Alan Clawley on a case of bipartisan party politics.
The adversarial model that underpins the main institutions of British society makes people blame each other when things go wrong rather than accept collective responsibility for making decisions. Conflict is an essential ingredient of the two-party system, which is still dominant despite the challenge from small parties. The competitive nature of the first-past-the post voting system demands that the political parties are distinct from each other. They can’t be seen to agree too much about what is best for society, or to work together to achieve a common goal.
Yet there are times when one party conspires with its opponents to push a big project through, such as HS2. They know that that their party will not stay in control forever, and there will be times when they are in opposition. So when they are planning a major capital project, they want to make sure that the opposition party will continue to support it when they take over. When things do go wrong with the finished project, however, the parties revert to type and start to play the blame game, especially in the run-up to an election.
The idea of redeveloping Paradise Circus – which required the demolition of the Central Library and the building of a new one – was conceived by Labour’s Albert Bore at the turn of the twentieth century. In 2002 Conservative councillor Douglas Peter Osborn, then in opposition, complained in a letter to the Birmingham Post about the lack of consultation on the new library and the demolition of the existing one (20th June 2002) but his reservations amounted to little more than a token protest of the kind that opposition parties tend to make to show that they are the opposition.
In May 2004 Labour lost control of the Council to a coalition run by the Conservative Mike Whitby and the Liberal Democrat Paul Tilsley. They remained committed to the Paradise project but rejected Bore’s Eastside library on the grounds that it was too expensive and remote from the city centre. Whitby eventually built the Library on a car park in Centenary Square – a site that Bore once rejected.
Bore’s attack on Mike Whitby in the Post (October 2009) was too late to stop the project. He said that the library was in the wrong place, the site was too small, it was not acceptable to the planners to have a structure soaring above Baskerville House and building four floors underground was far too expensive.
Bore was noticeably absent from the opening ceremony, saying that he had to attend a conference on climate change. His criticism could only ever be half-hearted and ineffectual because, like his political opponent, he supported the Paradise Circus redevelopment plans and was desperate to get rid of the Central Library by any means.
When Labour regained control of the council in May 2012 Bore took up the reins of the Paradise Circus project. There was a feeble and unsuccessful attempt to have the Library planning application ‘called in’. Bore had left it too late for that but not too late to reverse the decision to demolish the Central Library. By then the one councillor who supported the Central Library, Martin Mullaney had lost his Cabinet seat.
The Conservatives stayed loyal to Bore’s long-term vision despite the crash in commercial property values that followed the banking collapse of 2008. When in 2015, allegedly at the behest of the coalition government, Bore announced deep cuts in the revenue budget of the Library the Conservatives blamed Labour for failing to raise enough donations to fill the funding gap as they would have done. The much higher running costs were either not known or glossed over by everyone during Whitby’s administration of 2004 to 2012.
Bore’s cuts became an election issue in May 2015 when the Conservative Prime Minister said they were just being used to criticise his government. All the parties must now share the blame for landing us with the white elephant known as the Library of Birmingham.
To help with its huge running costs some rooms have been leased to the Institute of Directors whilst the council’s own Brasshouse Centre may be the next paying tenant to move in. The cafe and gallery lounge is leased to a private catering company whose security staff make library users buy their expensive food or drink before they can work on tables and sit on chairs that were paid for by the city council.
I once predicted in the Birmingham Press that Library boss Brian Gambles would end up being a commercial facilities manager. Lucky for him he isn’t around to see it happen. He left the Council last month.