British Library 'will be 10 years overdue'

Checking the books: Report outlines escalating costs of project

Chris Blackhurst
Monday 27 November 1995 00:02
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CHRIS BLACKHURST

Westminster correspondent

One of Britain's landmark public building projects is 10 years behind schedule and will cost almost three times more than original official estimates, it emerged yesterday.

Attempts by the Government to douse the long-running row over the new British Library, next to London's St Pancras station, seem certain to fail with the publication early next year of a study by the National Audit Office (NAO), the public finance watchdog, into continuing delays and cost over- runs.

Already castigated by the Commons National Heritage Select Committee for its ugly design and by the Prince of Wales, who describes it as "a dim collection of sheds groping for some symbolic significance", the controversy over the library will continue with the release of the NAO study.

A draft of the Audit Office's findings is understood to have been sent to Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, and her officials, for their views. The final NAO report will only be published with their agreement.

Last year an investigation by the Independent revealed a catalogue of construction errors and design faults at the nine-acre complex. Some of the mistakes were so bad that suspicions of fraud and deliberate sabotage were raised.

An inquiry by the National Heritage Select Committee heard allegations that the Government had not done enough to bring the project under control. The NAO is expected to confirm the final bill for the library will top pounds 500m - nearly three times more than was initially envisaged.

The building, with five reading rooms, auditorium, an area set aside for studying rare books, and basement storage for 12 million volumes, will not be ready until the end of this decade, compared with an original completion date of 1989.

Embarrassingly for the Government and the builders, it will not be fully finished in time for the formal opening by the Queen in 1997.

Of continuing concern to the NAO is the way the project has been managed. Contractors have not been made subject to severe time penalties. At the same time, specifications for some jobs have been so poor and the work has been carried out so badly they have needed immediate replacing.

Designed to house 18 million books and provide space for more than 1,000 academic readers, the library has been dogged with problems, most of which have been caused by the desire to install modern technology and equipment. In 1991 moveable shelves jammed. They cost millions of pounds to replace.

The air conditioning system has had to be modified and thousands of miles of defective wiring had to be ripped out and replaced. A ceiling has also been taken down and rebuilt after it was found to be too low.

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