Christopher Booker's Notebook

(Filed: 27/04/2003)

Scots rebel over price of their new Parliament
Aid for the apparatchiks
Defra strikes again
A blow to the ballot

Scots rebel over price of their new Parliament

The biggest issue in next Thursday's elections to the Scottish Parliament, though scarcely noticed south of the border, has become the extraordinary scandal over the Edinburgh Parliament's still-unfinished new building, privately sanctioned five years ago by Tony Blair, whose cost has soared, staggeringly, to 40 times the original estimate.

Faced last week with polling evidence that the expense of the building may contribute to a huge drop in Labour's vote, Scotland's First Minister, Jack McConnell, promised a "full, independent inquiry" after the election. But what will make this particularly embarrassing is the recent confirmation by Mr Blair's colleague Alistair Darling that the decision to build the Parliament on an old brewery site in Holyrood was personally approved - without raising the matter either in the Commons or Cabinet - by Mr Blair at a private meeting in Downing Street with Scotland's original First Minister, Donald Dewar.

Although the estimates for the scheme, designed by a Spanish architect, the late Enric Miralles, soon rose from £10 million to £40 million, it has continued to hurtle upwards at such a rate that even Mr McConnell now admits it is likely to reach £400 million before the building is completed by the end of this year. Almost every aspect of the problem-plagued project has proved controversial, and further revelations have been filling the front pages of The Scotsman and other newspapers almost daily.

Consultants, builders and architects alone have earned more than £56 million in fees - more than five times the original estimate for the entire project. An Edinburgh warehouse is said to be filled with furniture and fittings commissioned for the building, then rejected as unsuitable. A leaked report for Audit Scotland revealed that contractors were given a £250,000 advance, provoking a comment from Peter Wilson, editor of the Journal of Scottish Architecture, that it is "unheard of for cash to be advanced to contractors in this way".

A similar row has surrounded the funding of a documentary film on the project commissioned from Clement Wark, the production company part-owned by the BBC presenter Kirsty Wark, who was also on the selection committee that chose the winning design. In 1998 the company was given a contract to make the film by Mr Dewar, on a £366,000 budget to which BBC Scotland and the Scottish Arts Council contributed £183,184. In 2001 the BBC and Scottish Screen added a further £195,000; and they have now contributed another £200,000 of public funds, to bring the film's budget to £787,000.

Two months ago yet another row blew up when Alex Salmond MP, the former leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, protested that he had not been allowed to contribute to the film his "first-hand account" of how the decision to site the new building at Holyrood had been reached in London, by Mr Dewar and Mr Blair.

12 April 2003: Holyrood will cost £400m - McConnell

Aid for the apparatchiks

The European Union's "Objective One" programme for Wales, whereby the principality receives hundreds of millions of pounds to boost its economy, has come under blistering attack from Welsh academics. According to Prof Dylan Jones of the University of Wales, Bangor, nearly half the jobs created by the scheme have been for its own administrators. Each of 750 projects, he says, will employ an average of three or four administrators. So far, of the planned target of 39,764 jobs, only 8,036 have been created. Of 3,300 farming and forestry producers due to be aided by the scheme, fewer than 100 have received help.

Dr Philip Boland, a lecturer at Cardiff University, says the EU scheme has become "a feeding frenzy for the usual suspects: local authorities, colleges, training providers, the Welsh Development Agency". Dr Boland's study of the Objective One programme for Merseyside between 1994 and 1999 showed that, far from boosting the local economy, the region's domestic product actually fell during that time.

Typical of the politically-correct schemes favoured by Brussels are a £238,000 project in Swansea "to enable black and ethnic-minority women to access mainstream vocational and non-vocational training"; or the £2.78 million "Dawn Project" to provide "training and mentoring to address the social, substance-misuse, educational, training and employment needs of 1,600 offenders and disadvantaged people". In Ceredigion, where 325 textile jobs were lost, partly as a result of EU policies, one job-creation scheme has been delayed for months while the sewerage is brought into line with an EU water directive. Of £15 million earmarked for Caerphilly, 34 per cent has gone in nine grants to one local college.

A huge hidden cost of these schemes is that money from Brussels must be matched by contributions from national taxpayers. They are also based on the principle of "additionality", whereby EU grants is reserved for projects on which national authorities would not otherwise have spent their taxpayers' money. But at least the cash keep down the unemployment figures - if only for the lucky "administrators".

Defra strikes again

There seems to be no end to the damage Lord Whitty and his colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are determined to inflict on British agriculture. Next Thursday, the organisers of our leading agricultural shows will meet Whitty over the chaos into which they have been plunged by his new "animal health rules" by which, once animals have been moved, they cannot be moved again for six days.

Many shows take place only a day or two apart, so exhibitors cannot now move their animals from one show to another. Entries for most shows this summer are down by two thirds or more, threatening financial disaster.

The ban's claimed purpose is to prevent the spread of disease, although at a recent meeting with show organisers, a senior Defra vet conceded the health risks posed by shows were negligible. Lord Whitty's only response has been to suggest that the organisers should rearrange their dates, clearly oblivious to the fact that shows take months to set up, and that the dates have been traditionally fixed, in some cases for centuries.

Lord Whitty shows a similar disregard for reality over the EU's insane ban on burying dead farm animals, also due to come into force this Thursday, although no system is in place whereby the farmers can pay for millions of animals a year to be taken away to be "rendered". Whitty was asked in the Lords why the EU was banning the burial of animals when it has not banned burying human beings. He said that human graves are treated with quicklime. Perhaps he has never looked into one.

A blow to the ballot

Voters in Sunderland and elsewhere have been shocked to discover that, at Thursday's council elections, they will no longer have polling stations. All votes must be sent in by post, with a signed statement that they have been made by the voter named on the form.

Since Neil Herron, of Metric Martyrs fame, became Sunderland's "Voice of the People" (as he is described on local radio stations), he says that he has been besieged by electors complaining that this takes away their right to a secret ballot. Certainly there is nothing on the form to explain that the ballot is still secret, although Mr Herron is sure that the authorities will try to avoid any abuse of the new procedures - such as the chance that someone might sneak a look at the ballot papers, which are identifiable by number.

In Trafford, one of 58 other council areas where new voting procedures are being tried, voters do not even have to endorse the paper. There will be no check to ensure that they have not been filled in by someone other than the addressee.

"I know there is a worry about collapsing respect for the democratic process," says Mr Herron, "but if they want to make that collapse total, they are going about it brilliantly."