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Welsh Assembly building delayed as costs 'double'

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The proposed new National Assembly for Wales building at Cardiff Bay is running into difficulties, both conceptual and financial, and fresh questions are being raised about the capital and running costs of housing the assembly at the waterfront.

With work on site not due to start before next March, and an estimated building and fitting-out time of at least two years, the new assembly chamber will not be in use until early 2002. A decision to go ahead with the project was only made by the assembly last week, following an exploratory meeting between architect Richard Rogers Partnership and assembly members. Criticisms were made of some aspects of the design and the architect has agreed to make appropriate changes.

One area for concern is the size of the public gallery. Rogers has been told to enlarge it to accommodate more visitors. A further matter is improved access for people with disabilities. There is also uncertainty about features of the competition-winning design - such as the assembly library - that were not readily apparent in the proposals shown to assembly members last week. The Richard Rogers Partnership is in negotiations with property developer Grosvenor Waterside to acquire additional space, with the present indicative design of the debating chamber calling for a larger footprint than originally provided.

A member of the Rogers team said that a mock-up of the detailed design will be laid out at some future date so that assembly members can sit in it and discuss what it is that they want in terms of space and distance.

Assembly members are urging the use of local materials and work by Wales- based creative artists. Officials say that the architect has been asked to bear those considerations in mind.

The final design is to be exhibited and explained at meetings around Wales, although no dates have been given for this stage of the process. No contract has been signed yet and there remains significant opposition to constructing the building at Cardiff Bay. City Hall, a long-running favourite of many local politicians, and a site at the new Bute Square (aj 15.07.99) continue to be mentioned as alternatives.

Only last week, the assembly debated a motion to abandon the Rogers-designed building in favour of diverting the money towards the construction of a new children's hospital in Wales. That motion was heavily defeated, but several reservations about the new building were voiced and the issue remains contentious.

First Secretary Alun Michael told assembly members last week that the cost of the new building would be £12.5 million, and he gave an assurance that it would be held within that figure. However, estimates produced last month by civil servants and made available to Conservative member Rod Richards reveal that the cost would rise to at least £16 million and the overall capital cost to beyond £20 million.

The total cost of refurbishment of the assembly's present headquarters, Crickhowell House, to house the temporary debating chamber and members' offices, was £7 million. This brings the likely total cost of establishing the assembly at Cardiff Bay to around £27 million.

Last week Michael told the Assembly that the original lease on Crickhowell House had not been changed in any way. A day later, he admitted that the lease had been extended by five years and disclosed that a replacement 25-year lease at an annual rent of £2.3 million was signed last year. Crickhowell House will continue to be used for members' offices and other facilities even after the new building is occupied.

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