A letter to the developer

Alan Clawley writes to Rob Groves, the man responsible for overseeing the Paradise Forum development.

Dear Rob,

For the second time in half a century Birmingham has set out to comprehensively develop Paradise Circus. John Madin’s master plan of 1965 was scuppered by the economic crisis of 1974 and large parts of the site were never built on as intended or even at all. Now the council’s second attempt at developing the site in one fell swoop looks like unravelling.

The easiest bit, re-locating the Central Library, has been done well enough, albeit at enormous cost to the public purse and because the council could control the entire process. But the Conservatoire is a more difficult case to deal with. It can’t move without somewhere to go and their home is still only on the drawing board. The Copthorne Hotel can’t build their new tower until it has gone which, if all goes well, will be 2017. Who knows what the demand for hotel beds will be by then.

Knocking down the Central Library just to make way for a couple of speculative generic office blocks looks over-hasty. Dealing with the concrete substructure won’t be easy and there must be a risk of the site being left as a gaping hole for years until a firm tenant is signed up for the first building. People will have to be herded through the site and protected from the demolition work. The observation that elsewhere in the city centre 1970s office blocks are being converted to luxury apartments and hotels doesn’t give cause for optimism that demand for such offices really exists.

Closing half of the Circus to traffic is puzzling and needlessly upsetting. It will be seen as meddling with a roundabout that works well enough as it is. The only complaints I ever heard were from the long-departed Clive Dutton, who didn’t like the sound of traffic “thundering past the Town Hall”. To make matters worse the new road layout will be temporary until the Conservatoire is demolished and the Metro line comes through to Centenary Square at some unknown date.

All things considered, it doesn’t look like a propitious start to a so-called comprehensive development scheme. Some of the 57 conditions attached to the 2012 planning application have already been changed to match the unforeseen necessity of ‘phasing’ and to allow the developer to comply with them one-by-one. The danger with this approach is that circumstances over which the developer has no control will continue to dictate the pace of new building and may even cause the master plan to be abandoned altogether like Madin’s was. Instead of waiting until all the buildings can be demolished at the same time and the site developed comprehensively it will be done in fits and starts over 11 years during which Paradise Circus will be in a state of continuous upheaval and incompleteness.

If you believe in comprehensive development it makes no sense to demolish the Central Library while other buildings remain standing for three or more years. You should bide your time until everything is ready to go. And in the meantime you could make the site as pleasant as possible by keeping all the buildings occupied and looked after for as long as possible.

Yours Sincerely,
Alan Clawley

14 thoughts on “A letter to the developer

  1. Birmingham hasn’t had a planning department for many years now. They’ve had a “how can we get the biggest corporate bribes?” department instead, and it increasingly shows in maldevelopments badly harming the city. Bham is becoming especially hostile for the many crucial hardworking people who have to travel by bus. The “improvements” caused by the forcing of the metro extension down Corporation St has resulted in people having to walk yet further. And if this “improvement” of the laughably named Paradise goes ahead many will have to walk even further-further to get to and from buses.
    But I reckon the chances of this nonsense ever being finished is zilch. The previous redevelopment had to wait a decade or two before an economic revival enabled it to be tidied up. This time round it will just end up as a permanent mess, a permanent reminder of the folly of the fools who fancy themselves as the current leaders of this oppressed metropolis. And hopefully the bankruptcy of those who worship argent to the exclusion of too much else.

  2. A letter locked in the present about chaos in our city centre brings to mind an ancient time – in Brum chronology – when our suburbs were spreading into the surrounding countryside of Staffordshire and Warwickshire: “While it was going on, the process gratified landowners, developers, builders and the occupants of the new suburbs, or at least continued to lure them with the prospects of profits, status, and happiness, but pleased practically no-one else. Contemporary social and architectural critics were fascinated and appalled by the mindless, creeping nature of the sprawl … The ceaseless activity of the builders, the alarming rapidity with which they turned pleasant fields into muddy, rutted building sites, the confusion of hundreds of building operations going on simultaneously, without any discernible design, the impression that little schemes were starting up everywhere at once and were never being finished, were in themselves frightening portents of disorder and chaos” F.M.L.Thompson (ed.) (1982) The Rise of Suburbia (Leicester:University Press) on Birmingham in the 1870s.

  3. I am out of my depth on this ….but it always seems there is a grand plan afoot that goes halfway or nowhere. I am thinking of the Digbeth bus station mess that has plagued this town for 30 years or the tram system that makes no real headway after two decades or the Broad Street plan which went haywire and left us with kebab shops and strip joints. I can only hope for the best for my city

