Birmingham civic library gets planning permission, but the critics won't go away
Nine years after the idea was first seriously discussed, Birmingham is finally approaching the finishing line in its quest for a new civic library.
Members of the city council planning committee have given the go-ahead for a "futuristic" glass-fronted structure in Centenary Square which has been designed by award-winning Dutch architects Mecanoo and will be built at a cost of ÃÂ£193 million and open in 2013.
Unusually for projects of this size, the new library will be paid for entirely by Birmingham City Council through a combination of borrowing and cash from land sales, when the economy eventually recovers. The fact that the local authority is to find the money and is not reliant on government or private sector funding is a source of great pride to Tory council leader Mike Whitby.
But not everyone is as enthusiastic as Coun Whitby about either the design or the location for the library.
The planning committee was split when considering the scheme, with seven members voting in favour, one against and three abstaining.
The controversial modern design, the centrepiece of which is a metal cage of circular hoops covering part of the 10-storey library exterior, was likened to the springs in a ripped mattress by one councillor, while another described Mecanoo's efforts as a monstrosity.
Funnily enough, all of the Conservative members of the committee voted in favour even though they sit on a quasi-judicial body where decisions are not taken in advance. We must clearly conclude, therefore, that they were all individually persuaded on the day by council planning officers who were wildly enthusiastic in their support for the design.
Labour councillors, meanwhile, were not at all happy with what was being proposed, while the Liberal Democrats were split.
That was about par for the course as far as the Birmingham library saga is concerned.
In 2000 when the then Labour council leader Sir Albert Bore proposed demolishing the Central Library and building a replacement at Eastside, the Conservatives accused him of "aggrandisement" and plotting a vanity project in order to boost his hopes of becoming elected mayor of Birmingham.
The site chosen, next to Millennium Point, was in the wrong place away from the city centre while the architect selected to design a stunning eliptical-shaped library, Lord Rogers, was far too expensive.
When the Conservatives took control of the council in 2004, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, one of the first policy decisions was to ditch the Rogers library. Three years later, Coun Whitby settled on constructing the new library on a car park next to the 1930s-built Baskerville House.
The building would be connected to the Rep theatre, which would also benefit from a makeover.
Bubbling away in the background since 2000, the future of the Central Library was only resolved last week when Culture Minister Margaret Hodge finally decided not to list the 1974 building - effectively giving the council the green light for demolition.
The council now has to prove that the Centenary Square library will be a far superior and more relevant building than the dated Central Library.
This is a task that Coun Whitby does not feel will be very difficult, but his confidence is not shared by the dogged Alan Clawley, who heads the pressure group Friends of the Central Library.
Mr Crawley spoke at the planning committee meeting, claiming that Mecanoo's design was poor because the firm had been required to squeeze the library into too small a space. Forcing a quart into a pint pot was how he put it.
He contends that the new library will actually have less floor space than the Central Library. This is denied by the council, although the true answer to Mr Clawley's claim lies in how you assess the space both library and Rep theatre will share.
His central point, however, is that even though the library now has planning permission the council has been unable, or perhaps unwilling, to produce floor plans showing how bookshelves and computer workstations will be accommodated.
Mr Clawley's fear is that Birmingham will lose a perfectly good library in Paradise Forum and end up with a hybrid cross between a cultural centre and theatre with a few books thrown in for good measure.
We shall all be able to take a view on that when the doors open in four years time. No one, though, should expect the library row to quietly fade away.