How is Covid affecting capital projects?

The pandemic has led to delayed openings and spiralling costs across the UK
Jonathan Knott
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Work on the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh stopped for several months during lockdown
Work on the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh stopped for several months during lockdown

The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh was due to reopen in August following its closure last September for a £3.75m redevelopment. But as a result of the pandemic, the work remains unfinished. The gallery’s director, Fiona Bradley, says lockdown rules meant that construction work had to stop completely from March until July.

Work has resumed, but social distancing requirements mean the development will not be finished until the end of the year. The gallery hopes to reopen at the end of February. The delays have increased costs, and the final stretch of the project’s fundraising has also been disrupted. Bradley says the pandemic has cost the venue about £500,000, excluding lost visitor revenue.

The design may now need tweaking through a process known as value engineering, to keep it within budget. Bradley says this could identify opportunities for savings, such as using cheaper materials for decoration. The Fruitmarket Gallery hopes to receive some of the £97m emergency funding that the Scottish government plans to allocate to cultural venues. But it is by no means the only project in the UK facing delays and spiralling costs as a result of Covid-19.

Renfrewshire Council will not commit to the redeveloped Paisley Museum reopening as planned in 2022

Lockdown restrictions, social distancing requirements and disrupted supply chains have led to issues for other projects where construction had begun before coronavirus struck. The Box in Plymouth was due to open in May, but the cultural venue saw its capital costs rise by more than £600,000 – alongside an estimated £900,000 loss in revenue from visitors and sponsors – after the opening was delayed to September.

Redevelopment projects at Manchester Jewish Museum, Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, Cumbria’s Wordsworth Trust, Oxford’s Story Museum and London’s Museum of the Home and Hunterian Museum have been delayed, typically leading to increased capital costs and lower-than-expected income.

Projects that have yet to begin construction also face challenges. Blackpool Council had raised all but £500,000 of the £13m cost of a new entertainment museum called Showtown, and was almost ready to put the construction out to tender, when lockdown began. Heather Morrow, the council’s head of heritage, says the authority pressed ahead, inviting tenders for the main building work in June, and planning to do the same for the exhibition design at the end of the summer.

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The museum had planned to open next year, but is now aiming for the 2022 tourist season, although this partly depends on the development of a new five-star hotel that the venue will sit within. Morrow says the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF), which is contributing £4m, has facilitated a peer support group with other projects it is backing in the region.

The initiative will review Showtown’s plans, in light of Covid-19, and decide whether changes need to be made. This could involve minor adjustments such as using materials that are easier to clean, but more fundamental aspects may need reconsidering, such as plans to include a lot of touch-based interactives. And the business model relies on income from non-resident visitors, whose numbers may now be lower than was originally anticipated.

Eureka! Mersey

We have been able to forge ahead with the project. But the complexities of remote working and the need to review costs and design in the context of Covid-19 resulted in a 12-week delay. We are still on track for a 2022 opening, but it has moved from February/March to May/June.

Our project cost remains at £11.75m, but we have a £575,000 fundraising gap that will be challenging to achieve. So we have looked at options for cutting costs through value engineering. If necessary, it will mainly impact the external areas, and not affect the content or experience for visitors. We plan to accommodate social distancing and other measures to minimise the spread of any infection.

Leigh-Anne Stradeski is chief executive of Eureka! Mersey

The difficulties that may await some projects are illustrated by the mothballing of the planned £10m Paddock Arts Centre in Sherborne, Dorset. The project, which was to be supported by philanthropic individual funding, pulled the plug in March, says former director Emma Morris, in the belief that the business model was no longer viable.

But most projects predict a less drastic impact. Eureka! Mersey, on Wirral waterfront, has pushed its 2022 opening date back by three months and says minor design adjustments may be needed (see box). And the London Legacy Development Corporation says work has resumed on the billion-pound East Bank cultural quarter that will include a new Victoria and Albert Museum.

The reopening of Oxford’s Story Museum following a £6m revamp was delayed from April to August

Other major projects expect minimal disruption. The Museum of London says the £337m cost of its planned relocation remains the same, as does the 2024 opening date. London’s National Portrait Gallery anticipates few significant changes to its plans for a £35.5m redevelopment due for completion in 2023. A £42m redevelopment of Paisley Museum is also broadly on track, says its director Kirsty Devine, although Renfrewshire Council is no longer committing to its completion date of 2022. Construction will not begin until next year, but Devine is confident the project will remain within its budget cap.

But the pandemic has caused a change of emphasis. Devine says the project’s remaining fundraising efforts may focus more on how the museum can respond to local communities’ needs, rather than the building itself. In response to Covid-19, the museum has “completely recalibrated” its plans for activities it had agreed with NLHF for when it opens. With the funder’s approval, it has begun conversations with communities to help it co-produce an offer relevant to the changed environment.

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“It’s given us an opportunity to step back and listen to our communities,” says Devine.

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