Sparks fly over British Library costs

June 28, 1996

A fresh delay and an additional Pounds 15 million price tag have hit the new British Library on top of lingering worries over "defective" electrical cables and its reader capacity.

Members of the Public Accounts Committee called the project "a very sorry tale" after hearing the full opening of the St Pancras building would be delayed a further 15 months, to June 1999, and will cost taxpayers Pounds 511 million, Pounds 15 million more than the previous estimate.

MPs were shocked to learn that some 1,200 kilometres of the building's electrical cabling, which had been damaged during installation, had not been inspected manually and could be defective, in parts, on the library's opening to the public. A circuit-breaker system has been installed to prevent shorting and potential fires.

Committee members also questioned the overall value for money of a Pounds 500 million-plus national library that, despite boosting the number of seats by 12 per cent, would be too small for projected user demand less than four years after its full public opening.

Hayden Phillips, permanent secretary at the Department of National Heritage, told the committee that the library's problems stemmed from the construction management method, adopted by the then Property Services Agency in 1982, which meant contracts were signed with 157 different contractors.

Mr Phillips, whose department took over in 1992 after an intervening spell by the Office of Arts and Libraries, said an "astonishing" 11,700 instructions were issued to contractors. He agreed that there was a lack of control and quality assurance - due mainly to the complexity of the project control arrangements - but declined repeated invitations by the committee to attribute specific blame.

Brian Lang, chief executive of the British Library, told the committee the humanities reading room would be the first to open to the public in November 1997, followed by the other reading rooms, up to June 1999 when the science reading room would be ready, marking the full opening of the library.

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