Rattled of Symphony Hall: Birmingham's bid for new greatness included balletic endeavour, Olympic attempts, and brave new temples of culture. Then the city council changed its tune. Nick Cohen reports

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When Simon Rattle raised his baton on 15 April 1991 to lead the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra into the first chords of Stravinsky's Firebird, the idea that a funding crisis could bring the most acclaimed conductor in the country close to resigning would have seemed preposterous.

At the opening night of the Birmingham Symphony Hall the evidence of the city's bold, almost reckless commitment to economic regeneration through the spending of millions on culture, tourism and service industries could not have been more obvious to the 2,200 guests.

The symphony hall, everyone agreed, was one of the finest in the world. Russell Johnson, its American designer, had been given free rein and created a shape based on the great traditional shoe-box halls of Vienna and Boston. Labour-controlled Birmingham City Council had, with the support of local Conservatives, uncomplainingly paid the bulk of the pounds 30m cost. An acoustic canopy and moveable sound-absorbing panels were installed to allow the hall to be tweaked like the controls on a CD system to provide the best environment for different styles of music. No expense had been spared. Even the rumble of passing trains had been shut out by the ingenious expedient of standing the building on huge rubber bearings.

Next door, in Centenary Square, a pounds 150m convention centre, which was confidently expected to attract business tourists from around the world, was all but complete. Behind the centre a new 13,000-seat indoor athletics stadium which, city planners assured the voters, would help make Birmingham the sporting capital of Britain, was ready to receive athletes.

The CBSO was not the only attraction for the high-minded. The council had gone out into the arts market-place and helped persuade the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet and the D'Oyly Carte Opera take up residence in Birmingham.

The policy of growth through prestige developments was outlined in a council development plan published shortly after the hall opened. 'To a large degree the prosperity of the whole city will depend on the city centre,' it said. 'Entertainment, culture, leisure and recreation have an increasingly valuable role. Indeed, (they) represent the very essence of a large metropolitan international centre.'

In the Seventies, the essence of Birmingham was making things people wanted to buy. But the recession of the early Eighties wiped out 110,000 jobs in a city of 1 million people.

In desperation at first, then with an increasingly evangelical conviction, Birmingham's councillors turned to American models of urban regeneration pioneered in the rust-belt cities of Baltimore and Detroit. Civic boosterism is the jargon label; the belief that eye-catching developments in the city centre could replace the lost manufacturing jobs by attracting high-spending tourists, conventioning businessmen and sports fans.

There were early warning signs that the policy was not working. Two Olympic bids failed in the Eighties and a Super Prix car race collapsed. But it seemed almost bad taste at the time to mention these setbacks as the right-wing Labour council and their allies in business and the council bureaucracy exuberantly proclaimed that Birmingham 'was ready to compete with Barcelona and Lyon'.

At the centre of what the council called 'Birmingham's breathtaking civic renaissance' was Simon Rattle, who had, like Barbirolli before him, chosen to reject the temptations of London, Vienna and Berlin and stay instead in a provincial city and build a great orchestra. Ten years ago Birmingham's Labour councillors used to grumble about having to waste ratepayers' money on 'Simon Rattle and his bloody band'. By the time they approved the building of the concert hall, he was a local hero. His demanding, inspirational programmes earned the praise of metropolitan critics who frequently pointed out that they were far better than anything on offer in the capital. There is nothing, nothing that Birmingham likes better than beating London.

If Rattle was the symbol of Birmingham's boosterism in the Eighties, his position now reflects the profound shift in the city away from prestige projects to a kind of left-wing, back-to-basics policy.

The CBSO is technically bust. A small deficit last year has doubled because the Arts Council froze the orchestra's grant. Compared to the money lavished on the concert hall, indoor arena and convention centre, the figures involved are tiny. The orchestra faces a pounds 241,055 deficit. The council will help. It has promised an extra pounds 125,000 and senior councillors say in private that they will not, of course, allow the orchestra to close.

But under a new leader, Theresa Stewart, a 63-year-old grandmother and veteran left-winger, there is no question of the city council throwing money at the orchestra. In an internal coup late last year, she beat the right-wing candidates for the Labour leadership on a policy of stopping the search for prestige.

Ever since, there has been a changed atmosphere in the city. Education, housing, social services were the priority, not tourists, theatregoers and conventions. 'For 10 years I was told the council was developing municipal socialism,' she said after winning office. 'It's been more like municipal stupidity.'

Ed Smith, the orchestra's general manager, recognises the shift in emphasis. 'Not a day goes by without money worries,' he said. Rattle threatened to resign. He has now agreed to stay until 1997, but warned he has no intention of presiding over a decline in standards. For the first time since he was appointed in 1980, Birmingham has seriously had to contemplate the prospect of Rattle leaving.

Other attractions are also in trouble. Birmingham's Alexandra Theatre closed in January when the City Council refused to give it the pounds 850,000 it needed to cover losses from a spectacularly bad musical. It will reopen soon under new management, but the temporary loss of the D'Oyly Carte's touring base has hardly filled the city's arts community with confidence.

Meanwhile, the convention centre is suffering a pounds 6m operating loss and hopes of turning Birmingham into a sporting capital have evaporated - Councillor Stewart has said she would 'not spend pounds 10 on another Olympic bid'.

Stand outside the gleaming concert hall and strike out in any direction and in 15 minutes you will hit Birmingham's inner city - a ring of misery running clockwise from Handsworth through New Town, Aston, Small Heath and Sparkbrook to Ladywood.

The statistics give a prosaic idea of the poverty. In the nine inner-Birmingham wards, 31 per cent of adults are out of work. Almost four out of 10 of the city's population receives state benefits. In the New Town district, to take just one example, the number of single-parent families is three times the national average and two out of three residents do not have a single O-level or GCSE.

If the symphony hall, convention centre and the rest were really to be the source of regeneration, then these are the people who should have benefited from the trickle-down effect. They have not.

Most of the jobs created were menial, part-time and low paid. The council recognised the problem and devised a training programme to prepare the unemployed for full-time work in the convention centre. The result was pitiable. Just 19 inner-city residents got jobs.

More significantly, money was diverted from the core services the poor depend on to fund the building boom. An analysis by the University of Central England (formerly Birmingham Polytechnic) estimated that pounds 123m was taken from Birmingham City Council's housing budget and that spending on school buildings fell by 60 per cent while the lavish city centre developments were being built. Most notoriously of all, the council took more and more from the budget for education, leaving Birmingham with some of the worst schools in the country. In 1991 Birmingham was spending pounds 46m less than the amount recommended by central government.

Birmingham city centre may look marvellous, but it is a gleaming heart surrounded by a decaying body.

Councillor Stewart cannot knock down the convention centre, much as she may like to, and the symphony hall and indoor arena will remain. But it is clear that from now on the council's priorities will be housing and education. An extra pounds 43m will be pumped into schools this year and the money will have to come from somewhere.

'I've never seen things so bad,' sighed Ed Smith at the CBSO. 'Even if this deficit is paid and we get out of this crisis, we will carry on struggling.'

(Photograph omitted)

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