Scottish National Gallery extension abandoned after cost soars

A multi-million pound overhaul of Scotland's flagship art gallery has had to be scaled back due to soaring cost over-runs and delays.

Work on the proposed expansion for the Scottish National Gallery was supposed to start in the spring of this year.

An expansion of the Scottish National Gallery into Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh has been scrapped while the project has been put back for at least a year after the scheme was deemed too risky.

The cost of creating the extra space was looking at costing several millions of pounds more than had been budgeted for.

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Bosses have admitted they do not know what the final cost of the project, which is aimed at creating a new home for Scotland’s art treasures, will be.

And the National Galleries of Scotland, which is leading the £16.8 million project, has admitted it may have to seek fresh planning permission for the scheme after being forced to abandon plans for an extension on top of one of the main routes in and out of Waverley Station.

The news is a major blow to the ambitions for the project, “Celebrating Scotland’s Art,” which was unveiled amid much fanfare at the gallery last autumn.

At the time, Sir John Leighton, director-general of the National Galleries, said the project would tackle the “institutional embarrassment” of how the Scottish collection is displayed.

He revealed that less than 20 per cent of its visitors ventured into the “dead end” of the gallery complex, which dates back to 1859, to see masterpieces by leading Scottish artists like Allan Ramsay, Sir Henry Raeburn, Alexander Nasmyth and Phoebe Anna Traquair.

The decision by the trustees of the National Galleries means there will no longer be a tripling of space devoted to the Scotland’s most important historic art treasures.

Although abandoning the proposed five metre extension for part of the gallery complex has been abandoned, new landscaping in the gardens will still go ahead to help encourage more visitors to use the entrance beneath the Mound precinct.

The third delay in the space of 12 months for the project, which was originally due to be unveiled in the summer of 2018, was confirmed today by the National Galleries, which was expected to start work by the spring of this year.

It could now be at least another 12 months before work starts, with the completion date pushed back till 2020 at the earliest.

Sir John said the decision to abandon the gallery extension had been taken after 18 months of work to explore options for protecting three railway tunnels running underneath the gallery.

He said: “The only significant change that we’re introducing is to drop the five metre extension of the gallery into Princes Street Gardens.

“The advice we had from all the engineers and architects we had working on the project was that it could be done.

“But the more we developed the plans and worked with Network Rail we realised that the engineering involved became increasingly complex.

“Quite rightly they were concerned about the three tunnels, which cannot cope with any significant change in load.

“We devised a number of schemes to cope with that, which ended up with a scenario where we were effectively creating a new steal bridge underneath the extension to protect these tunnels.

“The extension was an element of the project which was introduced as a nice-to-have. Taking it out not only reduces the cost but also significantly reduces the level of risk in the project.

“We’re losing the five-metre strip, but we will still be doubling the amount of exhibition space in the gallery. People will still be able to circulate much better around the building - there will no longer be a dead end scenario.

“The relandscaping of the area into Princes Street Gardens also remains in the plans.”

Sir John said he did not expect the cost of the project to top £20 million, but admitted the final bill would not be known until a new tendering process was complete.

He added: “We are working to the £16.8 million figure as a baseline. I think it may end up being a bit more as we will have a longer programme and some re-design costs, but we have cut out quite a lot.”

It is thought that the Scottish Government and Heritage Lottery Fund, which has already pledged £2 million to the project, may be asked to help pay for any increase in the overall budget.

Scottish culture secretary Fiona Hyslop said: “I welcome the steps the National Galleries of Scotland has taken to ensure this ambitious project can be delivered in line with the development’s original aims.

“Celebrating Scotland’s Art will significantly enhance the visitor experience at this already top-rated attraction, encourage even more people to access and enjoy its iconic collections, and raise the international profile of Scottish art.”