British Library nearly scrapped

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The Independent Online
The Government considered scrapping the new British Library project at St Pancras in central London in 1994 long after the shell of the building was finished and pounds 450m of public money had been committed.

According to an official report published today, the library - dogged by continuous delays and cost over-runs - was close to being abandoned by the Department of the Environment. The National Audit Office, the public spending watchdog, said ministers relented and decided to inject a further pounds 46m of taxpayers' money to the project, taking the total bill to pounds 496m.

In a hard-hitting report, the second by the NAO on the library, the full extent of the debacle is laid bare. MPs will question officials on the spiralling cost and delays - it is not expected to greet its first readers until November 1997, more than 20 years after the St Pancras site was selected.

This is the third slippage to hit the project since July 1991. The first phase, the bulk of the building, comprising entrance hall, reading rooms, piazza, storage and offices, was due to be in use by July 1993. It was not completed until November 1995 and now, notes the NAO, no part of the building will be open until November next year.

Even so, research suggests that one key area, the new science and oriental reading rooms, will be full to capacity as soon as they open. There is even a hint the library may not be as vital as it once was since the NAO points out it is increasingly transmitting material to readers over the Internet.

The Audit Office also the possibility that the cost could rise still further since by the date of its report, the budget was fully committed. This pounds 496m total to date also includes a contingency for the settlement of claims now under way between contractors and the Government.

Almost all the cost increase was caused by problems on the first phase of the project. These related to three main areas: unsound electrical cabling; faulty fire sprinklers and a defective mechanical book shelving system.

Unfortunately, notes the National Audit Office, because of poor quality assurance these weaknesses were not spotted until work was "far advanced and expensive to rectify".

Problems were exacerbated by the Department of the Environment and the library not seeing eye to eye over the project.

PA Consulting, the firm of management consultants hired by the Government to discover what was going wrong "expressed concern that the department and library were behaving as opposing partners rather than as partners," the audit office says.

The watchdog stresses that the main lessons that must be learnt for future projects are: agreeing objectives at the outset, providing financial incentives for the builders and establishing proper quality assurance controls.

News Analysis, page 13