Library Story: a history of Birmingham Central Library by Alan Clawley
“I read book once,” says Mr Heslop — played by Brian Glover — in Porridge, “green it was.” And I’m fairly sure if the green book Mr Heslop had read was on architecture or morality then it was one more book than any of the people involved in the decision to demolish John Madin’s Birmingham Central Library have ever skimmed.
I’ve just read a book, called Library Story, by long time campaigner for the library Alan Clawley — which is nothing more than heartbreaking as it reveals how influence and patronage rips through the city, how the cosy collusion of the media — it’s a small town, after all — allows scrutiny to be sidelined. And it shows just how decisions are taken, and defended against logic.
What the book isn’t is a book about the building, or really about about the history of its use. It moves very quickly from construction and opening to the campaign to prevent demolition. But that campaign, doggedly and determinedly helmed by the author reveals more about decision making in Birmingham than anything the Kerslake Report has done, and more than a million council consultation events will ever do.
It’s a story about a city’s confidence, aspiration and incompetence. It shows administration after administration casting about for quick fixes to declining industries and lack of identity and money. It shows Labour, Conservative and Liberal alike turning around on themselves, desperately looking for something that will make them look good: going after business tourism, then sports tourism, then looking to cultural competitions to boost the city’s image, and eventually buttering up and holding out the begging bowl across the Middle East to anyone with a few million to invest on bland A1 office space.
The misinformation from officials and councillors — unchallenged by anyone in the fourth estate — that the building was ‘crumbling’, the spin about ‘concrete cancer’, the misdirection about who is to benefit — and who it to pay — for the new library, each was painstakingly fisked by Alan who never stops asking awkward questions and each sidestep from them is clear to see.
When Mike Whitby’s council asked the government for the immunity from listing that all but sealed the building’s fate a cavalcade of Birmingham’s organisations and businesses lined up to support him; and the strong suspicion is that were unduly influenced.
“38 organisations that wrote letters supporting the Council’s application [were from] the commercial property sector, the universities, health, arts, and the voluntary sector, but they were all dependant on the Council in one way or another… Many of the letters followed a standard format contained identical phrases that must have been supplied by the council. ‘has not stood the test of time’ (in 4 letters); ‘no longer fit for purpose’, ‘dull and dated exterior’, ‘poor levels of daylight’ (in 11 letters); ‘lack of transparency’, ‘removal essential to enable a comprehensive connectivity’ (in 8 letters), ‘inherent inflexibility of design’ (10 times)… The following sentence was repeated verbatim in 12 letters: The appearance of the building acts as a barrier to certain groups repelling people that the service wants to attract, including people at risk of social exclusion and some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.”
The campaign itself was carried out mainly in the comment and letters pages of the Birmingham Post, rebutting and questioning the announcements and pronouncements. But each stage involved patient probing and detailed freedom of information requests: nothing was ever discussed openly in public.
The book is a fantastic primer on how democracy — and planning — really works in Birmingham. It can get dull in places, but then that’s local democracy.
If it were a heartwarming British film, the story would end with Jeremy Hunt (played by Jack Davenport, probably) seeing the scales fall from his eyes, and making an announcement to hastily assembled hacks outside the Council House — backed by cheers of comic grotesques in flat caps. It doesn’t, it rather peters out: the book went to print before the bastards cheered and the building fell.
As you reach the end of the story and hit the authoritative notes, the building is still there, although the hope isn’t.