Scottish Parliament at 20: £414m, endless recrimination, and finally, an iconic building

Late design changes and a ‘highly risky’ strategy for managing the build saw costs of the new Scottish Parliament at Holyrood spiral out of control, writes Scott Macnab
Building work at Holyrood in 2002. The parliament building was finally opened by The Queen in October 2004Building work at Holyrood in 2002. The parliament building was finally opened by The Queen in October 2004
Building work at Holyrood in 2002. The parliament building was finally opened by The Queen in October 2004

The early years of devolution were dogged by one powderkeg issue – the spiralling costs of the new Holyrood building.

An early estimate of £10-40 million presented to Scots before the referendum of 1997 would forever haunt the project as costs eventually reached ten times that amount.

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It proved a public relations nightmare for the fledgling Parliament and for the first five years after devolution MSPs sat in the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly venue on the Mound. The building was beset by ongoing setbacks which saw a tranche of resignations of key figures involved the saga amid claims of poor management and criticism of MSPs for constant changes to the design.

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The project suffered a huge blow when Spanish architect Enric Miralles died four years before his vision was completed.

It had been widely expected that the Old Royal High School building on Calton Hill would house the new Parliament, but there were reportedly concerns within Labour that it had become too associated within Nationalism. Instead, a new purpose built site at Holyrood was selected with an international design competition for the building launched. Although the brief at the time talked about and early timeframe and value for money, this was later described as “the architectural equivalent of motherhood and apple pie” by the official report into the building by Lord Fraser.

By this stage, the cost had gone up to £50m. It was during this period that the fateful decision was made to use the “construction management” method for the building, in which the client has full control but also carries all the risk. This was identified as a major reason for the rising costs as a result of design changes demanded by MSPs controlling the process while it was happening, as well as the lack of a more stringent approach to the award of design contracts.

When the projected costs rose to £109 million in 1999 it prompted a knife-edge vote in the newly established Parliament which saw MSPs vote by 64 to 61 to continue with the project.

Lord Fraser’s report found that early project manager Bill Armstrong and civil servant Barbara Doig had failed to ensure a proper study was made of the “highly risky” construction management approach. Ms Doig’s lack of experience with major construction projects was also called into question by the official inquiry.

The architectural joint venture between Scots firm RMJM and Miralles’s Barcelona-based EMBT was also called into question, amid concerns that the two practices had “very different cultures and ways of working.” After Miralles’ death in early 2000, his practice was inherited by his widow Benedetta Tagliabue who co-founded it with her late husband. She also inherited the role of chief architect, but had repeated clashes with Scottish partners throughout the construction process. The new building was eventually occupied in 2004 at a final cost of £414 million. The finished building’s mix of the traditional and modern has split opinion throughout the years, but it has won nine high profile architectural awards, including the 2005 ‘Stirling Prize’ awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects. It has also been undoubted hit with the public, attracting almost 5 million visitors since 2004 and establishing itself as one of the top attractions in Scotland.

Scott Macnab