The Government’s decision to pull the plug on a new Birmingham magistrates’ court has cost the taxpayer more than £20 million to date – and could mean the city centre plot will lie empty for years.
The state-of-the-art £81 million building on Moor Street Queensway – which would have replaced the outdated Victoria Law Court – has fallen victim to cuts in Treasury spending and is now on ice until public finances improve.
But the preparatory work to get the project to a construction-ready stage has already cost the Ministry of Justice vast sums, with the department spending £12 million last year to buy the land from Masshouse Developments, according to sources familiar with the deal.
They believe the value of the Government’s investment would now have reduced significantly, with one source saying “take a tiny number and then halve it”.
The department has also forked out several millions on consultants and design teams, according to the sources, with the MoJ hiring renowned architects Denton Corker Marshall to create the plans for the landmark building.
The move also represents a major blow to plans for the regeneration of Eastside, with the building seen as an anchor for the Masshouse development as well as a prestige project for the city as a whole.
A spokesman from Her Majesty’s Court Service (HMCS), the Ministry of Justice agency behind the programme, said the deferral of the project would generate savings of £37 million.
“The Government is determined to improve efficiency in the court service," he said. “Like all public services, HMCS’ plans to build new facilities are dependent on the budget it is allocated.
‘‘We have therefore decided to defer this project until we are sure it is affordable as we want to play our part in contributing savings to reduce the budget deficit.”
Nick Payne, chairman of Masshouse Developments, said he would not want the land next door to the two already-built Masshouse blocks to lie vacant for years, adding the firm would press for the MoJ to find alternative uses.
“If it’s not going to go ahead we will need to enter discussions with HMCS to understand the timescales and look at what might be built on that site.
“I would not like the site, in an ideal world, to be left vacant particularly because of the grand masterplan at Masshouse. We want to keep that building programme going.
“If push comes to shove we would have to look at what we might do collectively to that particular site. It may be in the short term that we convert it into a public garden – something that could be used by residents.”
The setback highlights just how much the city’s property development community is dependent on decisions taken in Whitehall.
John Griffiths, a director of GBR, who brokered the land deal between the Ministry of Justice and Masshouse, said it would be another “huge blow for Eastside” if the new law courts did not go ahead. The area has already been thrown into limbo by the announcement earlier this year that the planned High Speed 2 (HS2) rail connection would be located there.
Glenn Howells Architects has been called in to come up with a new masterplan for the Eastside area in the light of the proposed rail connection, which will mean revisiting plans for City Park, the Birmingham City University campus and the Vertical Theme Park.
“I think we all accept that there has got to be cutbacks and naturally those projects that have not physically started will be much easier targets,” said Mr Griffiths.
“However, this news just adds uncertainty for the whole Eastside project.
“In the beginning in Eastside we had a vision that was laudable and coherent – a vision that was going to bring employment to the city and create a meaningful expansion of the city core.
“But regeneration needs buildings as it is buildings that make a place.”
But Birmingham City Council cabinet member for regeneration Coun Tim Huxtable said he was confident the new courts would go ahead at a later date.
He added that the council was working behind the scenes in London to try to ensure the project is not kicked into the long grass.
“We are lobbying the Government on many things as we believe the Government has enormous potential for economic regeneration.
“We would like eventually to see the MoJ move to Birmingham with the magistrates’ court near an MoJ site.”