Britain's books: long overdue

The taxpayer has been pouring money into a hole in the ground at the new British Library, as Chris Blackhurst reports

July 1994 was not a good month for ministers and officials at the Department of Environment. They had a highly embarrassing problem: the new British Library, the prestige project upon which pounds 450m of taxpayers' money had been lavished was still nowhere near being completed after 12 years' building work.

The project had got into such a mess of delays and cost-overruns that they were prepared to consider radical solutions: to abandon it and leave empty the half finished building next to London's St Pancras station. The option was dismissed as "not cost effective" according to a damning National Audit Office report published yesterday. Yet the fact that ministers and senior civil servants were prepared even to countenance such a step is a measure of how badly wrong the building has gone.

Instead, it was agreed that the taxpayer should stump up an extra pounds 7.5m to solve the immediate faults. In November that year the Treasury came up with a new budget of pounds 496m to allow the building to be finished. All being well - something of a rarity in the new library's history - the building which was first planned in the 1970s will open in November next year.

Driving along the Euston Road, past St Pancras, it is difficult to see what the fuss is about. That is because the red-brick building, with its much disliked bright metallic trimmings, that lies on the surface is only part of the structure. Like a giant iceberg, the bulk of the library - and its problems - lie far below the surface in the underground storage areas where most of the books will be kept.

The catalogue of mistakes and misjudgements that have bedevilled the project are impressive even by the standards of other large projects that have over-un like the recent additions to Lord's cricket ground and the Channel tunnel.

Former site workers speak in awestruck terms of the things they have seen and been asked to do. Yards of tiles were brought down because one was out of line - "by the width of a five pence piece", said a site engineer. Hand-made bricks that did not quite meet the exacting quality standards received the same treatment. Miles of electrical cables were ripped out because their outer casings were the wrong colour - even though they would eventually be housed in boxes and not be seen.

A hundred cabling boxes costing pounds 1,000 each were bought, found to be unnecessary and were eventually tucked away under the floorboards. A ceiling was ordered to be remade after a quality checker noticed a piece of insulation tape hanging down.

The pounds 400,000 corridor linking the book loading bay and the library was replaced because the mortar did not exactly match the design specification. About 27,000 slates were ordered for the roof and rejected because the quality control team was not happy with their natural markings. That meant someone had to sort through another 100,000 slates.

The fire sprinklers needed revamping when it was found the pipes had corroded and, if a blaze were to have erupted in the basement where most of the books will be stored, they would not have been powerful enough to put it out. On the four basement floors, the mechanical shelving system, has proved to be a nightmare in itself (see box above).

The reasons for this debacle are harder to fathom. The library is a large and complex project. The people in charge of designing and building it understandably want a structure that will be of the highest quality: this building should make a statement about the quality of British learning and culture. It needs to last. Although its exterior has been widely criticised, its interior is lavish and striking.

Yet this desire to build the very best has fallen foul of sometimes gross mismanagement. For instance, one sub-contractor in his twenties has boasted of having made enough from supplying 250 electricians to be able to retire of the proceeds.

Yet the construction companies and workers who have swarmed over the site are merely exploiting a payment system designed by the government. When building work started, back in 1982, ministers decided the project should follow a "construction management" costing policy. This system was adopted, says the NAO, "because of uncertainties about the funding, scope and timetable of the project." In other words, rather than fixing the price at the outset the Government wanted to agree payments to contractors as it went along, in the hope that this would give it more control and flexibility.

The system has turned into a nightmare. The first problem was that there was little expertise in operating it. As the NAO report says: "There was little experience in the UK building industry and even less in central government of the 'construction management' approach."

Cost increases were agreed as the project went along. Power was delegated by Whitehall to the project director and his superintending officer. As problems arose, they waved them through. This system of "reactive budgeting", notes the NAO, left the department in a difficult position to challenge their decisions.

Fatally, this rarely-followed approach was accompanied by a lack of systematic quality control. These were, says the NAO, "inadequate prior to 1991". Checks on the quality of the work as it progressed were not good enough. As a result, problems only emerged once the job had been completed and the money had been handed over. By then, it was too late.

