Many years ago, in 1978 to be precise, I found a book in our school library entitled Great Planning Disasters. Written in an accessible and entertaining style by Peter Hall, the then Professor of Geography at Reading University it contains accounts of large scale construction and infrastructure projects that went badly wrong, principally in terms of cost and adherence to timetable. He wrote about schemes as diverse as London’s Orbital Motorway (originally proposed in 1905!), the British Library Extension, Sydney opera House and the Channel Tunnel. Some of these schemes had been abandoned by 1975 although only after significant sunk costs had been incurred. Even when completed they had been subject to mind-boggling delays and cost overruns, of which Hall examines the causes. Last year I fancied rereading it only to find that Birmingham Library Service’s only copy went walkabout from King’s Heath several years ago.
Or is there something more sinister here? The point is that we have seemingly learnt nothing from past experience. If Professor Hall was to revisit his work he could add the new Wembley Stadium. He should also add the Library of Birmingham. This is not just a matter of the retention or not of the Ziggurat or whether an overpriced pile of mattresses dwarfing the splendid Baskerville House is a better option but of the whole project going back to the decision in the 1990s to build a new library at Eastside. If this plan had gonee ahead the Ziggurat would already have been gone eight years. It would have been pulled down only thirty years after being built with, presumably, much of the money borrowed to pay for it still owing. As it was, a piece of land was acquired and a competition held to find a design. The architects invited to enter were given a wide band of acceptable cost and, no surprise here, the best design was at the top end. The Council realised they couldn’t afford it. So the planned Eastside Library was moth balled and the Library of Birmingham kicked into the long grass until former Council Leader Mike Whitby, a man whose ego is in inverse proportion to his intellect,decided he needed a legacy project. So Mecanoo from Holland designed a thing looking like a pile of mattresses with metal rings all round it, which will surely be a maintenance nightmare in years to come. Two questions remain unanswered by the Council. Firstly how is this affordable in the current climate of cuts and a decade of austerity? Secondly what is the sense of freeing up land for development in the middle of a slump?
We might ask a further question; what is wrong with the current central library, a building that is only forty years old? It may look forbidding from the outside but inside is light and airy, with a real feeling of space. It is clearly a building designed for the user and not to make an aesthetic statement to the passer-by. What is wrong with that?
So we are going to get a new Library the Council can’t afford delivered ten years late (if we look at the project as a whole) with significant abortive costs incurred while an interesting and usable and still relatively new building is pulled down to make way for bland corporate architecture, if indeed it is replaced by anything at all in the near future. I can already see the weeds sprouting on the ruins. A planning disaster indeed and one for which, as ever, no-one will be called to account.