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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 September, 2004, 15:22 GMT 16:22 UK
Fraser 'had no other conclusion'
Brian Taylor
By Brian Taylor
BBC Scotland political editor

Lord Fraser
Lord Fraser spent his summer examining Holyrood
They tell me, Lord Fraser opened, that the summer weather has been poor. For my part, he added, I have seen none of it.

We nodded sympathetically. The labour. The struggle.

In truth, Lord Fraser has had to endure a series of exasperations during the conduct of his inquiry into the rising costs and delays which have beset the Holyrood project.

I well recall the protracted discussion about Queensberry House and its roof. QH is the ancient baronial pile where the Treaty of Union was hatched.

It has been poshed up - or, more accurately, returned to its former glory - and now forms part of the Parliamentary complex.

This involved stupendous cost, the highest price per square metre of any bit of the site, partly because experts insisted on authentic restoration then could not agree upon authenticity.

One of the disputes centred upon the roof. Should it be pantiles or slates? The argument raged fiercely. Factions were formed. The pantilers wished doom and destruction upon the advocates of slating. The slaters responded in kind.

Lord Fraser was inducted into the mysteries of 17th century Scottish roofing. At length. At extreme length. Finally, he cracked. "Have you come", he warned one witness, "to talk to me about pantiles?" A nod of assent. Lord Fraser pleaded for relief.

Deeply complex

Donald Dewar was similarly besieged by heritage experts. At one private meeting, he wailed that Historic Scotland were causing a nuisance over Queensberry House.

"But Donald", said his colleague, "you ARE Historic Scotland". D. Dewar glumly assented, muttering that it made little practical difference.

I pass on these vignettes - irrelevant in themselves - only to stress that Holyrood was a deeply complex project and that, consequently, the Fraser Inquiry faced a deeply complex task.

Many people will have experienced a sense of frustration at the conclusion that there was no "single villain". It would have been so much neater if Lord Fraser had felt able to finger someone and then order a public humiliation.

Donald Dewar & Enric Miralles
Donald Dewar and Enric Miralles died before Holyrood was finished

I understand that sense of frustration. It is borne of a sense of detachment from public life, a demand that "something must be done". Seldom specified; just "something".

But I honestly feel, having attended to the evidence across 43 days of public hearings, that he could come to no other conclusion.

He DOES blame. But he shares it out. Yet each recipient of blame has a justification ready. Not a complete defence, perhaps, but certainly a plea in mitigation.

Lord Fraser criticises Donald Dewar for driving the project at top speed in the early days, while he was secretary of state in the old, pre-devolution Scottish Office. He suggests that perhaps it would have been better if MSPs had been left to choose their own home.

Mr Dewar's friends say he wanted to "endow" Scotland with a modern building to house her new-model parliament. He feared that MSPs - politically divided and confronted with competing demands - would never have got round to making their minds up.

Public purse

He criticises civil servants for keeping information to themselves. For example, he criticises Bill Armstrong, who quit as project manager, for failing to spell out the full impact of construction management which loads risk onto the client.

Mr Armstrong points out, with some justification, that the choice of construction management was driven by the political mandate for speed. Once the timetable was set, you had to go for construction management which allows construction to start before the full design is completed.

Ditto other public servants who would argue that they were doing their master's bidding. One civil service witness told the inquiry that they were ready to "jump through fiery hoops" for Mr Dewar.

The snag is that the public purse became rather singed in the process. Internal critics say the civil servants concluded, essentially, that they should not trouble ministers with inconvenient facts - for example, the assessment by cost consultants that the building's price was 27m higher than the official estimate just before the handover of the project to MSPs.

The executive insists such a culture of secrecy has already vanished. That has been greeted with a certain scepticism.

Holyrood report
Lord Fraser's report was contained in about 300 pages

One senior insider told me that assertion sat rather uneasily with the apparent reluctance of executive civil servants to own up to mistakes at the inquiry although that may have been understandable, self-protecting caution.

In any event, Jack McConnell has now seized the opportunity to drive further reform: more recruitment from the private sector, more specialist skills, more flexibility in working. That agenda is enthusiastically backed by the permanent secretary John Elvidge.

Then what of the architects? Lord Fraser says it may appear tempting to dump the lot on the doorstep of the late Enric Miralles, to lampoon him as a "wayward Catalan genius".

Certainly, there appear to have been delays in producing full designs. The design for the foyer roof, for example, when it finally appeared, caught others by surprise with its complexity.

But then that's what you get with wayward genius. The project team at the Vatican, struggling with Michelangelo, were probably heard to mutter: "Look, Michel, lovely ceiling and all that - but any chance of seeing it finished one of these decades?"

Hideously mismanaged

The Barcelona and Edinburgh wings of the architectural team insisted they worked well together. Everyone else said there was tension. Lord Fraser found for everyone else.

And more. Should Paul Grice, parliament's chief executive, been more frank with MSPs about the mounting problems? Yes. Should he have been more "engaged". Yes. Did he have a thousand other things to do? Yes, again.

Should the MSPs themselves have asked more awkward questions, more frequently - and at an earlier stage? Well, yes. But, before you condemn too readily, ask yourself: "What would I have done in their shoes? Would I have known what to do?"

Please, please do not get me wrong. Here is my own testament. I believe the building itself is splendid, particularly internally. That is my subjective judgement. Yours may be different. Neither of us is right, neither wrong.

I believe the process of construction, however, was hideously mismanaged, a stain upon devolved politics.

Lord Fraser's task was to scrutinise that stain objectively. It may be an irritation that he has concluded that no one individual is to blame. But, equally objectively, I believe he could say no more.

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