Library's trilogy of delay, bills and blame: A building budgeted at pounds 164m is expected to cost the taxpayer at least pounds 450m. Chris Blackhurst and Sailesh Ramakrishnan report

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The Independent Online
WHAT should be the most prestigious new building in Britain this century has become bogged down in delay, cost overruns and accusations of mismanagement and fraud.

The Commons National Heritage Select Committee will this morning hear a call from Brian Lake, secretary of the British Library Regular Readers Group, for a full investigation by the National Audit Office. In fact, the Independent has learnt the public spending watchdog is so concerned about the way the work has gone that it has already decided to launch an inquiry, its second in four years.

Instead of being completed in the late 1980s, the library now has no definite opening date. A construction programme that was budgeted for pounds 164m has so far consumed pounds 336m and will eventually absorb at least pounds 450m of public money.

The plan is beset with problems: too many chiefs; blurred reporting lines; a contract that is open-ended and based on a 'cost plus' formula - whatever it costs to build the contractors receive, plus their agreed margin.

Add to that a building that not even its intended users appear to want, and the recipe exists for disaster, or a goldmine. One sub-contractor in his twenties has made so much money from the project - from supplying at any one time, up to 250 electricians and engineers - that he boasts of being able to retire. He is reckoned to have made over pounds 500,000 in two years from the library.

Laing Management is the principal building contractor, and is aided by the design team: SVM, Ove Arup, and the library's own staff. They oversee rafts of sub-contractors who include the construction giants such as Balfour Beatty and Mowlem and also one-man band operators. Determining who is responsible for final decisions is one of the problems investigators would face.

The scale of the operation - and the incentive for finding fault, making everyone start again and keeping it going - is enormous. In all, 27 building firms are profiting from the library, employing between them 1,000 people on the project. Part of that small army is devoted to 'quality assurance' - a euphemism, claim insiders, for delaying the project as long as possible.

Experienced construction workers who helped build some of the biggest City developments said they had never come across anything like it: 'They pick up on pathetic things, and get the work to be done again.'

In most large-scale projects only 10 per cent of service fittings are checked - yet at the British Library it is 100 per cent, and conducted not only by Laing's quality assurance department but by teams from SVM, other companies and the Property Services Agency. One former site worker said the only reason he could see for such a tough regime was the desire to keep the project going for as long as possible. He blamed civil servants whose jobs depend on the project as much as private sector workers.

Thanks to the attention to detail and insistence on meeting the exact specification, the site database lists 200,000 faults. Among the claims are:

Every fitting inside phase one of the building was checked and replaced;

Ceramic 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 also 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 by anyone;

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 equal the design specification;

A total of 27,000 slates were ordered for the roof and rejected because the quality control team was not happy with their natural markings - this meant sieving through another 100,000 slates.

Establishing the scale of the disaster is difficult because the exact progress of the library remains a closely guarded secret. Its detailed plans and specification are too commercially confidential to be shown to taxpayers, according to the department.

Requests for site visits have consistently been denied. Only MPs on the heritage committee have been allowed to visit, and then under the watchful eye of accompanying department officials.

Two internal National Heritage reports on the building have been suppressed. The first, by PA Consulting, a group of management consultants, was commissioned by David Mellor, the former Secretary of State for National Heritage, in 1992.

He asked PA to examine why the library, begun in 1982, was still not even beyond the first of its three- phase construction programme. PA refused to divulge its contents. The second report, by Kennedy and Donkin, a firm of engineering consultants, looked into the building's wiring. That investigation, completed last year, has not been released. When Marjorie Mowlam, Labour's heritage spokesman, asked Peter Brooke, her opposite number, why the report had not been published, he said it was commercially sensitive.

Building firms refused to discuss their work, saying they had signed confidentiality clauses and needed government permission.

When the Independent attempted to talk to a site manager he agreed to a meeting but failed to appear. His phone number was suddenly disconnected.

The department admitted the project is riddled with errors and technical problems. A spokesman said: 'It would not be sensible to announce an opening date until remedial work to resolve technical problems associated with the installation of the services within the first phase of the building has been agreed.'

He said the Government was thinking of seeking compensation from the contractors. 'There are . . . contractual provisions to penalise those who have not performed. We are considering their enforcement as part of our overall commercial strategy, but the process will be a complex one.'

(Photograph omitted)