Prescott HQ builder faces court action

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JOHN PRESCOTT'S department is considering legal action worth almost pounds 1m against a building firm after its new, ultra-modern headquarters was hit by problems.

Civil servants who moved into Eland House, near London's Victoria Station, just before the general election were forced to move out again within weeks after a burst water pipe caused pounds 800,000 worth of damage. Faults in a heat and power system cost a further pounds 50,000 to fix, along with pounds 5,000 spent on a broken extractor fan in its glass atrium.

A cabinet subcommittee has told MPs the best way of recovering the cost might be legal action against John Mowlem plc, which built the department and fitted it.

A memo to the Environment, Transport and the Regions select committee said repairing the flood damage cost pounds 787,000.

Eland House cost more than pounds 46m to build and fit, with contracts signed under John Gummer, the former Environment Secretary, for 2,000 civil servants from his department. However, Mr Prescott was reported to have been frustrated by conditions after his new, enlarged Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions made its home there.

There were complaints that the windows quickly became grimy because cleaners were banned from using their cradles on the building by the Health and Safety Executive. The heating and power system was erratic, and automatic controls on lighting switches left staff without any say about when they wanted light or heat. Officials and ministers working late at night said they sometimes had to run around to alert sensors to their presence so the lights would stay on. The biggest problem came when a water pipe burst, causing the computers to crash.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Transport, Environment and the Regions said it was still considering whether to sue John Mowlem plc.

"There are claims and liabilities outstanding, and we are seeking legal advice. We want to be sure because we may want to take it to court or go down a different road," she said.

A spokesman for Mowlem said he believed the project had broadly been a success. The company would respond when the department made a formal claim, he said.

"There was some comment about the building when it was first opened, and it annoyed me intensely because I think it is a very fine building," he said.