How many libraries will Birmingham have?

Josh Allen

The Library of Birmingham was overlooked for the Stirling Prize last month in favour of the remodelled Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. But missing out on architectural prizes may be the least of the library’s problems. The Council optimistically budgeted for more than £1 million a year of charitable donations; the shortfall this year could be as much as £713,000. Cuts of £500,000 to the library's services are pencilled in for next year (running costs are around £10 million), with more to follow if the rest of the deficit can't be made up from charity.

According to the former Tory council leader Baron Whitby of Harborne (who as plain Mike Whitby in 2006 set up the charitable trust that built the library), donors would have shelled out if the current Labour administration hadn't scared them off: ‘There is a large well of private social philanthropy and other countries are able to capture that. The cities that will thrive will be those who can also tap into that... It is very sad if philanthropy is being curtailed by a prescriptive relationship with the city council.’

Members of the council's Labour group, including the partner of the council leader Albert Bore, have been seen at trade union rallies protesting against the £12 million a year that the council has to pay to service the loans it took out to build the library. The construction officially cost £187 million, but the council will pay back nearly £500 million before the debt is cleared in forty years’ time.

Birmingham City Council has to make cuts across the board of £200 million next year. But the money to pay the library's debts and spiralling costs will have to come from somewhere – perhaps from the remains of the city's community libraries budget. Cut to the bone, Birmingham's network of 39 community libraries remains intact. But for how much longer? Last year the capital budget for the entire library system, the Library of Birmingham aside, was £250,000, a third of the shortfall in the megaproject's private funding. Hall Green and Kingstanding libraries alone need at least £300,000 spending on them to keep them serviceable; the repair backlog across the system amounts to at least £4 million.

Many of the community libraries are now open only a few days a week. There is a danger that they will close altogether, and ‘the Library of Birmingham’ will become not only a name but a statement of fact.