So MSPs are peeved they had to pay £431m for their parliament. But if the contractors delivered what the client said it wanted, why accept less than the true cost?

The Holyrood Inquiry is on the streets.

Uncool customer
Uncool customer

It’s the story of a building that was supposed to be built for £40m and came out, eventually, at £431m. I heard that Lord Fraser’s report was ready from an old-timer running a building dispute practice around the corner from the Edinburgh project. “Does it say much?” said I. “No,” said my informant. “Heard it all before.”

Mind you, it takes damn near 300 pages to tell us that it cost £431m and, blow me down, the customer is actually bound to pay what it cost. Worse still, the customer is a tad peeved that he is bound to pay the cost; peeved because he would have preferred to have struck a deal at the outset that gave him a sporting chance of not having to fork out what it cost. It’s easy. Get a contractor to give you a price, lumber him with hundreds of changes, bank on him getting at odds with his subbies, then blame him for being late; then do a deal on the final account. If the Scottish parliament folk had done that they would not have had to pay what it cost.

Scotland wanted a fine building for its parliament of course. The driving force was the late first minister Donald Dewar. The inquiry reveals: “His heart was in developing a contemporary icon.” He got it. Architect Enric Miralles wasn’t a man to work in straight lines. Instead, says the report, he would have “surges of creative input”. Yes, yes says my old-timer; those brilliant architects are a complete pain in the neck. The roof putter-upper shouts: “What do we do in this bit of the work?” “Hang on a minute,” comes the reply. “We are waiting for the brilliant architect to have a surge of creative input.” And, when it comes, the roofing lads have gone home. Three weeks ago. And when it comes to the invoice they ask for the wasted monies. The inquiry heard evidence of a note from QS and cost consultant Davis Langdon & Everest, back in 1999: “Nobody tells Enric to think about economy with any seriousness.”

We don't know what the icon will look like, nor how big it will be. But we want to begin as soon as we get a 'Miralles surge'

Miralles won the commission in joint venture with UK architect RMJM. Them in Edinburgh, him in Barcelona. There was, it was said, “an entirely different cultural approach to the delivery of buildings between Spain and the UK. Enric himself had a particular way of designing that was less structured than one might find in a major practice in the UK, and those cultural differences create operational tensions.” Oh, I see. You mean that Miralles is thinking about things “architectural” while UK architects think about extensions of time clauses in JCT contracts.

So, we have £40m to spend. We want a contemporary icon and we have a hole in the ground. We don’t know what the icon will look like, nor what it will be made of, nor how big it will be. But we want to begin as soon as we get a “Miralles surge”. Hands up all you builders willing to give a price? Price for what? Don’t know. To be built when? Soon as poss. Drawings? No. Specification? Dear me no. Standard method of measurement? Ha! Bovis, Sir Robert McAlpine and a few others were asked how to cope. Easy. If you don’t know what you want, we will charge a fee to manage each work package, once you say what you want. Bovis won the construction management fee of 1.25%. There we are then – ordinary stuff and a top outfit such as Bovis earning 1.25% of £40m. Except that later it was £431m. The report regrets not tying Bovis down to a lump sum, since “it would have served as a powerful incentive to Bovis to apply maximum rigour in relation to cost control”. My old-timer explained: it means play hell with the package contractors and the architect so they finish the job earlier and the construction manager can clear off. Miralles would have paid no attention anyway. Artists go their own sweet way.

The construction management idea appears, at first glance, to be criticised by Lord Fraser. But the real criticism is about the customer not being in a position to obtain bids for the required building. The customer was rushing it. It was design and build on the hoof. No problem at all to this UK construction industry. We give the customer what he wants. He got it for the true cost. Well done Bovis; well done, you package contractors. As for Snr Miralles, he was a genius. Look at his building. Priceless.

Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator specialising in construction. You can write to him at 3 Paper Buildings, Temple, London EC4 7EY, or email him on