A cost increase that took the Scottish parliament building 10 times over budget has prompted MSPs and the tabloids to launch a vicious attack on the project team. But are the politicians trying to divert attention from their own failings?
Last week the row over the massively overbudget Scottish parliament building got very nasty, far outstripping the public concern whipped up over recent megaprojects such as the Jubilee Line extension. After three years of simmering controversy, the gloves came off when it emerged that the building's cost had jumped another £37m to £375m. After the drip-drip of bad news about cost increases, departures and deaths that have dogged the scheme since its inception in the late 1990s, last week's announcement unleashed a flood of criticism and anger in Scotland. The baying tabloids rounded on the project team, including construction manager Bovis Lend Lease, QS Davis Langdon & Everest and joint architect RMJM.

The three firms were hauled before Scottish MSPs last Tuesday, at which point they agreed to have their fees capped for the rest of the project. But this was just the start of the project team's dressing-down. Individuals from the three firms who had attended the meeting were given special attention by the tabloids: they were collectively dubbed "fat cats" and their meeting with MSPs was reported as being "told to get out of the trough". One in particular, DL&E partner Hugh Fisher, was named "Hoodoo Hugh", and erroneous references made to other DL&E projects that were similarly unsuccessful. It was the equivalent of being put in the stocks.

The Scottish Parliament was also forced to issue nine detailed responses to accusations made about the project, ranging from the quality of flooring to the turnover of staff and the amount of waste. Matters reached a head on Thursday, when first minister Jack McConnell announced a public inquiry, headed by Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, to investigate the project.

For far too long, far too many people have been treated like mushrooms – kept in the dark and fed bullshit

Scottish Conservative Party spokesperson

The level of criticism and the acerbic nature of the personal attacks have left the project team shell-shocked. Gagged by a confidentiality clause in their contracts, they have had to suffer in silence – which no doubt has contributed to the negative sentiment surrounding their role in the fiasco. One source close to the team summed up the present feelings of its members. "To say they are unhappy is a massive understatement. They feel they have been ripped apart by the tabloids." The source added that the team felt like the fall guys in the midst of a massive scapegoating exercise by the politicians. "There are many agendas among the political parties up there. They are trying to make hay out of this situation. The team is in a no-win situation." A Scottish Conservative Party spokesperson underlined just how strong the public anger surrounding the project was. He conceded that many of its difficulties stemmed from decisions made back in 1997-98, when the scope and design of the parliament was first drawn up, but questioned the performance of the team as well. "An inquiry has to get to the root of the political decisions, but without doubt those problems have been compounded by the management of the project since then. It's perfectly fair that questions are asked. For far too long, far too many people have been treated like mushrooms – kept in the dark and fed bullshit."

The spokesperson added there were question marks over the procurement of the scheme. "Nobody involved in the management was interested in cutting time or budget," he said, before comparing the scheme with the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, which was procured through the PFI. "The infirmary was on time and budget; the parliament was based on rolling contracts, and based on a concept rather than detailed designs. The facts speak for themselves."

So just how much was the team to blame? Although some in the industry saw it as a disaster – one leading consultant described it as "appalling" PR for the industry – some were more philosophical, and expressed sympathy for the project team. John Roberts, director at consultant Babtie, repeated the widely held belief that the original price quoted for the job – £40m – was just plain wrong. "A more realistic start-off price was £100m," he said. "And a major complex project like that will usually cost three times the original price."

One construction manager saw the disaster as proof that without a coherent client who understands how CM jobs work, projects get out of control. "It's like the British Library," he said.

"Is it the procurement method or is it the client?
I would say it's the client – instead of a straightforward private sector client like Stanhope, you have a hydra-headed public-sector client who makes life very hard. A project that is hard anyway becomes even messier."

This was backed by Mace chairman Bob White, who stressed that "when all the ducks are in a row" construction management does deliver on time and on cost. He pointed to the distinctive and unique windows for the MSP offices, estimated as costing £16,000, as an example of how costs could have spiralled. "Nobody in the team could have dreamed of being asked to do windows of that type. To lay the blame on the delivery team for time and costs when they came up with those requirements is unfair."

