British Library is model of ineptitude, say MPs

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Indy Politics
The building of the British Library "could be used as a model of how not to manage a major construction project", according to a report by an all-party group of MPs.

While the scheme has attracted criticism before because of the constantly rising costs and the lack of controls, this attack by the Commons Public Accounts committee is remarkable in the strength of its language. It adds: "We look to the Treasury to ensure that all government departments and agencies are made aware of the lessons which have arisen."

The committee, which examined the National Audit Office report published in May, criticises virtually every aspect of the project, from the outset when no budget was drawn up for the whole project, until the present time, when, as recently as June 1996, the cash limit was increased from pounds 450m to pounds 511m.

Most of the increase came in the early stages of the project and related to unsound electrical cabling, faulty fire-sprinklers and a defective mech- anical book shelving system.

Construction of the new library at St Pancras, first announced in 1974, was started in 1982, but now the building will not be completed until 1999 (after initially being promised for 1991). Yet, despite the expenditure of such a huge sum, the library will provide only 12 per cent more seats than the existing Bloomsbury premises in the British Museum.

The committee lays the blame on the Department of National Heritage, which is now responsible for the project.

It is particularly critical of Laing Management, the construction managers, whom the department estimates will receive pounds 38m in fees by the time the project is completed. This is because most of the fees were based on the construction cost and as it rose, so did the fee. The department eventually introduced lump-sum payments for professional services, which will cost a total of pounds 122m by the time the project is completed.

Many contracts were entered into with no limit on cost. The committee says it finds it "extraordinary that the department entered into contracts without setting a budgetary limit for each of them". In hearings held by the Public Accounts Committee, Haydn Phil-lips, the permanent secretary of the Department of National Heritage mentioned in mitigation the construction of Prague Cathedral which began in 987 and was completed in 1926.

The committee says many lessons can be learnt from the project and sets out a number of "commonsense-type approaches, such as clear roles and responsibilities for the various parties".