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Dundee Olympia documents reveal how centre became £32m white elephant

The tranche of papers shine a light on the ill-fated project and the highly-paid bosses behind it.
Dale Haslam
The outside of the Dundee Olympia
The Olympia in Dundee. Image: Andrew Robson/DC Thomson.

Council chiefs in Dundee are facing renewed calls for an independent inquiry into the Olympia scandal after an investigation by The Courier.

The leisure and toddler pools were closed unexpectedly earlier this month after a metal rod fell from the red flume and almost hit a swimmer, while issues with the “dosing” of pool chemicals also emerged.

In light of its latest controversy, we pored over nearly 800 pages of public documents relating to the crisis-hit centre.

The tranche of papers shine a light on the ill-fated project and the highly-paid bosses behind it.

We found:

  • Insulating the Olympia’s roof during construction could have stopped objects falling from the ceiling
  • A major leak that put staff safety at risk was due to the showers not being built right
  • A £65,000 repair bill was down to builders using the wrong glue
  • Leaders suggested fending off condensation problems with baby oil
  • A toddlers’ pool caused an argument between council and leisure bosses

The papers paint a picture of faults risking public safety, and key figures failing to take drastic action because they were afraid of losing revenue and being criticised by the public and press.

The reports also expose a culture of finger-pointing among the council, Leisure and Culture Dundee (LCD) and builders Mansell, now Balfour Beattie.

Dundee Council Labour group leader Kevin Keenan praised The Courier’s analysis of the documents for “exposing clear complacency” around the £32 million Olympia.

‘Olympia inquiry must happen’

Cllr Keenan added: “Labour has asked for an independent inquiry into this, but the SNP is absolutely reluctant to do it.

“I am renewing that call, as an inquiry would address all these issues The Courier has raised.

“Olympia repairs have cost the council £6m at a time when the council is making huge cuts.

“If we’re to learn from our mistakes and get to the truth, this is what should happen.”

Olympia construction began on East Whale Lane in 2011.

And the 774-page dossier includes a council report more than a decade on that shows six firms made a bid to build the centre, with the council choosing the cheapest offer – some £4.5m cheaper than the dearest.

Tender guidance states cost is not the only criteria councils must consider.

Kevin Keenan in City Square
Councillor Kevin Keenan.

Typically, at least 50% of the weighting is related to quality and meeting the design brief – so the council could have picked a different developer.

Cllr Keenan said: “This preference for Mansell would have been scrutinised at the time so I’m not concerned that the council went for the wrong contractor.

“What I would question, however, is why there were so many problems early on and why these weren’t picked up on earlier.”

The pool opened to much fanfare in June 2013 – and every fixture and fitting was brand new.

But the documents reveal major problems emerged within 42 days.

‘Major concern’ as water leaked into plant room

LCD has a safety group whose 11 or so members meet every two months.

At the safety meeting in September 2013, those present included LCD’s then-managing director, Stewart Murdoch, now retired.

Documents from that meeting show the group discussed a water leak in the plant room – where the boilers and electrics are.

It read: “The major concern for management and staff was the continued leakage from the showers into the plant room.

It seems to be a major flaw if you have showers regularly leaking into a plant room where, for example, people could be electrocuted if things went very badly wrong.”

Councillor Kevin Keenan

“The group were concerned working conditions for staff were unacceptable and that, while a safe system of work for plant operators had been put in place, it was not a satisfactory work environment.

“Apart from the health and safety issues, the deterioration of the plant room infrastructure after only 6/8 weeks of operation is shocking.”

Such was the concern, the council’s then-chief executive, David Dorward, went to visit the plant room himself and wrote to Mansell builders afterwards.

The letter has never been made public, though it is understood Mr Dorward urged Mansell to deal with the problems.

Pictured at the new Olympia in 2013, left to right: Louise Martin, chair of sportscotland; Councillor Stewart Hunter; Ken Guild; Stewart Murdoch, director of Leisure and Culture Dundee and David Dorward, chief executive of Dundee City Council.
Pictured at the new Olympia in 2013, left to right: Louise Martin, chair of sportscotland; Councillor Stewart Hunter; Ken Guild; Stewart Murdoch, director of Leisure and Culture Dundee and David Dorward, chief executive of Dundee City Council.

Group members also heard how a member of staff injured their back when carrying a chemical canister weighing 30kg – the weight of two car tyres – and that led to a new system being brought in.

Six months later, despite the plant-room leak having been linked to the showers, a report said they didn’t know where the water was coming from.

It then took until September 2016 for centre staff to trace the leak… to the showers.

Olympia defects document

Two months later a document called Olympia Defects identified a poorly built floor to be the problem.

Cllr Keenan said: “It seems to be a major flaw if you have showers regularly leaking into a plant room where, for example, people could be electrocuted if things went very badly wrong.”

It took another year for staff to deduce which part of the shower was causing the leak.

And, though some remedial work was done to try to control the problem, there was still a leak in 2021, almost eight years after it was first detected.

Documents show staff spotted a leaking roof for the first time in February 2014, which was increasing the safety risk to the plant room as water seeped in, leading to flooding.

Part of the leak was down to rain while some of it was caused by condensation as heat from the pool rose and dripped from the ceiling.

This problem got so bad that the water knocked out a centrepiece light feature – described by the council as “art”.

A damning admission in an April 2014 read: “Architects/contractor have investigated the problem.

“It would appear that the area concerned should have been insulated.”

Trip hazard for swimmers

Two years later, a safety group report read: “There have been two failings (of ceiling fixings) to date in different parts of the pool hall.

“The proposal is to undertake inspection, repair and report on a sample of fixings… during the night.”

The papers also show Mansell used the wrong glue to stick anti-slip treads to stairs at the centre.

