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Last Updated: Monday, 3 May, 2004, 06:40 GMT 07:40 UK
Tears, turmoil and comic asides
Brian Taylor
By Brian Taylor
BBC Scotland political editor

As the Holyrood Inquiry prepares to resume for two further days of evidence, BBC Scotland's political editor looks back at what Lord Fraser has heard so far.

We have had tears and turmoil. Comic asides and tense drama. We have had moments of great insight - and stretches of enervating tedium.

Welcome to the Fraser Inquiry.

First, a confession. I have become quite simply hooked on following the evidence. As have most of my media colleagues who have attended each day.

Looking from the witness chair in the inquiry room
Two more witnesses will be called before the inquiry
We have become amateur experts on the building trade and the arcane minutiae of government decision making.

I now know more than is humanly decent about the fascinating choice between pantiles and slates for the roof of Queensberry House. I am, by the way, a pantiles man: confusion and grief to those who advocate slates.

And it's back! This week the Fraser Inquiry is back. Only for a couple of days, admittedly.

On Thursday, we will hear from Dr John Gibbons, the Scottish Executive's chief architect. Ill-health caused him to cancel a previous scheduled appearance.

On Friday, we will hear from David Lewis of structural engineers Ove Arup.

Then, towards the end of the month, we will have closing speeches from the inquiry's counsel, John Campbell QC, and perhaps from advocates representing other parties.

Taking shape

Then the tortuous task for Lord Fraser and his team of making sense of the information given to them: the witnesses, the thousands of documents.

Meanwhile, down at the foot of the Royal Mile, a parliament building is taking shape. Stunning, impressive, aesthetic. Costly, controversial, late. You choose.

Lord Fraser, of course, cannot choose.

His remit is precise: to examine and report upon the decisions which led the building to be just so late and just so costly, some 431m.

It is possible - from following the evidence - to discern some likely areas of concern
He has to deal exclusively with the dark side. Which is, I think, something of a problem.

He has to report objectively on choices which are, to a large extent and by definition, subjective.

Should Holyrood have been chosen as the site for the new parliament building?

Well, yes, if you like that choice. No, if you - subjectively - would have preferred Calton Hill.

Incidentally, I do not expect Lord Fraser to endorse Donald Gorrie's assertion that only a Glaswegian (one D Dewar) would have picked Holyrood.

Then, was Enric Miralles the right person to select as the designer? Yes, if you think he was an artistic genius. No, if you do not like his style - or think he did not pay enough attention to cost.

Areas of concern

However, there are plenty of other issues for Lord Fraser to tackle without stating his preference on such subjective matters.

Of course, that lies in his hands too. But it is possible - from following the evidence - to discern some likely areas of concern.

Firstly, the early estimate in the Scottish Office White Paper on devolution that a parliament building - any parliament building - might be constructed for between 10m and 40m.

MSPs' building
The Holyrood project is over budget
That was not a costing for Holyrood, but I would not be surprised to find Lord Fraser arguing that the estimate was ludicrous - and has posed problems since.

Then the choice of Holyrood.

The site itself is a subjective matter, but might Lord Fraser question the relative haste with which Holyrood was assessed - after it emerged as a contender following a brief encounter on a train between a surveyor and civil servants? I think it likely.

What about the choice of Enric Miralles? I think Lord Fraser might have a word or two to write about the absence of any searching examination of cost issues in choosing the Catalan architect.

Remember Hugh Fisher from the cost consultants DLE. Asked if Enric Miralles paid much attention to matters of cost, he replied with a single word: "Scant".

Of the thousands of words delivered to the inquiry, this one contribution might prove influential.

'Seriously damaging'

And what about the choice of Bovis as construction managers? Why were they reinstated to a shortlist when they had earlier been excluded on grounds of cost? Expect Lord Fraser to comment on that.

What about tales of tension between the Barcelona and Edinburgh wings of the design team, between Enric Miralles and RMJM? Those involved - including the architect's widow Benedetta Tagliabuie - play this down.

Everyone else thinks it was serious - and seriously damaging. Expect Lord Fraser to endorse the latter verdict.

It is possible, now, to see a way forward, an escape from the toxic impact of this building project upon the Scottish body politic
Then the changes made by Sir David Steel and MSPs after they took control from the Scottish Office.

Perhaps they were reasonable, given that the MSPs wanted to have their say and that more detail had emerged about the actual working practices and requirements of the parliament.

But they were costly as they delayed construction. Expect comment on that.

Then the management of the system: the changes in personnel, the uncertainty, the "multi-headed client" bemoaned by Brian Stewart of RMJM, the Holyrood Progress Group on a steep learning curve.

Lord Fraser is certain to remark on that element.

And the civil service. Barbara Doig, emotional and defensive. Robert Gordon, intellectual and delphic. Sir Muir Russell. Sir Russell Hillhouse. The members of the client team.

Prime mover

The very fact of the Fraser Inquiry, the scrutiny to which they have been relentlessly subjected, has proven to be tough. The report itself may not prove universally comfortable reading either.

And the man who cannot be there, who cannot answer for himself. Donald Dewar, the architect of devolution - and the prime mover behind Holyrood in the earliest days.

He wanted, apparently, to "endow" Scotland with a signature building. But will it end up scarring his own legacy?

Lord Fraser
Lord Fraser is conducting the inquiry
Yes, perhaps, although I suspect Lord Fraser will focus more upon the problems which emerged as the project developed.

Arguably, Donald Dewar's contribution fell more into the subjective zone - the choice of site, the choice of architect.

But has Fraser all been worthwhile? Will the inquiry succeed in getting at the truth?

For myself, I think it has already worked. It has proved cathartic in tackling in great detail the concerns which have been voiced, imprecisely, by Scotland's people.

It is possible, now, to see a way forward, an escape from the toxic impact of this building project upon the Scottish body politic.

Intermingled problems

Lord Fraser reports. We all have our say. The building is finally finished. The MSPs take occupation. The Queen performs the formal opening ceremony. Then, perhaps, our politicians begin to live up to their new surroundings.

Finally, who will take the blame for Holyrood? I frankly do not believe that Lord Fraser will be able - or will wish - to lay culpability at a single door.

Those of us who have followed every step of the inquiry know that Holyrood is a bewildering blend of intermingled problems.

Perhaps we should heed the opinion voiced by one witness, John Home Robertson MSP - that the Archangel Gabriel could not have sorted out Holyrood.


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