To underline just what difficulties the team has been through, Building can reveal some shocking statistics from the scheme. During the period of October 2002 to May this year the team was faced with no less than 1825 architect's instructions, which led to 4600 instructions to trade contractors – in other words, nearly 5000 variations in six months. This came despite a design freeze apparently instigated in April – in May alone, there were 545 architect's instructions, as well as a 40-page report detailing outstanding design issues. "This is just one example of how much the team has had to plough through," a source explained. "This amount of work inevitably leads to delay and disruption."

Sources close to the team also pointed to how much the project had changed – the floor space has increased from 11,000 m2 at concept stage to 18,000 m2 at the end of the first year, and is now predicted to end up as 33,000 m2. Then there were the extra terror-proofing elements, such as toughened glazing, which added 10% to the costs. Their reading of the project – that the client has much to answer for with respect to the delays and overruns – was backed by some newspaper reports at the weekend. One, in Scotland on Sunday, quoted minutes of a meeting back in March in which project team members, including DL&E partner Hugh Fisher, warned that costs would rise again. This undermined the shocked response from MSPs in charge of the scheme after last week's hike.


July 1997
Scottish secretary Donald Dewar announces search for new parliament site – price estimated at £40m

January 1998
Site selected and architectural competition launched – costs are put at £50m

July 1998
Enric Miralles’ practice EMBT Arquitectes of Barcelona and RMJM win competition

December 1998
Project manager Bill Armstrong resigns, claiming the scheme is over budget and behind programme

January 1999
Bovis Lend Lease beats HBG and Sir Robert McAlpine to construction management contract

September 1999
A notice of proposed development is submitted instead of a planning application

April 2000
MSPs narrowly vote to continue project and fix budget at £195m. Miralles is taken ill

July 2000
Miralles dies as design nears completion

October 2000
Scottish first minister and project instigator Donald Dewar dies of brain haemorrhage

June 2001
Project director Alan Ezzi resigns – cost now estimated at £230m

October 2001
Cladding contractor Flour City collapses, leading to £7m contract being retendered

March 2002
Latest estimate puts price at £266m

October 2002
Price increases a further £34m to £300m, which includes £28m for terror-proofing

April 2003
Leaked Gardiner & Theobald report questions selection of Bovis Lend Lease and Davis Langdon & Everest for project team

June 2003
Consultants agree to fees being capped after budget increases a further £37m

Peter Rogers: The dangers of being too modest

Strategic forum head and construction management guru Peter Rogers has called for clients to be braver when commissioning landmark buildings in the wake of the Scottish parliament debacle.

Rogers, a director at developer Stanhope, says the client should have been more honest in giving a price for a job that was a strong urban statement rather than an economic building. “There is nothing wrong with spending money on a good building,” he says. “The Victorians did it stunningly well and produced a great heritage for the country.

“If you get into a project and say it’s not going to be expensive, you are asking for trouble. You have to be brave and say it’s a grand building and will cost more.”

Rogers adds he would not be surprised if the scheme’s budget went up again. “Unless you do something pretty dramatic to stop costs escalating it will continue to go off the rails. Everyone gets into a defence mode which doesn’t bode well for solving problems.”

The fact that the project is facing intense media scrutiny also hits the team, Rogers adds. “The more the press drag it into the public arena, the more self-protective people become. You are less likely to get to the real issues. You need someone to thump the table and pull everyone together to get it back, but there has to be someone with phenomenal strength to do that.”

A mincing in words

Members will share my anger, not only at the scale of the increase but the manner in which it has emerged: in a period of less than five months since we heard such confident assurances from our key consultants
George Reid, Scottish parliament presiding officer

They [the project team] must feel battered from all sides. It’s pretty dispiriting. Even if the building is a monument to the industry they will be too sick to enjoy it
Bob White, chairman, Mace

To say they are unhappy is a massive understatement. They are reeling at the moment – they have been ripped apart by the Scottish tabloids and are in a no-win situation
Source close to project team

The Holyrood project has become a bizarre game of Play Your Cards Right. Every few months the contractors and consultants gather round shouting ‘higher, higher’ and the media and public all cry ‘lower, lower’
John Swinney, SNP leader

Questions relating to costs and contracts have clearly not been asked by the dopes that were supposed to be controlling this project
Margo MacDonald, independent MSP