The problem of treads coming off 69 stairs – creating a trip hazard for swimmers – was raised at least nine times in the safety group meetings between 2014 and 2018.

A November 2017 report recommended spending £65,000 replacing the treads and closing Olympia while the work was done.

A swimmer comes out of the flumes at Dundee Olympia
The Olympia only reopened in December. Image: Alan Richardson.

Another issue was poolside humidity.

It was first cited in a report from March 2014 – but it took three years for LCD to get an external consultant, Paul Hackett, to tell them why it was happening.

In 2017, Mr Hackett wrote: “The relative humidity regularly exceeds the maximum recommended by (advisory bodies).

“This will be leading to condensation surfaces and potentially accelerating corrosion.”

A report five months after the Olympia opened observed “signs left on equipment and building fabric of unsightly and potentially corrosive residue.”

In 2016, the council had to fork out £14,000 of taxpayers’ cash to repair steel fittings that were deteriorating.

And plans were drawn up to place benches and other features in areas hit by condensation in a bid to navigate people away from slip-risk areas.

Baby oil solution to problems at Dundee Olympia

One report in December 2016 said DCL would “put in place an alternative maintenance regime using baby oil to maintain the stainless steel”.

A request by someone to replace the phrase “baby oil” with “suitable cleaning solution” in the safety group minutes appears to have been ignored.

These were just a few of the many problems Olympia has faced since opening.

There was another major leak in the wave pool area and many problems related to the flumes.

A problem with bubbles in the water in February 2014 made it hard for lifeguards to see causing what HSG called “a significant safety risk”.

A May 2014 report said the matter was resolved.

It appears that the problems appeared far too early. A lot of them should have been put to the contractor.”

Councillor Kevin Keenan

Cllr Keenan said: “This kind of safety-critical issue is something you would expect to see resolved in days, not weeks or months.”

The documents reveal the first suggestion of temporarily shutting the Olympia for repair works came 11 months after it opened.

Rift between Dundee City Council and LCD

Reports show bosses wanted the closure to be short and done at a quiet time.

But a memo was sent to the council’s finance committee that was an attempt to brace the local authority for a “significant” loss of revenue from a proposed five-week closure.

That led the council to resist a closure – even going as far in December 2016 of tabling a plan that would avoid shutting the pool if there was a “catastrophic failure”.

It was around 2017 that major fault lines appeared between the council and LCD.

Builders on site as the steel frame of the new leisure centre takes shape during its construction.
The steel frame of the new Olympia during its construction. Image: DC Thomson.

Lots of repairs had to be done while the centre was closed and the council was in favour of the work being done during evenings and weekends over two months.

But LCD and contractors wanted a full closure because they saw it as impractical to have to put up and take down construction material every night.

The issue came to a head at a safety group meeting in July 2017 where one person present “raised concern that little progress and communication has taken place to resolve issues that have been highlighted and recognised by the council (in the previous three months)” and regular reports were needed.

Someone else asked: “If work causes a closure to the pool, who picks up the loss of income?”

In March 2018, a row erupted over the toddler’s pool.

Some bolts on the play structure in that area had gone rusty and in the safety group report that month, an unnamed council manager said: “It is a LCD responsibility to progress this and not the responsibility of the council”.

LCD wrote to the council “indicating that this response was not acceptable”.

Public relations implications of Olympia Dundee closure

On the occasions when drastic action was needed, managers were worried about how the public react.

At one safety group meeting in March 2014, those present discussed a temporary closure of Olympia and said: “The public relations implications of this were considered and it was felt the best way to handle this is to have just one fully coordinated exercise.”

When part of the pool area was cordoned off in 2021, a report from June said: “The closure of the flumes is having a financial impact on DCL and is resulting in numerous complaints.”

Following extensive repairs in 2021, an unnamed council boss asked colleagues if Olympia could reopen in spring 2022.

Involved in this email discussion were the council’s chief executive, Greg Colgan, and executive director of city development Robin Presswood, who earn more than £160,000 and £120,000 a year, respectively.

Judy Dobbie, £100k-a-year director of Leisure & Culture Dundee, replied saying more faults had been found at the Olympia.

A headshot of a smiling Judy Dobbie.
Judy Dobbie. Image: Leisure and Culture, Dundee

We have asked LCD and council leader John Alexander for comment.

Mansell owner Balfour Beatty has declined to answer questions about its role in the project despite several approaches from The Courier.

A Dundee City Council spokesman said: “Since the issues with the building at Olympia were first discovered in 2021, a number of reports have been considered by various council committees.

“These have focused on different aspects of the situation, including providing information on the background to the need for closure and a number of progress reports on the refurbishment programme, which was completed late last year.

“These reports are publicly available on the council’s website and provide a detailed background and narrative on the initial, historical and unfolding situation at Olympia.

“Each of these reports was considered in public and all were subject to intense scrutiny by elected members.

“Works at Olympia are now progressing.

“The council and LCD are in discussions about plans for re-opening and we look forward to sharing these once we are in a position to finalise details.”

The council is not pursuing the builders for compensation for the £6m repairs, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill.

Two years ago Ken Guild, the leader of the local authority when it was built, told us he always had concerns about the site.

‘People sitting on their hands’ as Olympia Dundee faults arose

He claimed the administration felt pressure to keep the new Olympia – replacing the old one at the Waterfront – in the centre of the city, rather than in a more spacious site on the outskirts of Dundee.

Cllr Keenan told us: “A lot of the things in the minutes suggest a lot of things they (the council and LCD) needed to, they never did it.

“It shows, to me, the sheer lack of maintenance.

“It appears that the problems appeared far too early. A lot of them should have been put to the contractor.

“There was complacency and sitting back – and that perhaps led to the rising costs for the council.

“The council just kind of put on the blinkers. There was a whole load of people sitting on their hands.”