Scottish Parliament decade marked by just a tweet

MSPs and guests sing along to Auld Lang Syne. Picture: Adam Elder
MSPs and guests sing along to Auld Lang Syne. Picture: Adam Elder
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THERE won’t be a special ceremony, an anniversary dinner or any grand reunions – just a tweet.

Tomorrow marks ten years since the official opening of the £414 million Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. But the parliament says all it plans to recognise the occasion is a mention on its daily social media post.

The building, designed by Catalan architect Enric Miralles, won architectural awards after its completion. But, of course, it was better known for the delays and cost increases which dogged it throughout its construction. When it finally opened it was three years late and ten times the original quoted cost.

Ten years ago, hundreds of workmen were on site right up to the day before the official opening to make sure everything was ready.

The opening by the Queen was on a Saturday to make it easier for members of the 
public to attend and thousands thronged the pavements as more than 1000 people from all sections of Scottish society took part in a procession down the Royal Mile to the parliament.

Sir Sean Connery was there and inside, then first minister Jack McConnell spoke of a newly confident Scotland with a parliament that had come of age. People joined hands to sing Auld Lang Syne.

David Hunter, of DJ equipment hire shop Pegasus Sound and Light, across the road from the parliament, complained during the construction project about the effect of the work on his premises, but says that is now in the past and most people now accept the parliament.

“We did have various issues,” he says. “But that’s water under the bridge. We don’t have any problems any longer. Some people don’t like the building, but at the end of the day it’s different.

“We see a lot of tourists and a lot of them do comment on it. I would say more like it than don’t. Local people, too, because it’s been there ten years, accept it as another landmark on the Royal Mile.”

Problems with the parliament building have persisted over the decade since it opened. There were problem windows and buckled doors. Just when the final price had been fixed and the controversy seemed to be fading, one of the roof beams in the debating chamber swung loose, forcing time-consuming safety checks.

There has been huge expenditure on extra security measures, including £223,000 on a “triangular roundabout” and chicane at the entrance to the car park in Holyrood Road, £300,000 on turnstiles at the Canongate and Queensberry House entrances, 162 new bollards and 18 concrete benches installed in front of the parliament and up the Royal Mile at a cost of £1.5m and finally the new £6.5m security extension ordered by MI5 so any would-be backpack bomber would not be queuing to be screened inside the main structure of the building.

Mr Miralles’ widow and professional partner, Benedetta Tagliabue, was excluded from the design of the new extension and was not impressed with what emerged. Other critics said it had “the charm and finesse of a portable cabin”.

Figures released in the summer showed repair and maintenance has cost nearly £13m in the ten years since it opened – including the regular revarnishing of the distinctive “bamboo” poles and £49,000 to repair granite panels on the sides of the building which became loose in high winds.

The late independent Lothian MSP Margo MacDonald, a long-standing critic of the Holyrood building, frequently complained its design would mean high maintenance costs because nothing could be bought “off the peg”.

However, Lothian Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale says the anger over the cost of the building has subsided. “You can almost laugh and joke about the whole saga now,” she says. “It will never be funny, but there is a certain wryness to it.”

She says she has always preferred the inside to the outside but adds: “It’s a fantastic building and I’m honoured to work in it.”

Some say the parliament has failed to make its surroundings as busy as expected. But Ms Dugdale says: “The parliament is quite self-contained.

“We have our own restaurant and post office. There’s not all that much reason to go out during the working day.”

Brian Stewart, former chief executive of Edinburgh-based architect RMJM, who worked in partnership with Mr Miralles on the parliament, agrees there has been a change of attitude.

“There is an acceptance of it,” he says.

“The people who disliked it will always dislike it – and there may be other motives for them disliking it.

“We feel comfortable about it. I don’t think there are any big regrets.”

He is not impressed, however, with some of the changes that have been made to the building, including the new security annexe built on to the front of the building and the earlier decision to block off what had been the ceremonial entrance with turnstiles.

He diplomatically describes these additions as “a bit disappointing”. Security, after all, was one of the key considerations when the building was being put up. Extensive tests were carried out. “We were blowing up windows in Northumbria,” recalls Mr Stewart.

