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Columnist of the Year Sydney Lenssen Building in the eye of the storm

Most engineers would give a lot for the chance to work on a prestige project like the £200M Royal Opera House redevelopment in Covent Garden. Does that opportunity turn sour when the client gets a pasting from Gerald Kaufman and his Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons?

Last December the select committee issued a damning expos of ROH management incompetence, financial irresponsibility and dubious top job fixing, demanding immediate dissolution of the main board en bloc and the resignation of chief executive Mary Allen. So far only the chairman Lord Chadlington has gone.

Everyone concerned with the ROH redevelopment, including independent assessors, told the inquiring MPs that construction work is being run effectively and efficiently. Kaufman concluded: 'Time will tell whether their confidence is justified'. He then casually compared the complexity and size of the project with the new British Library and the Sydney Opera House and talked of a 'white elephant factor'.

Schal's project director is Paul Jennings, who with a 30-strong team and about the same number of designers from Dixon Jones BDP, Arup and ROH itself, have 23 months left to finish £120M worth of construction work. The project has been going for two years but they have only had six months free access since the opera closed. One fifth of the way through they have spent £30M.

On most sites, there would still be everything to play for.

Both Jennings and ROH development director John Seekings stress that their prime job is to see that concrete is poured and not worry about the machinations of the main board. Yes they had read about the criticisms, men on site had gossiped about it, but nobody was going to let such matters take their eyes off the ball. 'To us the project's bigger than any individual.'

With two years to go it is impossible for an outsider to gauge true progress, but Jennings exudes confidence and excludes complacency. 'We've met every critical target date so far to within a week, design development is largely complete and most contracts are set up. I meet each director responsible for every contract every month. We review costs and time every week. Everyone on site is pulling together. I enjoy a level of comfort that allows me to sleep peacefully at night.'

The total ROH exercise is expected to cost £214M. As well as construction, management and design fees, this includes redundancy payments for ROH staff who lost their jobs when the opera and ballet went off bivouacking last August for a couple of seasons. This adventure was chaotically planned and led to the funding crisis which, but for a last minute £20M donation, would have bankrupted the House. It triggered Kaufman's inquiry.

Seekings likens the funding to a three legged stool. The lottery grant is £78.5M, £100M is due to be raised by Vivien Duffield who chairs the ROH Appeal and Trust, and the balance of £35.5M will come from selling commercial property including 14 shops on the site. So far gifts and pledges amount to £70M, but any shortfall could be covered if necessary by property independently valued at £70M. All the money needed is secure.

Client for the redevelopment ROH Developments is ultimately a subsidiary of ROH Covent Garden. It is building on behalf of Development Land Trust which is jointly controlled by both ROH and the Arts Council and owns the site. The lottery money was awarded to ROH Covent Garden by the Arts Council, both bodies heavily criticised by Kaufman.

As a result, when Schal certifies a contract payment, it passes through a chain of approvals right up to the Arts Council before lottery money is released. Nobody knows what might have happened if ROH Covent Garden had gone bust, but in theory the project could have continued undeterred. In any event, surely the shrouded building site could not be left abandoned.

Equally certain is that when the time is ripe, further ROH resignations can be expected as a consequence of the select committee report. Kaufman will also return to gnaw at the bone. Schal's task might not have been made more difficult, but the stakes have been raised and it has certainly not been made easier by events.

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