Even after the acres of column inches and the yards of screeching headlines dedicated to the creation of the Scottish parliament building, the Fraser report still manages to add another degree of chill.
For it gives a raw account of the dishonesty, infighting and incompetence that were at the heart of the project. Despite the fact that a good deal of the blame is deposited at the feet of civil servants and politicians, surely the industry at large must now be asking how on earth it became an accomplice in one of the most mismanaged public building projects of all time.
Fraser makes clear, yet again, that the project was fatally flawed from the outset. The problems flowed from the client’s cavalier attitude to costs, its total cluelessness about procurement and the culture clash between the Spanish designer and the rest of the project team. The lack of clarity about what was to be built resulted in 18,000 design-change orders and costs that exceeded the original budget by more than 10 times.
Although Fraser acknowledges that the client ignored advice from the professional team, two of the most respected names in the construction industry do not escape with their reputation entirely intact. Bovis is rapped for its unjustifiable optimism and Davis Langdon failed to work closely enough with the design team – that is, designs were being developed without a cost plan. The architect may have been Spanish, but the call of Peter Rogers and others this week for a radical overhaul of the institutions as a remedy for this silo mentality is on the money (page 15).
Fraser has put forward a 10-point plan for making sure that the debacle is not repeated. Prominent items on this list are greater transparency and a more rigorous assessment of schemes before they get the green light. For example, Fraser wants independent advisers to report directly to ministers, bypassing the “filter” of the civil service. This is a sad indictment of the officials, but it allow firms such as Davis Langdon – which was desperately frustrated that its advice was ignored – to find an ear to blow the whistle into, and inject some much-needed accountability.
With hindsight, such demands may seem like common sense, but the industry is infested by projects where clients’ aspirations outstrip their budgets and experience. The key thing is for clients to balance the desirability of change against the pain of increased cost. The culture at Holyrood was quality first and cost nowhere. There is a lesson here for PFI schemes. The public purse may not carry the financial risk directly, but variations mean dearer leaseback deals.
There is of course a strong sense of here-we-go-again about all of this. But Holyrood must be a watershed for the procurement of public buildings. Davis Langdon is reviewing how it operates, and whether it should design a special hammer for hitting rogue clients with. As for builders, many have already shunned this kind of tender, and from what Fraser says, it’s unlikely that construction managers will ever again be employed on a public scheme of this size. It’s true that iconic buildings make gruesome projects. And it’s true that once the rave reviews are printed and the visitors flock to admire the architecture, the pain of the procurement is forgotten and the ends are assumed to justify the means. For the sake of the public purse and the reputation of the industry, let’s hope the pain lingers a little longer this time.
Denise Chevin, editor