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Drawing a line between sense and extravagance

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It is an almost universal truth that no-one wants to discuss the likely true cost of a building at the outset of the project - except the client. Even clients are fuzzy as to the distinction between all-up cost and the cash-flow costs associated with one form of contract or another. In the end, you tend to get what you pay for, and usually no-one can remember what the cost was after the passage of a few years. By then, the building will seem expensive if you have to spend a lot on repair and maintenance, or cheap if it reaps commercial or cultural rewards. Does it really matter what the Pompidou Centre or Sydney Opera House cost? Do we now criticise as extravagant a building which, because of its generous space standards or over-engineering, has taken on a lifespan far longer than originally envisaged?

In this light, the controversy over the costs of the new Scottish Parliament, and the new accommodation for mps at Westminster, is probably overdone. After all, if you cannot be generous when it comes to creating buildings for the democracy which is central to our way of life, when can you be? The chances are that these buildings will still be used for something like their original use in a century or two's time.

This is not to condone extravagance, but what sometimes looks like waste turns out to be nothing of the sort. It is always easy to downgrade a furniture specification, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong in buying the sort which will last for 100 years. It is often people who claim the idea of permanence is suspect who themselves have great difficulty in coping with the idea of the temporary, especially where it implies change which will affect them personally. Without the framework of time, it is impossible to make a proper judgement about cost and value. One saving imposed on the Westminster parliamentary building years ago, by then-Treasury minister Michael Portillo, was the elimination of showers for mps. However, the plumbing for them was still included. The truly costly is the decision endlessly delayed.

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