley ponders on those who were, and weren’t, present at the opening of the Library of Birmingham.

It was no surprise that representatives of Friends of the Central Library were not invited to the opening ceremony of the Library of Birmingham but some notable VIPs were absent, out of sight or had other things to do on the day.

Former Leader Councillor Mike Whitby may have been present but was kept well away from the cameras by Coleman Getty, the public relations company marketing the library. Everyone knows that the new library was his project and it could only have lowered the tone of the event if he were given a platform on which to bask in personal glory.

Instead the opening speech was given to the admirable Malawa Yousafzai who imbued the project with nobility with her speech celebrating its high educational aims.  As Keith Gabriel wrote elsewhere in the Post this was a huge PR coup for Coleman Getty , who were paid a fee of £300,000 to ensure that the opening ceremony would get the maximum media coverage.

Big public buildings such as the new library have traditionally been opened by royalty or top politicians, but the suggestion by a councillor in 2011 that Prince Charles should open the library was greeted with ridicule. I only hope that His Royal Highness will keep his opinion of the new library to himself to give it a fair chance of surviving as a library longer than the one he so publicly reviled.

Madin’s library was opened by Labour’s Harold Wilson in 1974 just before he became Prime Minister for the second time. The local Conservative grandees boycotted the opening ceremony. We can only guess why Wilson’s modern Labour Party counterpart, Ed Milliband was not asked to repeat the precedent. We could have at least expected the country’s top politician, Prime Minister David Cameron, to do the opening. Are modern politicians less well regarded than their predecessors? A more likely explanation is that no prominent politician wants to endorse a hugely expensive public building at a time of austerity.

While he was Birmingham’s regeneration and planning supremo, Clive Dutton, MBE, was the chief cheerleader for the new library the need for which arose primarily from the regeneration of Paradise Circus, a scheme that he vigorously promoted. Dutton boasted in the national press that as he was head of planning there would be no problem getting planning permission for the library despite the fact that the site was too small and the building would break the planners own rules by being twice the height of Baskerville House. It appears that his achievements were not rewarded by an invitation to the opening. He was no doubt too busy in his current job ensuring the survival of the architectural legacy ofthe London Olympics

Perhaps the reluctance of the current Leader Sir Albert Bore, to be associated with the project is most easily understood given that he always wanted the new library to be in Eastside. He must be kicking himself for not having Councillor Whitby’s dogged determination to build his dream at all costs before Whitby scrapped it as ‘unaffordable’ in 2005. When all other funding options for his new library failed Whitby fell back on Gordon Brown’s Prudential Borrowing regime to pay for a building that was more expensive than Bore’s Eastside version.

In apologising for his absence Sir Albert says that he had booked to attend a conference on climate change. That would make sense if he had previously shown much interest in green issues. Sir Albert even believed that demolishing the Central Library was more sustainable than refurbishing it and extending its life with a new use.

Sir Albert could have gained some credit in an opening speech by boasting that the new library was the first step in achieving his long-held ambition to redevelop Paradise Circus. But even that would be unconvincing when after 14 years of planning and the expenditure of half a billion pounds his scheme as yet only exists on paper.

One thought on “To absent friends

  1. In apologising for his absence Sir Albert says that he had booked to attend a conference on climate change. That would make sense if he had previously shown much interest in green issues.

    Maybe he’s seen the (green) light at last?

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