Siol nan Gaidheal

Blot on the Landscape

Donald Dither's politically motivated decision not to use the former Royal High School site on Calton Hill for the new Scottish Assembly appears to be rebounding on him with a vengeance.  Originally ordered by his political masters down in the Black Heart to ensure that the new Mickey Mouse Parliament was sited in as obscure a position as humanly possible, due to their fears that the Calton Hill site was much too prominent and might become a focus for nationalist aspiration, he eventually chose the black hole known as Holyrood.  All manner of pathetic excuses for this were trotted out, from the need for Scotland to have a magnificent new edifice for its strictly proscribed talking shop, to a genuinely hysterical response from the so-called "security chiefs", who opined that they were "horrified at the prospect of a sniper or terrorist armed with hand grenades hiding in the bushes or ruins on Calton Hill overlooking the site".  Shades of another (soon to be former) English colony, Northern Ireland, perhaps?  When was the last time a terrorist outrage was committed in Edinburgh?  The aftermath of the '45 springs to mind, but that was over 250 years ago.....

The original concept was that the new parliament would be housed in the former school building, with office space being taken in other nearby premises, as "the scheme is based around Calton Hill and provides a whole new government quarter from refurbishment of existing buildings and creating new buildings of quality. There is no serious alternative. Scotland's parliament buildings will define the image of Scotland."  This was in line with what most of the Scottish public had envisaged as the location of our new parliament. Good road links, easy access, and a prominent, not to say proud, position overlooking our capital city. The SNP backed Calton Hill right from the start, not just for reasons of sentiment but because the costs of converting the building and its environs would not become a drain on the public purse.  Quoting from one of the briefs put forward for Calton Hill at the time: "The nation as well as the city looks in to Calton Hill; and Calton Hill looks over the city and out to the whole nation and the world. It combines Scotland's best cityscape with the landscape drama of Arthur's Seat, reminding all that Scotland is both urban and rural; it sits in the densely populated city in the Central Belt, but looks across the Forth and out to sea, reminding all of Scotland's coastal and island communities, and its international outlook. By a fortunate coincidence of history, just at the moment when we need it for our new parliament, there are not only appropriate historic buildings of good quality available for adaptation, but also ample space for future development and such new buildings as may be required. The overall site is ideal. The possibilities for early accommodation are acceptable. The potential for staged development and with it acceptable cost patterns is attractive both politically and practically. The aesthetic and the inspirational potential is breathtaking."

There really isn’t much you can add to that, is there?  For an official viewpoint, it’s almost poetry….   So what did we get?  Dither reviews all the options (no doubt with a little “assistance” from his Westminster advisors), then announces that Holyrood is the winner because: "The conversion of an existing building would have to be a compromise. There would be no visible symbol of the new Parliament and it would lack the operational efficiency of a new building."  The initial cost of this new symbol of the Scottish Renaissance was stated to be in the region of £40 million.  At this point, apart from the usual grumbling about the imposition of StrathThames's wishes over the views of the indigenous population (hardly a new concept in Scotland anyway), there wasn't too much argument. The overall redevelopment of the Calton Hill site would probably have cost in this region in any case.  So a Catalan architect, Senor Enric Miralles, was appointed (apparently Scotland doesn't have any capable architects), who came up with a weird concept he claimed was based on upturned boats (later admitted to have been spotted in that well-known area of Scotland, Northumberland).  What this design says about symbolism for the New Scotland, and her Ship of State, really doesn't bear thinking about.

This is the point where things started to go horribly wrong for the North British mouthpiece of the Unionist Labour Party.  In April 1999 Dither maintained that the Holyrood project was on schedule and within its (by now) budget of £50 million. He said: "There has been no change in our cost estimates, but we will be monitoring them very carefully." But by June it was announced that the cost had risen to £109 million, having had a few more rooms, some consultancy fees, and, of course, VAT added on.  Apparently nobody had thought to mention the last two points prior to this.  It is standard accounting practice to take all fees into the equation when planning a budget, but this had obviously escaped the erstwhile leader of our nation.   Senior government sources have now leaked that Dewar knew that his original figure was a gross underestimate, aimed at allaying public disquiet over the final bill.  They allege that the initial final figure was always going to be in excess of £100 million, as all previous figures quoted had discounted all fees except the central building cost itself.  Serious underestimates of the civil engineering side of the project, due to the weakness of the foundations of Queensberry House, were also involved.

Attempts were made to shift the blame onto Sir David Steel, Presiding Officer and chairman of the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body, by not revealing these ‘minor details’.  No contingency funds for increased costs were set aside in the first two-year Scottish budget announced by the finance minister, Jack McConnell, so that the corporate body would have to return, cap in hand, to ask for more money – thereby making it look as if the financial debacle was of their making.  To give the SNP their due here, Margo MacDonald had been at the forefront of attacks on the Scottish Executive right from the start.  Along with  Donald Gorrie, MSP and MP for Edinburgh West, she has now called yet again for an appraisal of the entire Holyrood Project.  This is on top of at least 12 questions tabled to the Parliament over the past two years, and their combined motion to adjourn the project for an appraisal last summer which was defeated by only three votes.  Alex Salmond has called for all further spending on the new building to be frozen until MSPs have debated the latest estimates. In a letter to Sir David Steel, he said: “Scotland's new Parliament building is a matter of great importance to us all and I believe that the best information should be made available to MSPs and the public before we decide how to proceed. In the meantime no further costs should be incurred at Holyrood until Parliament has decided on the best course of action.”  And then Bill Armstrong, project manager, who quit in December 1998, weighed in with his reasons for leaving, which included the fact that Miralles was not providing his team with the information they needed to actually build the shibboleth.

So here the situation stands – two years down the road towards sovereign nationhood, and an estimate for a white elephant nobody (except the Westminster-dominated quislings) wanted, now standing at nearly six times the original stated cost.  “Donald’s Dome” is derided daily in the press, and some of these latecomer critics have even worked out what could usefully be done with this sort of money.  One list published featured; 46 new primary schools or 15 new secondary schools, (remember “Education, Education and Education”), 7 new hospitals or 1,150 intensive care beds for a year (remember “we will protect and strengthen the Health Service”), or a £3,000 Christmas bonus for every Scottish pensioner!  Flights of fancy, indeed, when a monument to the Great Improver is at stake.  The British Unionist Labour Party takes no heed of the nation’s concern, reminiscent of a time 300 years ago when riots in the streets greeted the sad news that our country had been sold down the river by a "Parcel of Rogues".   When our proud and independent Parliament finally convenes at Calton Hill, a plaque should be raised in the foyer with the name of every single one of the original British Unionist Labour Party MSPs on it, and the legend: "Parcel of Rogues – Reprised" above the list.  Let their names go down in ignominy, just like their predecessors.


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