The increasingly painful and unnecessary saga that is the redevelopment of Birmingham’s legendarily awful New Street railway station has another new chapter.
The redoubtable Clive Dutton, chief planning officer at Birmingham City Council, has told Railtrack that current plans for the multi-million pound rejuvenation of this transportation black hole do not come up to scratch.
Mr Dutton, a beacon of foresight and vision when compared to so many of those around him in the corridors of power, has apparently claimed that the plans put forward lack the “wow factor” required of such a significant gateway to the city.
He is right, of course. Casting an eye over the original blueprints you could be forgiven for thinking they were for yet another designed and built by numbers cinema complex, yet another wasted opportunity.
Budget constraints were the principal explanation for an unambitious project that lacked any redeeming qualities – even the fact it was replacing the existing carbuncle was not enough to commend it and there were understandable mutterings of discontent from commuters, architects and anyone bothered enough to take notice. Now Mr Dutton has said such an excuse is not acceptable and he wants to see greater thought given to creating a 21st century train station for a 21st century European city.
Stand up and take a bow, Mr Dutton. It is high time planners at all levels demanded better than second best of developers and architects and rising above the mediocre should be the starting point of any new scheme put forward – that should apply to everything from a loft conversion to a new railway station.
The “wow factor” is desirable, especially at New Street now that it is surrounded by shining examples of Birmingham’s regeneration and progress. From the Mailbox to the Selfridges building, Birmingham’s skyline now boasts some truly iconic landmarks. Surely it is common sense to expect one of the main entrances to this new-look city centre – New Street station – should, at the very least, match its surroundings? Actually, there is a strong argument to demand it rivals and exceeds them.
And yet, there is a proviso. Isn’t there always?
One person’s “wow” is another’s “why?” It is too easy to fall into a trap of thinking that the boldest statements make the best solutions.
For an example of “wow” that hasn’t worked then go to Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris. On a recent trip to the French capital, I was struck by the impressive look of the new terminal buildings but once inside they proved soulless places that were also confusing and confounding in their apparent lack of facilities (you really have to look hard for toilets and places to relax), not to mention the absence of forward planning – three flights arriving within minutes of each other and hundreds of passengers attempting to pass through a single customs point.
Birmingham should look to cities like Newcastle and Cardiff, which have redeveloped their own train stations by building on what they already had. Sympathetic refurbishment of historic buildings have created modern facilities based on glorious, historic structures. Leeds has taken a different, possibly more progressive path and created a striking new station. The important point is that all three are fully functional stations, easy on the eye and easing the stresses of your average commuter.
That is what is required of any new-look New Street. A structure that “wows”, not just in the way it looks but also in the way it eases commuters on their journey.
Birmingham is already seeing the benefit of this type of approach through the work of Urban Splash as it transforms the fortunes of two of the city’s fading landmarks – the Rotunda and Fort Dunlop. When complete, both buildings will possess this fabled wow factor but more importantly they will be useful additions to the city once again.
As an almost daily commuter into New Street, I have waivered of late. Arriving or departing from New Street can be a massive trial and there are times when I think I’d rather take my chances on the city’s grid-locked roads, such is the level of my frustration and despair of this station.
I want “wow” from New Street . But I also want “wow” to mean “worth our while”.