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Site 'key' to Holyrood cost farce

The key to the escalating cost of the new Scottish parliament lies in the earliest decision to pick the Holyrood site, the investigation into the fiasco heard this week.

Lord Fraser's inquiry, which opened last Tuesday, heard that Scotland's late first minister, Donald Dewar, must take responsibility for the error.

Alternative options at Calton Hill and Leith, which observers claim could have been developed at the original estimate of £40 million, were rejected in favour of the difficult site. Currently, cost estimates place the project at £401.2 million Witnesses to the 40-day inquiry at the Scottish Land Court in Edinburgh also confirmed that the Holyrood option only emerged late in the day, but quickly became the favourite.

John Campbell QC, who is leading the questioning, established that any study into the suitability of the site must have taken place in an 'unholy rush' - under one month.

Holyrood was only included in a shortlist of possible sites in mid-December 1997 but by January 1998 had been chosen by Dewar.

Witnesses have also denied any involvement from Downing Street in the ill-fated decision, claiming that Dewar rejected advice from the chancellor to refurbish a 'second-hand' building.

Former Scottish Office minister Sam Galbraith, giving evidence on the first day, said: 'He [Brown] might have been chancellor, but he was not telling us what to do.'

And another former Scottish Office minister, Brian Wilson, said: 'The idea that anyone was telling Donald what to do about virtually any aspect of devolution, particularly something as Scottish as this, is just not feasible.'

However, veteran Holyrood watcher David Black told the AJ that Dewar, who died in 2000, was being made a scapegoat in order to deflect attention from New Labour. 'The more the Scottish establishment blames Dewar, the less convincing the line that Downing Street is blameless, ' he said.

The role of the original architect, Enric Miralles, and his successor on the scheme, RMJM, in regard to the spiralling costs has yet to emerge. Lord Fraser has timetabled the inquiry to examine the progress of the project in chronological order from the 1997 General Election to the present day.

Dewar's successor, former first minister Henry McLeish, also appeared this week and admitted there were lessons to be learnt: 'I do think that what we want to look at in this inquiry is how we handle big projects, and whether the capacity exists within the civil service and at ministerial level to do it.'

The inquiry continues.

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