The first question that might reasonably be asked about Birmingham City Council’s latest debacle is why on earth the politicians thought in the first place that it was a good use of public money to invest in a giant television screen to relay news, concerts and sports events to passers-by?
And even if that question could be answered in the affirmative, which it cannot since local authorities have plenty of more deserving priorities for budgets which we are always told are being squeezed to destruction, why then choose to place the set in Victoria Square?
The sensitivity of the location, in a conservation area close to the architectural splendour of the Town Hall and the Council House, immediately made the proposal controversial. And it was as a direct result of that controversy, in an attempt to steamroller through a planning application against significant opposition from conservation organisations, that the council cabinet managed to lay the groundwork for its subsequent humiliation.
Corners were cut, noise impact studies that should have been carried out were not properly conducted, and as a result the council found itself up against the owners of the Waterloo House offices who secured an injunction preventing the television screen from being switched on.
After a year’s wrangling between lawyers representing both sides, proper noise limitation is finally to be provided – and the cost to council tax payers has soared to an astonishing £1million.
It is perhaps not surprising, given the embarrassment factor arising from this fiasco, that the council did everything it could to delay answering a Freedom of Information Act request from this newspaper asking for a breakdown of Big Screen project costs. While always keeping within the law, officials used every clause, every loophole, to waste time even suggesting at one stage that it might not be in the public interest to release details of the legal costs.
What they meant was that it wouldn’t be in councillors’ selfish interest to divulge the way money was being swallowed up by what actually amounts to a ludicrous vanity project.
It’s not as if the screen was so popular in its previous incarnation that Birmingham simply had to have something bigger and better. How many people watched the set when it was in Chamberlain Square? Football matches might have drawn a big crowd, but the audience amounted to two men and a dog most of the time.
And the biggest irony of all in a saga that says a lot about the misuse of public money in this country concerns the role played by the council’s partner in this venture, the BBC. Wisely, it did not dip into its own well-lined pockets – preferring instead to let the Birmingham’s hard-pressed council tax payers foot the bill.