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The Welsh Assembly: the full story

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The more closely one examines the unfolding events relating to the demise of the Welsh Assembly building (AJ 19.7.01), the more complex and baffling it becomes. On the one hand, it is clear that spiralling costs form the centrepiece of the drama, but on the other, it is equally apparent that politics, substandard management and a distinct lack of confidence are playing their part.

The AJ has spoken to a wide range of architects, academics and other interested parties, and all are convinced that the public has yet to hear the full story. This is not surprising, as the Richard Rogers Partnership itself is also complaining about being kept in the dark, although Assembly finance minister Edwina Hart denies this (see page 4).

What makes matters more baffling is that the Welsh Assembly is not a large project. Lord Rogers describes the scheme as 'a big house'. Certainly, if even the alarmist £40 million price tag is to be believed, this figure falls far short of many Millennium projects.

All, except for Hart, are agreed that the principal failure is on the part of the civil servants. Marco Goldschmied, managing director at RRP, is critical of the procurement and decision-making processes at work, and compares them unfavourably with the Lloyd's and Pompidou projects, as well as public schemes run from London. 'From my fairly considerable experience, the most successful projects are the ones where lines of communication are shortest and sharpest, ' Goldschmied told the AJ. 'And that's what we need here. The lines of communication are too long and disjointed. The forms of procurement used in Whitehall are a million miles from what you've got in Wales.'

This is a widely held view. The AJ has uncovered a general perception that Assembly officials, most of whom were transferred from the former Welsh Office, are just not up to the job. And others are equally critical of the Assembly members themselves, arguing that many (unlike their counterparts at Holyrood) lack experience of the tough climate of Westminster, and do not have the political will to see a major project through to completion.

Add to that a further sense that many people in Wales would rather see the money spent on schools and hospitals, and it is easy to see why the project would fall at the first major hurdle.

'The majority of Assembly members have been upgraded from local authorities, and I don't think there's a particularly high calibre across the board, ' said Richard Weston, professor at Cardiff University's school of architecture. 'There are very few people with lots of experience at high level.'

Skip Belton, who took over as president of the Royal Society of Architects in Wales on 1 July, agreed: 'It's clear that someone has got their figures totally and utterly wrong, and there's a perception among the profession in the principality that it may well be among the civil servants. They do not have the experience to cope with this sort of project.'

To make matters worse, neither side seems able to agree on costs. Essentially, the contract specifies that the Assembly building will be constructed for about £13.2 million, while other costs, such as inflation, VAT, professional fees and services, take the figure up to £26 million. But now cost consultants at the Simmonds Group, acting under the instruction of Assembly officials, estimate the total price will rise to £40 million, leading to the decision to sack RRP and start the search for another practice to produce a similar, cheaper design.

But Turner and Townsend, acting for RRP, has done its own sums and calculates that the practice is broadly on course and can deliver the building for £14 million. Goldschmied, who calls the process 'completely impenetrable', argues that the practice has been denied access to finance meetings and cannot understand where the inflated figure has come from. The result is deadlock. 'There's a huge amount of confusion, ' said Goldschmied.

CABE chief executive Jon Rouse argued that this situation would not have been allowed to arise in England, where the commission is ready to jump in at times of crisis. He is now calling for an investigation by the National Audit Office. 'It's clear we haven't had the full story and the sooner we have an investigation the better for all of us. There's some serious accusations flying around and there needs to be an independent evaluation.'

A spokesman for the NAO said the agency would 'wait until the dust had settled' before making a decision, but added that it was 'monitoring it very closely'.

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