'Millions wasted' at British Library

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The Independent Online
A TOP-LEVEL inquiry into the British Library, the Government's single largest building project this century, has been ordered amid allegations of mismanagement and possible fraud.

The investigation, the second into the library to be carried out by the National Audit Office (NAO), the public spending watchdog, is expected to look into claims that the pounds 450m building in north London is being deliberately held up by remedial work on tens of thousands of faults, some of them trivial. Officials will examine whether the delay is justified and whether millions of pounds of taxpayers' money has been wasted. The building has already been scaled back to half its original size and the budget of pounds 164m has soared to pounds 450m.

An Independent investigation has discovered evidence that the project is being hampered by over-zealous quality assurance teams. Workers on the site have spoken of minor errors being blown up out of all proportion.

In one case, it is claimed, a ceiling was ordered to be redone after a length of insulation tape was found protruding from a tile. In another, a wall of ceramic tiles was ripped out because one of them was not aligned perfectly.

It is also alleged that a long corridor linking the loading bay and the main library was knocked down after it failed to meet minutely detailed design specifications. The passageway cost between pounds 300,000 and pounds 400,000 to build.

A showdown is looming between contractors and officials from the Department of National Heritage, frustrated at the slow progress. For the first time, they are considering acting against contractors for missed deadlines.

MPs on the Commons National Heritage Select Committee will today hear a call from the British Library Regular Readers group, a pressure body formed to look after the interests of its future users, that the NAO investigation leave no stone unturned in an effort to discover why the building has taken so long.

Brian Lake, the group's secretary, will tell MPs that he believes the project is open to corruption. 'No one person's head is on the block for this. But there is something really rotten at the bottom of it all.' He believes the project is being deliberately spun out by officials and contractors.

A director of one of the main companies involved has said the building could have been completed in four to five years at most instead of the present best prediction of 14 years since work began in 1982.

The Government has become so concerned about the rising cost and the delay that it is considering invoking penalty clauses to obtain compensation from the contractors. A National Heritage spokesman said that while the basic shell of the library has been erected, problems 'affect most parts of the building'.

The first NAO study, in 1990, found that budget targets were being met and work was on schedule for completion of the first phase in 1993. However, that phase is still not finished.

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