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Last Updated: Friday, 26 December, 2003, 09:34 GMT
A time to move on over Holyrood
Brian Taylor
By Brian Taylor
BBC Scotland political editor

Like it or loathe it, the new Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood should finally be occupied in 2004.

The Holyrood site
Work continues on the Holyrood building
It will be, according to the presiding officer George Reid, the year for "getting in and moving on".

But of course, as the shrewd Mr Reid well knows, there are one or two obstacles in the path of that objective.

Firstly, the building itself has to be finished. After the turmoil surrounding this project, it is a brave soul who would offer a firm forecast.

But there is definitely progress, the MSPs office block, for example, is finished and fitted out.

The hope is that construction work will be completed on site in July, that MSPs can migrate into the building during August, that parliamentary business can begin there after the summer recess in September and that a Royal opening by Her Majesty the Queen can, fingers firmly crossed, be pencilled in for October.

Secondly, though, there is the matter of the Fraser Inquiry into the rising costs of the building.

Lord Fraser, a Tory peer and former minister, has been hearing evidence in the elegant surroundings of the Scottish Land Court in Edinburgh.

He's got several more witnesses to call for examination by John Campbell QC before beginning the task of drafting his report.

That won't be published until next summer, deliberately after the building is finished so that it doesn't distract too much from the main task of completing the project.

But at the turn of the year, perhaps halfway through the evidence sessions, it is possible to discern a series of issues that are troubling his Lordship.

Chance meeting

Firstly, there is the issue of the speed at which decisions were taken.

As a former government minister, Lord Fraser is well aware that public life at the upper levels is high-pressure and pacy.

Umpteen issues crowd in upon the ministerial mind, demanding attention.

Nonetheless, he has repeatedly questioned whether Holyrood - a late entrant into the field as the site for the parliament - was given the same scrutiny as other contenders including Calton Hill, Leith and Haymarket.

We learned that Holyrood emerged as a possibility after a chance meeting on a train - a brief encounter if you like.

Civil servants struggling with the shortlist on offer discovered from a casual chat on the shuttle between Edinburgh and Glasgow that Scottish and Newcastle breweries might be keen to dispose of their site opposite the Royal Palace at the foot of the Royal Mile.

Barbara Doig giving evidence
Ms Doig said officials tried to get the "very best estimate"
The suspicion is that Holyrood was the evident front-runner from that point. Lord Fraser and John Campbell have taken pains to discern the extent of scrutiny afforded to the new entrant.

To be fair, other evidence has suggested that the choice of site played no part in the rising costs.

Secondly, Lord Fraser has drawn attention to the early estimates of cost. It is not fair to say that the cost of Holyrood has risen ten fold.

Yes, there was an early White Paper figure of 40m for the putative cost of a parliament. And, yes, Holyrood is now costed at 401.2m.

But these figures are apples and pears. The early figure was a guesstimate - for a "bog standard building" on open land, as one witness put it.

The first serious estimate for the actual Holyrood site was 50m for construction plus VAT and fees, some 83m in total.

However, Lord Fraser is entitled to ask why and how that 40m figure was generated. Whether it was deliberately pitched low at the time of the White Paper in 1997 in order to smooth the subsequent referendum on devolution.

Thirdly, Lord Fraser is keen to determine exactly how - and by whom the design team was chosen. We have heard from members of the design panel who chose Enric Miralles, the Catalan architect, in partnership with the large Edinburgh firm, RMJM.

Lord Fraser has to ask himself whether procedures were correct, whether there was early foot-dragging
Brian Taylor
Of course, we cannot hear from the man who chaired that panel. Donald Dewar, the former Secretary of State and Scotland's first First Minister, tragically died before the project could be completed.

But it would appear that he was keen to leave a legacy, to endow Scotland with a landmark building. Key witnesses have suggested that Mr Dewar believed it would be wrong to leave the decision purely to the new parliament, that the MSPs would simply end up squabbling endlessly over the issue.

We heard too that, while Miralles' artistic merits were widely respected and admired, there were perhaps question marks over whether he would deliver the building on time.

For at least one member of the panel, such concerns were assuaged by the tie-up with RMJM of Edinburgh, a large and experienced firm.

Again, tragically, early death prevents us from hearing from Miralles himself.

Then perhaps the star witness so far - addressing another concern.

Bill Armstrong was the project manager in the early days, and he was not a happy man.

Indeed, I was rash enough to describe him as the Victor Meldrew of the Holyrood saga. Certainly, he declared with pride that he made a pest of himself in an effort to invigorate the design team.

The inquiry room
The inquiry will resume in the New Year
Mr Armstrong was unhappy that correct procedures may not have been followed in the appointment of Bovis as construction managers.

And he was deeply frustrated at what he saw as unwarranted delays in producing a detailed design.

Others have spoken of tensions within the team, that Bill Armstrong did not get on with Miralles and that this led to conflict with Barbara Doig, the Scottish Office project sponsor.

Whatever, Mr Armstrong resigned in disgust in December 1998, frustrated at the lack of progress.

So Lord Fraser has to ask himself whether Mr Armstrong was right, whether procedures were correct, whether there was early foot-dragging.

There are hundreds of twists and turns to this tale and thousands of submitted documents to plough through.

But perhaps finally another issue which concerns Lord Fraser.

Hold down costs

As the cost consultants Davis Langdon & Everest indicated that the price was rising, why was that not reported Mr Dewar?

The answer from civil servants is that the budget remained at 50m, until it was increased to 62m in June 1999, just after the election to the new parliament.

DLE could say what they liked about indicative cost pressures. It was up to the Scottish Office (and latterly the parliament) to determine whether those pressures would influence them, or whether they would demand savings.

But, wondered Lord Fraser, did that not leave Mr Dewar, perhaps inadvertently misleading parliament? He said the construction cost had risen to 62m. DLE were indicating 89m.

No, say the civil servants. The DLE figure included risk assessments which - in the event - did not arise. It was right to maintain the pressure upon the design team to hold down costs to the budget figure.

That was a "no brainer", as Robert Gordon, the former head of the Scottish Office constitution group put it.

Well, Lord Fraser now faces a serious "brainer". He has to sort through mounds of paper, weigh the evidence, analyse the issues, and produce a report.

Oh, and also exorcise the banshee of the Holyrood project whose wailing has poisoned the entire atmosphere surrounding Scottish politics.

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