Chance train meeting that unleashed a juggernaut

THE regular shuttle trains between Edinburgh and Glasgow are always full at rush hour, as was the case one evening in late September 1997 when John Clement travelled through to the west.

Clement was a surveyor and a property fixer. His job was to know the commercial property market intimately so he could match clients to suitable accommodation.

That warm and muggy evening, Clement found himself standing, squeezed in next to a couple of men in suits he didn't know. As the train pushed on towards Glasgow, it became clear that one of them, Anthony Andrew, was a senior civil servant in the Scottish Office and he had been tasked with finding a suitable site for the prestige new building to house the Scottish Parliament.

"They were bleating on about all the problems they were having," Clement later told the Holyrood Inquiry (into the spiralling costs of the parliament building project], so he intervened, introducing himself and asking Andrew whether he had considered the old Holyrood brewery site, opposite the Palace of Holyroodhouse as a potential site for the new parliament building.

Clement had the brewers Scottish & Newcastle as a client. He knew the company was privately considering moving its headquarters away from its old brewery site at Holyrood but would only do so if the site could be put to good use.

"In my mind, the site got a tick in every box," Clement said.

Andrew took the suggestion seriously and put Holyrood into the mix with the other potential capital sites already under discussion: Calton Hill, Haymarket and Leith.

HOWEVER, what neither of them knew was that Clement's chance meeting with Andrew had started a process which would end in the most controversial and expensive public building project in Scottish history, an eight-month public inquiry and a saga so damaging it eroded public faith in devolution itself.

In many ways, it was a typically Scottish Establishment tale. Almost everyone in the Central Belt knows the Edinburgh-Glasgow shuttle trains so well they have all probably met someone they know or been introduced to a new acquaintance on those frequent 45-minute journeys. So it seems somehow appropriate that Scotland's most infamous building project should start in such a way.

At this stage, Labour had only been in power at Westminster for a matter of months, Donald Dewar was Scottish secretary, there were no new Scottish parliamentarians whose views he had to consider. Anyway, Dewar believed it was his job to take such an important decision on the site for the new parliament, and, as far as he was concerned, there were problems with each of the other potential venues, Calton Hill, Haymarket and Leith.

So, when Dewar was presented with the option of Holyrood, after Clement's chance intervention in September 1997, he leapt at it. Symbolically, it was just what he wanted. It was a brownfield site, so could be developed into something new and unique, it was positioned between the royal palace and not too far the law courts, which appealed to Dewar's sense of place and constitution, and it was at the end of the Royal Mile, right in the heart of historic Edinburgh.

As Clement had observed, it did indeed "tick all the boxes". The then Scottish secretary thought he was simply choosing a site but, as later events would demonstrate, the choice of a venue for the new parliament would prove to be absolutely crucial in the way that the problems and costs spiralled.

Henry McLeish, then a Scottish Office minister, appeared to be the only one in the Dewar entourage to urge caution. He wrote a memo suggesting that as little money as possible be spent renovating the old Royal High School building on Calton Hill, turning it into a temporary site, allowing the new parliamentarians to move in there first and then make a decision on a permanent building at a later date.

This rather prescient advice was ignored by Dewar, who was determined to do all he could to bequeath a parliament to the new MSPs when they were elected.

Secret negotiations with Scottish and Newcastle went well enough for Holyrood to be unveiled as the home of the new parliament in January 1998. Holyrood had not been tested as the other sites had been – there had not been enough time – but, as far as Dewar was concerned, there was no contest: it was a done deal.

AT THIS point, Dewar was still sticking by the cost estimates which had been contained in the devolution white paper the previous summer, that a new-build parliament would cost between 10 million and 40 million.

This was more than slightly misleading, even then. The 10m bottom line had been included on the advice of Wendy Alexander, then a special adviser to Dewar, as the initial public cost if the building was constructed under the Private Finance Initiative (a private-build public-lease system).

Alexander later admitted that the PFI route had been rejected fairly early by Dewar because he did not want there to be any confusion as to who owned the building, the contractor or the Scottish people.

