Two items of news from Birmingham tend to suggest that those critics claiming the city’s progress is stalling because of confused civic leadership might just have a point.
Some high-profile figures have rounded on the city council leadership in recent months claiming the giant strides of the last decade and more have been replaced by a prolonged period of muddled thinking, petty politicking and a lack of vision.
In the last two days The Birmingham Post has carried two stories that will add to that debate and increase the pressure on council leader Mike Whitby (http://icbirmingham.icnetwork.co.uk/birminghampost).
The first suggests that there possibly is a lack of coherent decision-making at the top of the council, providing more ammunition for the critics. The city council is to perform yet another u-turn on the long-standing and much-delayed decision to build a new library for the city – how many u-turns is it possible to make before you just start making yourself dizzy by spinning around so much?
Having made the simply ridiculous decision not to proceed with the £180m Lord Rogers designed new library for Eastside – which would have provided the city with a truly iconic public building – Councillor Whitby et al compounded the folly by backing a split-site scheme. Coun Whitby went so far as maintaining the two centre library was the “common sense” option.
Now, according to The Birmingham Post, a single site project is back in favour with a site off Centenary Square earmarked for the new library. Although central and occupying one site, this proposed library would need to be rather shoe-horned into what is quite a cramped location between Baskerville House and The Rep.
It all begs the simple question, why are we going around in circles when the best option – the Lord Rogers scheme – was dismissed so quickly and on such flimsy grounds?
Such a dithering and confused approach leads neatly into the second story. The Birmingham Postalso claims that Coun Whitby is proposing a local authority take-over of Birmingham International Airport.
It follows news that major shareholders in the airport are looking to sell on their 48.25 per cent stake. Coun Whitby reportedly sees this as an ideal opportunity to take back control of the airport and speed up the long-awaited but hugely controversial runway expansion plans.
What immediately struck me when reading this was that, given the council’s and Coun Whitby’s track record in recent years, do we really want a success like BIA ending up in the hands of the local authority?
Coun Whitby is seeking a partnership with other West Midlands authorities, but has hinted that Birmingham might even be prepared to go it alone to secure ownership of such a vitally important asset.
The expansion off BIA would provide a significant boost to the regional economy and cement Birmingham’s elevation onto the world stage.
However, the current political climate ensures that such a massive project – with all the associated environmental implications, both locally and internationally – will remain a contentious issue.
Come election time, not only backing but leading such a controversial project could be a major vote loser.
Environmental issues are likely to be high up the agenda – both at a local and national level – for all future elections so can we guarantee that the political will to continue backing such a contentious scheme will be maintained?
Birmingham International Airport has benefited from strong, decisive leadership and the expansion programme needs more of the same.
Yet, the library debacle suggests these are the very characteristics that have been sadly lacking amongst our civic leadership for some time.