Standing on the 25th floor of Birmingham’s Alpha Tower, the city is laid out in front of Birmingham City Council’s director of planning and regeneration Clive Dutton as he explains the council’s Big City Plan.
From the tower, Dutton can oversee the major development projects taking place below him. And there are a lot of them; Birmingham has £17 billion-worth of new-build schemes on its books – equivalent to almost twice the cost of the London 2012 Olympics.
Dutton says his chief aim is to establish Birmingham as one of the ‘most liveable’ cities in the world within the next 10-15 years. This is a goal that will be measured using the Mercer Index, a quality-of-living survey released annually, and in which Birmingham lies 56th. London is the only UK city above it at 38.
‘Our aim is to be in the top 20,’ says Dutton. ‘Everything we do is with that objective in mind.’
According to Nathan Cornish, Midlands director of developer Urban Splash, which is completing the refurbishment of the city-centre Rotunda, Birmingham has been suffering from an ‘inferiority complex’ for far too long, and sees Dutton as its remedy.
‘Liverpool and Manchester would never stand for being called “England’s second city”,’ says Cornish. ‘Clive has done an awful lot to try to shake this identity crisis and has made massive inroads in promoting the assets of good design to the politicians.’
To achieve the transformation of the city, Dutton has turned to urban-planning practice Urban Initiatives to create the masterplan. This will break the inner-ring road, dubbed the ‘concrete collar’, expanding Birmingham’s city centre from 80ha to 800. The Big City Plan, says Dutton, will force central government to pay attention to the city.
‘We’ve never been able to set the true context of the city,’ he says. ‘[The Big City Plan] sets up a dialogue with government that’s never happened before. It shouldn’t be with intermediaries, it should be a dialogue with the highest levels about how we make Birmingham globally relevant. Because if Birmingham isn’t globally relevant then the UK isn’t cooking on gas.’
Central to the redevelopment is the regeneration of Paradise Circus, the city-centre site that houses the soon-to-be-demolished John Madin-designed Central Library, which will be replaced with a £193 million library that a stellar shortlist of seven firms, including OMA and Foster + Partners, is vying for.
The demolition of Madin’s library has sparked a rash of controversy among heritage bodies, and now English Heritage has waded into the debate by putting the 1974 building forward for listing.
However, Dutton claims the listing of a building he describes as ‘ugly, brutal and dysfunctional’ would have no impact on the plans for the new library or for the city-centre redevelopment.
‘I’d be very surprised if the architecture minister [Margaret Hodge] listed the building,’ he says. ‘If, however, there was a decision that defied logic, we would go through a very convoluted process of applying for listed building consent to demolish it.’
Dutton adds, ‘We want the best library in the world and we’re going to have it. We’re not going to wait for anybody.’
To do this, Birmingham Council is underwriting the entire £193 million scheme. The city, Dutton says, won’t go about ‘can-rattling’, hoping for a ‘thoroughbred stallion and ending up with a three-legged mule’.
Birmingham has been ‘artificially constrained’ for 30 years by central government ‘telling us what we can and cannot do’, Dutton says.
‘We’ve had to think in a different way,’ he says. ‘We’re now thinking on a global scale. We want Birmingham to instantly conjure up images like downtown Amsterdam, Brooklyn Heights or Edinburgh New Town do.
‘We have to reflect what our international competitors are doing, and it can’t be done in this ‘car-boot sale’ approach to urban regeneration that we’ve seen in the last generation.’
When asked if the current economic climate could be the worst time for a city to be embarking on regeneration, Dutton is characteristically bullish.
‘I’m not worried at all,’ he says. ‘Birmingham is bearing up well and I have had no indication that major projects are pausing or stopping. All these things are cyclical; times will be harder but in the context of a city, it’s nothing – it’s the blink of an eye.’
The Regenerators #5: Clive Dutton