The 40 million figure was also a serious underestimate, but that also was allowed to stand unchanged by officials in all official releases through the back end of 1997 and the early part of 1998, principally because Dewar did not want to scare the electorate with suggestions that the building might cost a substantial amount of public money.

Had Dewar been honest and realistic, he would have put a proper estimate on the building project of at least 100 million. That would have caused a few waves at the time but the country was still strongly behind Dewar and the devolution project at that time, and such an admission would have been manageable. Instead, Dewar and his officials tried to massage the figures to make the whole endeavour seem as cheap and affordable as possible.

THERE was little, though, that anyone outside the Scottish Office could do about it at this stage. The first key decision, to choose Holyrood as the site, had been taken by Dewar. The cost estimates were already being forced downwards to an unrealistic level and there was a clear demand for speed over cost among those tasked with driving forward the project.

Alastair Wyllie, a senior official in the building division of the Scottish Office at the time, told the Holyrood Inquiry: "With the announcement having been made about the Holyrood site, the message was going out fairly clearly that ministers were determined to get started right away.

"They felt they wanted to keep the momentum going. Devolution having been achieved, there was a feeling that they wanted to see that turned into something tangible."

By the time the site had been identified, the competition for a designer had been run and a lead architect appointed, rules had been bent and clear guidelines had been ignored. But Dewar had the site he wanted, Holyrood, he had the architect he wanted, Enric Miralles, and all he wanted now was for the building to be completed as soon as possible, to capitalise on the goodwill of the people towards the devolution settlement. Unfortunately for him and the country, it did not quite work out that way.

&#149 From: Uncharted Territory: The Story of Scottish Devolution by Hamish MacDonell, which is published on 11 May by Politico's 14.99.

The essence of Scotland – from Northumberland

DONALD Dewar had been taken by the idea of having a competition to choose a designer from the moment he was given control of the Scottish Office in May 1997. He wanted the world's best architects to compete to build the new Scottish Parliament, giving him the chance of picking the one who would do the best job.

Experts, however, urged caution. Dr John Gibbons, the Scottish Office's chief architect, even used the perfect Yes Minister warning of telling Dewar he would be taking a "courageous" decision if he had a competition for a designer, rather than a design.

The issue was simple as far as Gibbons was concerned: putting the contract out to tender in the normal way would attract fully formed, designed and costed options. The best and most economically advantageous one could then be chosen.

Gibbons said later: "There are many significant examples of projects which have gone considerably over budget or have been delayed, projects of all sorts, but particularly parliament buildings.

"The most recent example was one that had been completed in the previous year in The Hague where an architectural competition started as a two-to-three year exercise and turned into a 12-year exercise.

"His (Dewar's] reaction to my concerns about controversy was that he was used to controversy and it was not necessarily a bad thing in the context of a re-emerging country. I was given a little bit of a lecture that if that was a reason I was putting forward, 'Don't'."

The designer judging panel met for the first time in March 1998 to assess 70 applications from around the world. Designing the new Scottish Parliament would be a prestigious commission for any firm of architects, and interest was high.

One of the applications came from Enric Miralles, a maverick, eccentric but also brilliant Spanish architect. Bill Armstrong, an expert architectural adviser who was asked to rank the applications, did not think Miralles merited a place on the shortlist. In fact he put him down in 44th place. Armstrong did not believe he had the resources for the job and would not commit enough time to it.

Armstrong found himself overruled by Dewar who was taken by Miralles and raised him up from 44th place to a position on the final shortlist.

Dewar had been enthused by the Miralles when he came to make a presentation to the panel, as Miralles scattered twigs and leaf stems across a board to show how he wanted his design to blend in with the landscape of Holyrood Park, before explaining his concept of upturned boats.

Miralles had seen fishing boats, turned upside down and used as fishermen's huts on Lindisfarne, off the Northumberland coast, some years previously and believed them to be quintessentially Scottish. He wanted the parliament to carry that character and shape throughout, as well as spreading out into the park.