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What went wrong at Bath Spa?

AGENDA

Already hit by delays and busting its budget by £28 million, the Bath Spa project reached a low point last week when Mowlem was booted off site by Bath and North East Somerset Council.

The lawyers look set for a big paycheque.

Tom Cullen reports

ON THE WALL of the basement beneath the battered Bath Spa scheme is a safety sign which reads: 'If you make a mess, clean it up.'

Easier said than done.As far as messes go, few current construction cockups can compete with the ill-fated Bath Spa scheme, which languishes £28 million over budget and four years behind schedule.

The bedevilled tourist attraction has been blighted by peeling paint in the pools, leaking floors and a project team that simply could not get on.

Many a turbulent week has propelled the palaver into the media but last week's bust-up was the project's darkest hour. In a fierce exchange of letters, Mowlem and Bath and North East Somerset Council had a fallout so public that Lee Bowyer and Kieran Dyer would have thought twice about it.

It resulted in the contractor being booted off the job.

But Mowlem, which later insisted it had 'chosen to quit' the project, has now declared the action unlawful and is readying its legal team to respond to what it believes is a breach of contract.

As Mowlem staff withdrew from the site a spokeswoman confirmed it was not the last the council would hear from them. She said: 'Having taken specialist legal advice, we are confident that the costly and lengthy round of legal disputes to which the council now seems to have condemned itself and the council taxpayers of Bath will go in our favour.'

Bullish talk, but it is a threat that has not perturbed the council.One council source said: 'We are disappointed but not at all surprised by this move.We are confident we have done the right thing.

'We think it would be inappropriate to be drawn on any outcome of legal proceedings but we are ready to enter the courts.'

And the confidence is supported by a belief that it is Mowlem that is in breach of contract.The contractor was issued with an architect's instruction over the Easter weekend to replace the floor in the steam room.Mowlem refused.

It seemed to be the last straw for the council.A spokeswoman sighed: 'The peeling paint, the leaking floor, the unacceptable design and build offer and the inadequate response to the recent instruction has forced the council to say 'enough is enough'.The council believes this catalogue of errors, omissions and events represents a breach of contract by Mowlem.'

Mowlem, which is livid that such a request was made over Easter when the industry effectively shuts down, has dubbed the council's action an 'ambush' and labelled it 'unco-operative, unprofessional and underhand' Cleaning up the mess is now in the hands of consultant Capita Symonds, which has been appointed as contract administrator and project manager.

It is now tasked with procuring specialist contractors to salvage the scheme.Capita Symonds is no stranger to working on controversial contracts, although they have tended to be larger in scale - the Millennium Dome, for instance, and the scheme to manage the building of Wembley Stadium.

Capita Symonds executive director of management Jonathon Goring said its main priority was to make sure the work, whoever carries it out, is finished.

He said: 'We are looking to the future.Obviously we have come to the Bath Spa project well aware of what has already happened and we are now keen to get the project finished.'

But Mr Goring said the firm was not yet in a position to predict an opening date.He added: 'Until we complete the audit of what needs to be done to the building, which we expect within three weeks, it will be difficult to say how long it will take or how much it will cost.But we've got a proven track record in delivering projects and we do not see this as a big task.'

And Mr Goring hopes to avoid a massive reshuffle on the scheme. He said: 'Projects are all about people.We need to remotivate the guys that are already on this job and know it inside out.We need to take control of the trade contractors and make sure everyone understands what has gone wrong and where.

'After that we'll be looking to bring in other specialist subcontractors that we think can help and we are hoping they will get in touch with us if they're interested.'

But an opening date for the spa could be known by the end of the month, according to council chief John Betty.He has accused Mowlem of sour grapes and said: 'The problems that hit the headlines - the peeling paint and leaking floors - are not the only issues we have had with Mowlem.'

But Dan Norris, the prospective Labour MP for the Wansdyke area and vocal critic of the spa scheme, said the council was wrong to fire Mowlem.

Referring to Mowlem's offer in February to complete the scheme in six months for a price of £26 million, he said: 'I never said the council should accept Mowlem's offer but they should have negotiated a settlement.What they have done now is to have given the lawyers a green light to print money - my constituents'money.Who knows what it will end up costing council taxpayers when all the court cases are finished?'

