For those outside the West Midlands the government’s announcement to give £400 million of the £600 million redevelopment of Birmingham New Street may have come across as a rather nice thing for the government to do. The real story of the gruelling campaign to get this government to make a decision, any decision, has been hidden to all but those who have been following the story.
It is often said the campaign to get New Street redeveloped has been going on for 20 years. But the current campaign kicked of in mid 2004 when the City threw out the incompetent Labour led council.
The Birmingham Post reports that the plans submitted by the Conservative led coalition had a cost-benefit of ‘£4 of economic benefit for every £1 of public money spent’. This apparently is a ratio far in excess of most Government projects, which gives you an idea of the Labour mindset and an insight of how this government manages to misspend £101 billion of your money every year…
Instead of a yes we got years off dithering and indecision. I think that Chris Grayling said it best when he said “New Street is possibly the worst example of the Department for Transport’s pathological inability to make a decision and follow it up.”
Yet I think that the case for redevelopment is not just one about money. When New Street was opened in 1854 it was seen as an architectural marvel with the largest glass and steel roof in the world. This city now deserves to have a transport link that is worthy of its second city status. Unfortunately Brummies have never had much of a sense of theatre and it was left to the current administration to persevere with their vision, not just with New Street but the whole city master plan,
I think that the resulting go-a-head from the government was driven along with the kind of momentum that you can only really get with a Conservative led leadership such as Mike Whitby. When the government quibbled the amount it would cost the City Council went and found more private backers. At every point they eroded the government’s case for dithering.
And this brings me to my central point. There is a vast difference with what a Labour administration and a Conservative one can do for one very fundamental reason. Their frugal world is ruled not by a vision of what could be but by what we can get by with. It is the banal utilitarianism that underpins Labour thinking that means that they will always fall short on the big projects, the big plans. They built the NHS sure, but as a testament to how unsuccessful that money burning leviathan has been it has never been copied by any other country in the world.
Despite over a decade in office the Labour party is still slightly scared of showboating, wary of a bit of grandeur. They might have dropped the red banner at party conferences but behind it all is that ideological barrier to the power of self worth. They underestimate what something as simple as a world class train station can do for the city’s morale. I guess it makes sense when your last big outing was the Millennium Dome.
Birmingham is moving forward under this administration because man is still inspired by a vision, and what is more so is business. When a project aims further than mere necessity, when it becomes a statement of intent for the future the money men start to listen and any risk of loss is transferred partly onto them. For this risk they are rightly handsomely rewarded.
This result is a tribute to the city’s leadership and perseverance and a reminder of what we could achieve if we get rid of the dithering, intellectually spent, nervy leadership that unfortunately still seems to ‘run’ the country.