Belfast Telegraph

Last-minute decision to build a 50m pool resulted in Greenvale Leisure Centre costing 125% more than expected

By Adrian Rutherford

A decision to install a 50m pool at a refurbished council leisure centre was one of the last-minute changes that ensured project costs spiralled to 125% more than their original budget, a report revealed.

Despite Greenvale Leisure Centre in Magherafelt now sporting a new pool twice the length of the old one, it does not meet Olympic standards as it isn't wide enough.

A report by the Audit Office has detailed how the final bill ran significantly over the original £4.1m estimate following a series of late changes to the plans.

In the report chief local government auditor Louise Mason asked if the project delivered value for money – a conclusion disputed by Magherafelt District Council.

The original leisure centre dated back to 1971. Over the years the council invested and extended the facility to offer other activities. In 2010 it was decided the dilapidated building would be demolished and replaced with a new leisure centre, which opened last September. The final cost of the project was £9.2m – a 125% hike on the original price.

This was because of a range of changes to the plans, including:

  • The installation of a 50m swimming pool, replacing the 25m pool initially specified.
  • Modifications to changing rooms.
  • The installation of two biomass boilers.

They were made after the contract was awarded and the contractor had started work on site.

In her report, Ms Mason said the changes suggest there were weaknesses in the original scoping and business case of the project.

"Management considered the rates obtained from the contractor were very competitive but with such a high level of additional works, in my opinion, the council cannot demonstrate that the full project delivered has been subject to a competitive procurement and represents value for money," Ms Mason wrote.

"Once a contract price has been agreed, significant changes to the project are likely to be costly, disruptive and impact value for money. I am concerned that such a substantial scope change was made three months into the contract.

"I am also concerned that the council could not provide evidence to support the decision to re-scope the project as there was no new economic appraisal. I have no assurance that the decision represents value for money and there was no evidence that the council had satisfied itself that it was not in breach of procurement regulations."

She also noted concerns around the two biomass boilers, stating: "I found a lack of evidence that the procurement exercise was undertaken competitively and with independence. I also found that whilst two boilers were purchased and installed, it is economically advantageous for the council to operate only one."

But Magherafelt council chief executive John McLaughlin (left) branded the findings "flawed" and insisted the facility delivered excellent value for ratepayers.

He compared the cost of the facility (£1,400 per square metre) to one in Carrickfergus which cost £1,800/sq m, another in North Down (£3,000/sq m) and one planned for Newtownards at also around £3,000/sq m.

"Our leisure centre also has 11,000 users. Based on those statistics, we would say the Audit Office's findings are flawed," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"The report went to the council audit committee, and the committee was at a loss to understand the comments. It also re-endorsed the course taken by the council."

Mr McLaughlin said the project costs rose because the council was getting excellent value for money.

"We were advised by our consultants that the square metre rates were extremely competitive and they were unlikely to be repeated again, and as a result of that the council decided to do extra work to make use of those very competitive rates," he added.

"The figures I have produced prove the consultants were correct and the council was vindicated."

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