    • I am too. In fact being out of depth on what a city should be seems to characterise post-industrial settlements (I hesitate to call them cities any more than today’s towns or villages are recognisably comparable to how they were). The trends and forces that have to be planned for and balanced are so ‘wicked’ in their dynamic that the perfection of balance between town and country, and the urban aesthetic that could be achieved in a stratified population in which the led defer to, or are resigned to, the direction of a close and limited caste, is impossible, for all Kerslake’s prescriptions. A good thing – but with vexing consequences for Birmingham. Only a great society can plan, build and maintain a great city. No-one know what that is any more. The age of faith is replaced by the age of doubt – and infinite second thoughts. Look at the blistering Kerslake Review of Birmingham Council – a prime mover in the development discussed in this letter. The review, which will sink traceless, makes a recognisable analysis of the difficulties, but its proposals are equivalent to ‘steering a car via the view in its rear mirror’. More reliance on a concentrated and focused leadership (concentrated where? Focused on what?), less hampered by democratic election; greater trust in the increasingly discredited discipline of market forces, even a Tory Secy of State has just admitted won’t deliver government priorities for the NHS. “We” has become a difficult pronoun, even in the home, let alone as agent for design and planning in a population as hyper-diverse, polyglot, and differentiated as the West Midland’s. If Birmingham were remade to my ideal – free its centre of all motorised road traffic; create a rapid transit system that runs 24/7 with stops never more than 8 minutes walk from anyone’s home, which can get anyone inexpensively from any point in the city to another in 20 minutes max; where the orbits of work, leisure, education and faith, overlap (60% of those who work in Birmingham commute in and out of it every day – another comparison with Venice there) we’d have a city pleasing to me but to hardly 20% of its present citizens. That’s not good enough. Prolonged master-plans characterised by vacillation and compromise are a price paid for our own confusions. Lest this be a confession of despair, I love this adopted city in my heart. Its cockles warm as my delayed train crawls in and out of New Street. its accents bring me pleasure and fascination. It never ceases to vex and frustrate me – like my family. I doubt ‘we’ are as corrupt as some suggest but delay, confusion and puzzlement at the top look very similar to the work of corruption (see it in Naples and Rome). I never cease my involvement and participation in my city’s affairs. I see its night landscape strewn across horizons; I collect its rubbish and take it to the dump. I’ve helped make some things happen; failed totally to influence other things. Let’s have yet more delay demolishing Madin’s brutal library. I detested it once.

      • >I detested it once.
        And I very much constantly miss having a quiet calm non-glaring place to read and study the books and other things. Sad for all the students too.

  4. Master plans are only useful when the master planner (note the gender bias) can control everything. As master planner of the Calthorpe estate in the 1960s Madin was in such a position. But when it came to Paradise Circus his master plan was scuppered by forces beyond his control. The same thing will happen again to Glenn Howells’ master plan.

  5. Argent is regarded as one of the best and most responsible developers in the UK and, secondly, its inevitable that a large development of this size will be phased. I suspect the Council is keen to see the demolition of the library . It’s quite an overhead and will open up the site for new buildings . The key is as to when the first one will start on site. Don’t forget Brindley Place was done in several phases . The key is that they all fit together and are well designed as are the spaces in between

    • >Don’t forget Brindley Place was done in several phases .

      ……but didn’t meanwhile create a huge eyesore/earsore disruption right at the heart of the city between council house/museum/artgallery and library/theatre/icc. The Brindley site was already a dumphole before any work started anyway.

      >The key is that they all fit together and are well designed as are the spaces in between

      ….which the Paradise plan never would be even if it magically were ever to get completed anyway!

  6. The Brindley site is terrific and worth all the effort. Management kept it clean, safe and attractive and it acts as an economic magnet. Remember what was there before…Bingley Hall which was mysteriously burnt to a crisp for still unexplained reasons…out of the ashes, for sure

    • Wasn’t the Bingley Hall where the ICC is now? – in other words across the canal from the Brindley Place site, and therefore not the same place!

  7. Maybe the fact that this article has engendered a series of comments is proof enough this is a serious issue. It shows many care what happens to the city centre and, importantly, what the perception of Birmingham is to those who do not know it.
    All I know is that this is my city, my home, and whether i agree or do not with the comments above, I am happy that at least things, such as our future, are being debated. What happens to the old library is a bit of a side show. How we debate the future is what counts

  8. In my 30-odd years in Birmingham, whatever the planners have been up to has been the cause of endless disruption to city-centre life and activity, resulting in a skyline that looks as though giants are playing chess with very large buildings.

    And I do wonder what kind of demand-analysis has been carried out to support the decision to wreck the city centre for years in order to get a 1 km tramway from the top of New Street to Snow Hill.

    • On Tony’s query about the Metro through the city centre….Birmingham was first a walking, horse-borne and waterways city, then – too briefly – a rapid transit city reliant on trams, trains and buses, before its centre was comprehensively hollowed out as the country’s most auto-dependent settlement. Gradually motorised traffic is being tamed, becoming one element rather than the dominant one, in an urban transport system relying on a widest range of means to get around, including canal towpaths (part of the national SUSTRANS system) and in and out of the area. Birmingham has been unable to implement a congestion charge, like London’s, on motorised traffic to help reduce and pay for the harm pollution, social fragmentation and suburbanisation have imposed on urban life. Now, at last, anxiety in Birmingham about losing car-shoppers and workers to other areas of the West Midlands, is lessened through partnership with most of the other councils in the region. It’s a significant political achievement bringing an integrated approach to transport across the area within sight.

    • >”In my 30-odd years in Birmingham, whatever the planners have been up to has been the cause of endless disruption to city-centre life and activity, resulting in a skyline that looks as though giants are playing chess with very large buildings.”

      So you missed out on the endless fun that was had in the building of the inner and middle ring-roads and those A38 tunnels! (I remember it well even though I didn’t live in B at the time.)

      >”And I do wonder what kind of demand-analysis has been carried out to support the decision to wreck the city centre for years in order to get a 1 km tramway from the top of New Street to Snow Hill.”

      The demand for taxypayer-subsidised corporate contracts is never sufficiently satisfied anyway. The supply has been carefully increased in recent decades by the introduction of (a) cabinet councils, (b) city mayors, both of which reduce the number of people over-fussy about ethics/aesthetics getting in the way. Such is progress and you can see the results all around you.

      PS – Back in the 60s my mommy and me were driving along Edmund St and at Livery St the oneway sign was concealed by a lorry, at which we ended up driving the wrong way through the newly built tunnel under the Paradise Gained. I bet we’re the only people ever to do that let alone survive!

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