Initial Holyrood plans too cheap, inquiry hears

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Ministers thought that initial plans for the Scottish Parliament were "too cheap", an inquiry into the spiralling costs of the Holyrood building project heard yesterday.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, leading the inquiry, was told by Sam Galbraith, Scotland's former minister for Health, that he had been disappointed by initial estimates of between £10m and £40m for the project.

Yesterday was the first day of the £1.2m inquiry into why the costs of the Scottish Parliament have risen by more than 900 per cent over the past six years. The Holyrood project was supposed to be a symbol of resurgent Scottish pride, an accessible centre of power for the public and a monument to the people. Instead, the building has become the focus of public anger, political immaturity and commercial mis-management.

Lord Fraser is expected to spend 40 days between now and March presiding over the inquiry. He previously led the inquiry into the Lockerbie bombing and has been given the remit by Jack McConnell, the First Minister, to review the decisions surrounding the project and the management of the construction.

But the inquiry, which has no power to command witnesses or evidence, has already hit its first stumbling block after BBC Scotland refused to hand over untransmitted interviews with leading players in the Holyrood saga, including the former first minister Donald Dewar and the architect Enric Miralles - both of whom are dead.

Lord Fraser believes that the footage could hold vital clues about the early stages of the project but the BBC claims it would be breaking promises if it were to release it.

The inquiry is attempting to examine whether the original estimates for the building project were realistic as well as whether the building contract, the choice of site, architect, contractor, and the decision to rule out private finance involvement, were appropriate. It is thought that the hours of unseen footage could prove vital if the proceedings were to be the start of the road towards uncovering the truth as John Campbell, who is QC for the inquiry, said in his opening address. Held in the Scottish Land Court in Edinburgh, which is more accustomed to resolving disputes between landlords and tenants, the first witnesses to appear before the inquiry were Mr Galbraith and Brian Wilson, Scotland's former minister of State

Mr Galbraith, who worked closely with Mr Dewar, told the inquiry that, although he had been involved in a number of informal discussions over several possible locations for the new parliament he had never seen a feasibility study on any of them and that the final decision to opt for the Holyrood site had been Mr Dewar's - a decision which Mr Galbraith said he supported.

"I was keen on establishing a building of stature for the new Scottish Parliament, a building of architectural significance which Scots could be proud of," said Mr Galbraith, who admitted that when a budget of £50m was first mooted he had found it "disappointing" and feared Mr Dewar was going to opt for a "cheap" alternative.

However, on being asked whether Westminster had sought to influence any decisions, Mr Galbraith replied that was "total and utter rubbish" and said that the only cabinet minister to offer any suggestion was Gordon Brown whose recommendation was that a second-hand building should be used.

"We ignored his advice. He might have been Chancellor but he was not going to tell us what to do," Mr Galbraith said.

Friends of the late Mr Dewar have long feared thatmost of the blame for the fiasco, which has caused serious embarrassment for the fledgling parliament, will be directed at him.

In June 1999 the responsibility for the building of the Parliament was handed from the Scottish Office to the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body, a decision which Mr Galbraith said had been a mistake because of the immaturity and inexperience of the new Scottish Parliament.

"I knew, once it had been handed over, the cost would go through the roof. I told them not to hand it over," he said to the inquiry.

The hearing resumes today with evidence from a former first minister, Henry McLeish.

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