New spin – same old vision

Alan Clawley reports on a familiar tale and a misleading headline.

Only a stranger to Birmingham reading the Post for the very first time could be forgiven for thinking that the front page headline this week “Paradise Circus: New vision for the city centre” heralded something brand new.

But those of us who have been following the saga know that the images were produced for a planning application that was approved in December 2012. We have seen them all before.

Strange as it may seem the article by Graeme Brown, the Post’s Head of Business, has all the signs of having been written in a hurry. It’s riddled with inaccuracies and lazy clichés. It’s one of the worst pieces of journalism I have read. It does nothing for the Post’s declining reputation for objectivity and accuracy and we have to wait a week before any corrections can be published. In the meantime, the developer’s spin is what will remain in the readers’ minds.

It’s not at even clear what is actually going to be done in this £160 million “first phase”. The report refers to “work on the ground” being a matter of months away. We are left to guess exactly how the “old tunnel” under the Central Library is to be “axed”. The Post merely tells us that the latest designs show “major changes to road layouts” and “improved pedestrian routes” centred around “a greener Chamberlain Square”. But all we see in the article are a few highly selective artists impressions of the new buildings and a small plan indicating “Old tunnel closed”, “Chamberlain Square”, “New Central Street”, “Summer Row” and “Hall of Memory”. The only hints of greenery are two small trees peeping out from behind the new office blocks in the front-page picture.  

The Post says that the transformation of Paradise Circus and the old Central Library will see the 17-acre site “recreated as a hub for offices, shops and public space”. But on page 3 it confusingly states that Grant Associates architects have been revealed as the designers of the “17 acres of public space” which will be incorporated in the project. That’s either an embarrassing mistake or a ridiculous exaggeration of the extent of the landscaping features that will be squeezed in between the tall commercial buildings.   

With the start of work on site so close, you might expect all the legal problems to have been sorted out. Yet Rob Groves, director of Argent could only say feebly, “We believe” we have all the land, and later on bleat, “Hopefully today is the milestone we need to show sceptics out there that Paradise Circus is real and will be delivered”.

The article claims that the new images reveal a clear sight line between the Chamberlain Clock Tower and the Hall of Memory in Centenary Square, but the view shown on the front page of the Post is not from the Hall of Memory or Centenary Square at all. The reporter forgets that the studies approved by the Planning Committee show the sightline missing the Clock Tower and ending up at the top of Edmund Street. No developer would widen a pedestrian street for the sake of a view. That would mean sacrificing valuable building land.  

Few of us have the time to study the hundreds of documents that were submitted for planning permission but the Council has a duty to consult the public on strategic developments such as Paradise Circus. It isn’t good enough to leave it to private developers who have their own agendas, especially when the words and images they feed to the newspapers are regurgitated without critical evaluation.

In the case of Paradise Circus, the Council is also the developer’s Joint Venture Partner. This close relationship must limit the Council’s freedom and allow the developer to appear to carry the can in public. When deep cuts in public spending are necessary the Council might prefer that we are lulled into thinking that the developer is footing the entire bill when that is far from the truth.