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Scottish political plots thicken in Miralles parliament saga

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Enric Miralles' troubled Scottish parliament project was boosted by a nine-vote majority after a stormy Edinburgh debate last week - but the controversy is far from over. The latest twist concerns the state of the architect's health following hospital treatment in the United States. Presiding officer Sir David Steel made a surprise announcement during the debate that much of the responsibility for designing and executing the project would pass to Edinburgh architect rmjm, giving rise to further uncertainty. Edinburgh architect Richard Murphy commented this week: 'If Miralles really is unable to continue leading the project, they should scrap the whole thing and start again. You just can't do a signature building without the signature.'

But a number of msps have also privately expressed concern about rmjm senior partner Brian Stewart's past links with Scottish Executive chief architect John Gibbons, a member of the architectural selection panel which chose the winning design. Both men and their families lived in separate wings of historic Crichton House outside Edinburgh in the 1980s. rmjm's solo submission to the initial architectural selection process failed to make it past the first tranche of 64 entrants, but the practice later came on board after teaming up with Miralles' Barcelona-based firm embt.

Last week, the rias backed the move to press on with the project without pausing for a review. But Scotland's architects remain divided. There is widespread agreement that the report by Reiach & Hall's John Spencely was, given its short time-scale, a competent and measured attempt to troubleshoot the project's problems. Its objectivity has been questioned since, like rmjm, Spencely's practice was one of the 64 which lost out in the first round of submissions, and then coat-tailed an international firm, Raphael Vinoly, during a later stage. The paucity of detailed costing information in the report, much of it withheld on a 'commercial-in-confidence' basis, has also led to criticisms.

The financing of a project which, in uk terms, is the equivalent of a £400 million scheme over-running to as much as £3 billion, has raised further doubts. The outcome of a Westminster-level decision taken prior to the Scottish parliament's existence, it must now be borne entirely by the limited Scottish budget. In a radical departure from the standard practice of government building procurement, Sir David Steel has raised the prospect of commercial sponsorship for elements of the project, while Labour's Lord Mike Watson has indicated that a ppp initiative might be on the cards. The cost implications are far-reaching enough to impact on other areas of spending.

Both rmjm's Stewart and selection panel member Andy McMillan have supported Miralles' view that seventeenth-century Queensberry House, the A-listed mansion which was to be integrated into the plan, should be demolished and replaced with a replica. In a high-profile intervention a few days ahead of the debate, Stewart accused Historic Scotland agents and employees of 'wrecking' the building, a charge which, though privately denied, has been difficult to refute since the Historic Scotland team is effectively disbarred from issuing statements under its terms of contract. rmjm has also taken legal action againsta senior partner of one of Scotland's leading conservation practices, Simpson & Brown, for commenting critically on the issue.

While the Queensberry House scheme represents a mere 5 per cent of total project value, and at least one building preservation trust has offered to take the building on, it has become the focus of an impassioned dispute between historians and conservationists on the one hand, and 'blitz and build' architects and politicians on the other. The hereditary keeper of Holyrood Palace, the Duke of Hamilton, suggested in The Times shortly after the site opposite Holyrood was chosen that Donald Dewar, then a cabinet minister, should think again before abandoning 'John Smith's vision' of a Scottish Parliament on Calton Hill. He has since written to the Prime Minister suggesting hm Treasury underwrite around £4 million of Queensberry House's restoration costs. Blair's reply to the Duke on 24 January - in a letter seen by the aj - made it clear that he has no wish to become involved in any funding matters relating to the project.

The ramifications of a major public commission, signed and sealed if not delivered by Downing Street and the Scottish Office prior to the parliament's existence, has given its opponents free reign to portray it as the architectural equivalent of Cardiff's Alun Michael.

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