The council is adamant that costs can be reduced now that Mowlem has packed its bags. Only time will tell.What is becoming obvious is that, while the debate between council, architect and contractor slips into a pre-litigation silence, it is the politicians who are beating the war drums.

Candidates throughout Bath and North East Somerset know that the scheme is one of the most politically contentious issues facing the area in the build-up to the general election.

The Liberal Democrat-controlled council has been labelled 'the most incompetent in Britain' by construction minister Nigel Griffiths and it is fairly certain the public purse has not been zipped shut for the last time on the scheme.

Mr Norris estimates that the spa overruns have cost his constituents on average an extra £116 each in council tax even before court cases are considered.

Indeed candidates across the nation will be reigniting a host of construction sore spots. Prospective MPs in Stoke Newington, north London, will be stoking the Clissold Leisure centre fire while the new Scottish parliament building in Holyrood, though finished, is not forgotten.

Elsewhere the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth, another Mowlem project, is estimated to be £10 million over budget, while Nuttall's Scarborough Coastal Defence project is thought to be £14 million out.

One source said: 'There will always be a problem with councils believing projects can be done for far less than is realistic.For political reasons they want schemes done to an impossible budget and when costs exceed that they throw the toys out.Often the answer is to go to court where even more cash is spent and it's the taxpayers that end up forking out.'

As far as Mowlem is concerned Bath and North East Somerset Council is no different.The contractor dubbed the council 'completely out of its depth in managing a project as large and technically complex as this one and displayed a damaging lack of understanding of the way in which a major construction contract works' Few expect Mowlem ever to consider working for the council again. Not that they will get the chance.Councillor Nicole O'Flaherty said: 'There is a huge sense of relief that Mowlem has gone and we won't be inviting them to work for us again.We now have a team in which everyone wishes to take the project forward.Mowlem was intent on getting legal action under way while everyone else just wanted to get the scheme finished.'

Whatever happened to partnering?

Still, one thing is certain.The taxpayers of Bath will be coughing up.A thoroughly hacked-off Mowlem is not prepared to duck from the fight. It said: 'The council's pigheadedness could cost the people of Bath very dear.'

And amid all the cracks, the peeling and the endless finger-pointing, the citizens of this old Roman town only want one thing, one or other party to stand up and say 'mea culpa'.

Bath Spa goes down the plughole

1978 A meningitis scare forces Bath's spas to close.Visitors allowed but bathing prohibited.

1988 Council launches search for developer to provide new £14 million baths by 2001.

September 1998 Architect Nicholas Grimshaw appointed.

August 2000 Mowlem appointed as contractor.

November 2000 Work grinds to a halt after environmental campaigners secure a judicial review. Engineering work delayed by eight weeks.

April 2003 Paint flakes from pools when filled and cracks occur.Bitter feud begins as project hits costly delays, sparking recriminations between the design team and contractor. Scheme is six months overdue at an estimated cost of £30,000 a week.

October Project opening suspended indefinitely as legal wrangling gets under way. Bath council takes out a legal injunction against Mowlem following problems with the paint, while Mowlem continues to insist that Grimshaw's specification is to blame.

February 2004 An independent investigation into the paint fiasco criticises Mowlem, Grimshaw and paint product RIW Toughseal.

Mowlem loses a Court of Appeal case but is invited back on to the job to remove the paint.

July 2004 Independent consultant's report estimates final project cost at £35 million.

January 2005 Vandals cause more than £100,000 of damage to building facade.

Council agrees extra £3.5 million of funding, pushing overall figure close to £40 million.

February Mowlem challenges council to hand over entire responsibility for project, which it says it will finish in six months at an overall cost of £26 million. Council refuses.

Contractor baffled by scores of cracks that open and close on three levels of the scheme.

March Construction minister Nigel Griffiths tells Lib Dem council it is the most incompetent in the UK.

April Mowlem parts company with the project after fiery exchange of letters through the press.

Council claims it has booted Mowlem off, contractor insists it has walked.

April New project administrator Capita Symonds commences audit of site. Council and contractor ready themselves for legal proceedings with project almost four years overdue and £28 million over budget.