Heritage: Scotland agonises over the site of its home-rule parliament

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Choosing a site for Scotland's first Parliament for 300 years is taking longer than planned. Two feasibility studies announced by Donald Dewar yesterday have put back any decision until probably the New Year. Stephen Goodwin looks at the dilemma confronting the Scottish Secretary.

The lesson of the National Monument on Edinburgh's Calton Hill will not be lost on Donald Dewar as he agonises over the best location for Scotland's home rule Parliament.

Conceived as a memorial to the dead of the Napoleonic wars the monument is also a warning to those who embark on grandiose projects they cannot afford to complete. William Henry Playfair based his design on the Parthenon in Athens. Building began in 1822, but then the money ran out, leaving a more "distressed" reproduction than the great architect intended.

Cost and a desire not to tarnish Scotland's new politics with extravagance seem to have been the factors uppermost in Mr Dewar's mind. "We don't need a building like Kublai Khan's pleasure dome," he said last week. It was said the Secretary of State favoured a site beyond the city limits at Leith docks, next to the new Scottish Office headquarters. It would be the equivalent of transferring the House of Commons to Docklands, but at least on a brown-field site the dangers of a cost-overrun would be lessened.

However, public pressure appears to be pushing Mr Dewar towards Calton Hill, an upthrust of volcanic rock rich in national symbolism at the heart of the capital. Yesterday as he ordered further work on site selection Mr Dewar said his mind remained open.

"Choosing a site for Parliament - and the kind of building it will occupy - is a tremendously important decision for Scotland. We must make the right choice," he said. A decision had been expected next week but the two design feasibility studies and traffic and environmental statements called for by Mr Dewar will mean considerable delay.

Three sites are in the frame: Leith docks, proposed by Forth Ports, owners of the land, with a pounds 30m scheme; a gap site at Haymarket, west of the city centre, with a pounds 26m glass Parliament; and Calton Hill, with a complex spread across the former Royal High School and the old civil service headquarters, St Andrew's House.

For decades it was taken for granted that the 19th-century school on Calton Hill's southern flank would become the seat of devolved government. The vigil for a Scottish Parliament was camped outside the school gates for 1,980 days until the successful referendum vote. And over the past 20 years some pounds 6m of public money has been spent adapting the building and holding it in readiness.

But in July it emerged that Mr Dewar was concerned about the cost of settling on Calton Hill and was looking elsewhere. Though the school's horseshoe debating chamber could accommodate the 129 MSPs, there was not enough room for the public, press and 200 staff.

None the less, Calton Hill remains the choice of the Edinburgh establishment. EDI, a development and investment company owned by the city council, wants to turn the hill and the surrounding area into a government quarter. The company maintains the sprawling site could be developed within the pounds 40m limit set by ministers.

EDI and Forth Ports both made final submissions to Mr Dewar yesterday, shortly before his announcement. City councillors are pressing their case on two fronts; the Scottish people would "expect their parliament to be in a location they can be proud of" and ease of access by public transport. It is reckoned 75 per cent of staff would use bus or train to get to either Calton Hill or Haymarket, but about the same percentage would commute by car if the Parliament goes to Leith.

Apart from Forth Ports, the only people said to favour Leith are Scottish Office civil servants. The Parliament would be next door to their headquarters and form part of a massive "Ocean Terminal" development which cruise liners would berth alongside. Mr Dewar has also bowed to demands from the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats for consultation over the site. "Co-operation served the nation well at the recent referendum," he said.

Forth Ports and the developers behind the Haymarket, Kantel and MacDonald Orr, say their parliaments could be ready by the 1999 deadline. But architects and professionals within the Scottish Office are sceptical. Would-be MSPs can prepare themselves for a peripatetic early life. They could be using the Royal High School, the city council chambers or even Parliament Hall, seat of the legislature dissolved by the Act of Union and now part of the law courts.