The recipe for disaster was finished off by the library managers' desire to construct a building of a standard well above the public norm, and an absence of incentives for getting the job done on time. The managers spotted faults that in many such projects would be ignored. The price carried on spiralling.

One group that will benefit greatly from the debacle will be lawyers, who will be kept busy by a string of disputes over contractual claims and counter claims. Readers will be marginally better off. The new building will only bump up their number by between 10 and 19 per cent. The capacity of the new science and oriental reading rooms, notes the NAO, will "be exceeded at or shortly after opening". It may be time to start planning a new library. If we start now it might be operational by the year 2020.

The British Library:

A disaster in the making

1982: Building work begins.

1988: Ministers set cash limit of pounds 300m for first phase, due to be completed in 1993; contracts awarded to install mechanical bookshelves and electrical cabling.

1990: Further pounds 150m is agreed to take library to completion.

1991: Faults discovered with shelving system. First National Audit Office report. Handover of basement by contractors postponed because of problems with shelving.

1992: Problems with cabling revealed, contractors begin to rip it out and start again.

1993: Corrosion uncovered in pipes feeding sprinkler system, five expert reports commissioned to solve problem.

1994: Specification of sprinkler system completely changed, with new sprinkler heads, new pumps and valves. National Heritage select committee examines project. Department considers abandoning building completely but decides to award more cash. Cost goes up to pounds 496m. Project director transferred to other duties.

1995: First phase completed.

1996: All money on project has been committed, including reserve to cover legal claims. Books to start moving in during November.

1997: Library due to open to readers in November.

Sprinklers

In the Seventies, when the design brief was drawn up, the library authorities were reluctant to have fire sprinklers in the building because they were afraid of the damage that could be caused to books if they went off accidentally. But the Department of the Environment and Greater London Council both insisted on a fire protection system, so "dry" sprinklers, where water does not enter the pipes until fire is confirmed (as opposed to "wet", where water remains permanently in the piping), were introduced.

A consultant hired by the Government advised that the system was flawed because too much emphasis was being placed on accidental damage to books rather than the fears of fire, the volume of water was not great enough to put out a fire in the huge storage area and it was complex to use. There was a risk of a fire not being extinguished in time. The "dry" system was converted to a "wet" system, and quicker-response sprinklers and better pumps and valves were ordered to be installed.

Shelving

A prototype mechanical shelving system was developed in 1988 to get books quickly and efficiently from the basement storage area to the reading rooms. The equipment was installed in a basement in a building in Bloomsbury so that staff could familiarise themselves with it. They found that when the shelves moved, the books also moved, falling backwards and forwards. This fault was corrected; then, just as one basement area was being handed over, the gearing mechanism jammed. Further tests led to the dismantling of the shelves, which disclosed further problems.

By January 1992, the weaknesses in the mechanics had apparently been resolved - only for yet another problem, this time with rust and the quality of the paint finish, to rear its head. For these parts to be replaced, the shelves had to be taken down and dismantled again. This revealed yet more faults, which were not finally cured until 1993. The shelving contractor and the Government are in dispute over who should pay for the delays and the row is expected to go to arbitration later this year.

Cabling

More than 3,000km of low-voltage cables in metal casing were installed from 1988. An inspection by the contractor revealed a range of faults, from discolouring to naked and damaged wiring. External consultants declared that the cables were unsafe. Engineers blamed the damage on fitters tearing the cables when they pulled them around sharp corners in the casing during installation.

In 1994, contractors began an inch-by-inch inspection, replacing and repairing damaged wires as they went. An independent expert recommended putting in circuit-breakers to prevent fire or cables overheating and producing dangerous fumes. The circuit-breakers were installed last year. Only 60 per cent of the cabling was inspected because ceilings would have had to be removed to examine the rest, adding to the cost and delaying the project by seven months.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
News
John Rees-Evans is standing for Ukip in Cardiff South and Penarth
news
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
Sport
David Silva, Andy Carroll, Arsene Wenger and Radamel Falcao
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photo Booth Host

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company offers London's best photo booth ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers



£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers ...

Recruitment Genius: Project Director / Operations Director

£50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an incredible opportunity for a ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

£16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Administrator is requir...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'