Salvaging The Senedd and a voice for Wales

The Welsh Assembly building, The Senedd, finally opened its doors early in 2006 after years of delays, quarrels and profligate spending. It cost £70 million – more than five times the original budget – and was just shy of five years late.

A large dispute caused preparatory work to pause for two years and it was only after a lengthy review of the building project, and a fresh tender issued for the contract, that construction work finally kicked-off again in 2003.

Richard Wilson, a chartered surveyor who joined the Welsh Office in 1986, was parachuted into this hostile environment to lead the project team. His task was to stop the rot, reignite enthusiasm for the building and deliver it to an expectant public.

A review conducted two years after The Senedd was completed stated it was delivered “broadly on time, cost and quality” once it restarted; quite an achievement for a project that had barely swung a digger arm during its first four years. What changed?

“We approached the project with a huge degree of trepidation,” says Mr Wilson. “The challenge around the building involved a contractual element; in other words making sure it was physically built on time and to budget. There were many challenging architectural and engineering aspects that had to be delivered.

The task was to stop the rot, reignite enthusiasm for the building and deliver it to an expectant public

“But really that was the easy bit compared with managing the wide range of stakeholders, namely the Welsh Cabinet and Members of the Welsh Assembly, but also the wider public and the media challenge, which was extremely robust.

“There was some controversy over whether The Senedd was a good thing to be spending money on at a time of economic stringency. The Holyrood [Scottish Parliament] example of overspend was fairly fresh in people’s memories, so we had to keep underlining the benefits of the project.”

Holyrood, inaugurated around 18 months before The Senedd, although it started later, was famously controversial. Almost all aspects of the build were argued over; it was late and cost more than £400 million – ten times higher than even the loftiest initial estimate.

“Partly because of this, there was a big pressure to deliver our building within the specifications,” says Mr Wilson. “It was important to identify and communicate what was required at the beginning of the project, so we had a clear vision of what success would look like.

“We took more time at the outset to ascertain exactly what was required so that the risk of further changes were kept to an absolute minimum. Change is inevitable, except from vending machines, but there is a big difference between managed change and unmanaged change. In the latter case you have lost control of the project.”

The resulting building located in Cardiff Bay won accolades for innovation, particularly regarding its environmental credentials, and much of the early wrangling is long-forgotten. But, for Mr Wilson, the most important aspect of the project was meeting the original objectives, despite fundamental changes.

“There’s no point sticking to an original plan if the business has moved on,” he says. “Organisations are dynamic and people are unpredictable; your handling of a project must reflect that.”