But he has some sympathy for those who approved measures like the new annexe. He says: “If the Ministry of Defence say you have to do something it’s very difficult for politicians to say ‘No because it wrecks the notion behind the building’ and if something did happen they would be vilified. It could be better though.”

He says it is mainly security-driven changes that are “spoiling the original concept and ideas behind it”.

Even before the new security extension, the parliament had spent £2.3m on anti-terrorist measures, such as turnstiles, bollards and benches.

Mr Stewart points to the bollards close to the wall on to the Canongate which carries quotations from famous Scots.

“These dreadful big bollards along the edge of the pavement in the Royal Mile make it almost impossible to stand back and look at the wall. It’s so narrow there.”

And he highlights another area of expenditure he had not expected – revarnishing the famous “bamboo” poles of oak which decorate MSPs’ windows and other key parts of the building.

He says: “Treating the bamboo was never envisaged. We just expected it to go grey and weather as oak does – it gets stronger. It was never expected it would be treated with that orange stuff.

“But there is a view that if you let it weather, the public would think we were not maintaining it, not understanding that oak weathers really well and looks good.”

He defends the recent £500,000 on new toilets. “Buildings need to be living things. They are never really standing still,” he says. “There are more people in the building than it was designed for, so you would expect changes of that nature.”

And he responds to critics who see the high costs stretching well into the future.

“There are people who criticise the maintenance costs, but I’m sure the maintenance costs at Westminster are quite high,” he says.

“You have to maintain a building – people might argue the intricacies of the design makes the cost a little higher in this case, but it is the price you pay. Even though there have been changes, some of the shots you see on TV are still quite exciting. It will have good longevity. I think it will be there for another 100 years.”

A Scottish Parliament spokeswoman said: “We are proud of the building we have and the architectural prizes it has won. Following an 85 per cent turnout at the referendum, our focus is on developing new ways to engage the people of Scotland in their parliament’s work.”

Scottish Parliament time line

Nov 2004: Just four weeks after the official opening, 154 windows have to be replaced because of a problem with the sealant.

Aug 2005: Twelve specially-crafted oak doors have to be replaced at a cost of £1000 each after they start to buckle.

March 2006: A roof beam in the debating chamber swings loose from its moorings – the chamber is out of action for two months.

Feb 2008: Stronger lighting installed in the “gloomy” entrance foyer as part of a £115,000 programme of repairs and refurbishments.

April 2008: A new granite sign saying “Public Entrance” costs £20,000 – workmen are called back because the final “E” is 4mm too high.

June 2008: A £250,000 traffic control system is installed at the entrance to the underground car park.

March 2009: A triangular roundabout and other security measures outside the car park cost £223,000.

July 2009: Turnstiles installed at a cost of £300,000 at Queensberry House and Canongate entrances to improve security.

Dec 2009: Dozens of iconic bamboo-style poles have to be replaced because they have rotted.

July 2010: Buckets and wheelie bins come out again to catch the water as the rain pours down and leaks into the building despite repeated attempts to halt it.

March 2011: Holyrood bosses splash out £66,000 on bright new lights on stairways across the campus.

May 2011: Safety checks are ordered after a granite slab from one of the parliament’s towers became “partially detached”.

June 2012: Parliament restaurant/bar closes in the evenings because of lack of custom – and is replaced by a new bar at a cost of £75,000 to the taxpayer.

Sept 2012: A new £6.5 million security annexe is approved despite claims it is creating a “Fortress Holyrood”.

Jan 2014: Evening News reveals laser pens being used in a bid to banish the problems of pigeons from the parliament.

May 2014: Extra toilets for members of the public installed at a cost of £500,000.

Picking a winner

FOR years it had been assumed the home of the new Scottish Parliament would be in the old Royal High School at Calton Hill, but Donald Dewar, as Scottish secretary in the run-up to devolution, decided the building earmarked for the purpose since the failed referendum of 1979 was not up to scratch.

Alternative plans for a new building in the same area, close to the Scottish Office at St Andrew’s House were pitted against proposals for a waterfront parliament in Leith. There was also a scheme for Haymarket.

Public debate raged for months before Mr Dewar revealed, out of the blue, that a fourth site had been added to the shortlist – Holyrood.

And four weeks later, in January 1998, he declared Holyrood the winner.