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6 controversies that rocked Leisure and Culture Dundee as tribunal reveals chaos

The charity has been through the most challenging period in its history.

Leisure and Culture Dundee has faced a series of controversies. Image: Kris Miller/DC Thomson
Leisure and Culture Dundee has faced a series of controversies. Image: Kris Miller/DC Thomson

New light has been shed on the controversies that have plagued Leisure and Culture Dundee.

The arm’s-length council body, funded by Dundee’s taxpayers after it was established in 2011, has faced the most challenging period in its history.

It runs sporting, leisure and cultural venues across the city.

But the organisation has grappled with spending cuts, a bitter management feud, the Olympia debacle and the proposed closure of facilities.

On top of that, it has had to deal with criticism over its transparency and the high-profile death of animals at the zoo it operates.

Judy Dobbie, who took up the managing director role at the start of 2020, has had to deal with them all.

Judy Dobbie, managing director of Leisure and Culture Dundee. Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson

Some of the issues have been played out very publicly.

But very little has been revealed about the inner workings of the organisation, with meetings held and decisions made behind closed doors.

That was until an employment tribunal judgement offered insight into the staggering breakdown in relationships between senior managers that was happening away from the public glare.

These are the six controversies Leisure and Culture Dundee (LCD) has faced in just four years – and the impact they had on key public services.

1. Leisure and Culture Dundee forced to make spending cuts

Ms Dobbie had barely been in the door in the top job at LCD before she was facing major issues.

After being appointed to the managing director role, firstly in an acting capacity in 2020, then fully in 2021, she was tasked with tackling “substantial financial challenges” facing the charity.

This was due to its main funder, Dundee City Council, having to cut millions from its own budget.

Following the controversial closure of Camperdown golf course in April 2020, in an attempt to save six figures every year, plus a hike in charges at its venues, staff cuts at libraries, museums and sports centres were considered.

These spending challenges continued in subsequent years, especially with the impact of Covid and the drastic reduction in income at its facilities.

2. Bitter feud among senior managers

As Ms Dobbie put plans in motion to cut costs through a management restructure, a bitter feud ensued involving senior managers in the organisation.

Graham Wark, head of leisure and sport services, took issue with Ms Dobbie’s approach to the restructure despite being given reassurances there would be no compulsory redundancies.

It was during a meeting about these plans in early 2021 that he became “extremely angry” and aggressive towards Ms Dobbie, leaving her in tears.

Ultimately, the relationship between Mr Wark and both Ms Dobbie failed to recover and he was eventually suspended and then sacked.

He later failed in a claim of unfair dismissal and disability discrimination linked to his depression and anxiety.

Billy Gartley, head of cultural services, was also suspended at the same time after raising grievances about the process.

Billy Gartley. Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson

Both men received full pay for their £67,000-a-year roles for more than a year, while they were on leave.

Evidence revealed during Mr Wark’s tribunal laid bare just how vitriolic the dispute between Mr Wark and Ms Dobbie had become.

The tribunal heard how Mr Wark had been “actively talking about seeking to bring about the removal of Ms Dobbie”.

Mr Wark was said to have been in “full campaigning mode and seeking to fight with LCD rather than co-operate in the job he is paid to do” and “entirely failing to co-operate with management”.

The tribunal also heard how Mr Wark was “trying to be as difficult as possible” and was “simply frustrated at not getting his own way.”

Graham Wark. Image: Steve Brown/DC Thomson

It was claimed that since March 2021, Mr Wark had “engaged in questionable, disingenuous or at times unprofessional behaviour” which led to “instability in the business”.

The full financial impact of dealing with the case has not been revealed, however, in his tribunal judgement, Ian McFatridge wrote: “The respondent (LCD) has clearly incurred very substantial costs in proceeding to investigate the possibility of there being a breakdown in trust and confidence in the painstaking and time-consuming way they did.

“The process of investigation took well over a year during which time the claimant was suspended on full pay.”

Ultimately, the taxpayer will foot this bill.

It has never been confirmed how LCD covered for both Mr Wark and Mr Gartley’s absences from their senior roles during their suspensions, or whether they were ever replaced.

The outcome of Mr Gartley’s case has not been revealed.

3. Olympia closures and £6m of repairs

At the height of the internal management dispute, LCD faced what would become its biggest crisis, in the closures of the Olympia.

The flagship leisure centre was forced to shut for more than two years after a series of problems were discovered.

The closure, running from October 2021 to December 2023, cost the council more than £6 million for the repairs – while LCD missed out on more than two years’ worth of income at the site.

The Olympia. Image: Alan Richardson

The crisis deepened when the leisure and toddler pools were forced to shut again in February 2024, just weeks after they had reopened, due to an issue with the flume structure.

These pools did not reopen until May.

That led council leader John Alexander to call for an independent probe into what had gone wrong, having resisted similar calls during the longer closure.

Details of that probe are to be confirmed.

The centre has faced several other problems since December, including having to shut the training pool at the end of May when it was found to have emptied of water.

4. Threats to staff after five Camperdown wolves put down

Bosses at LCD also faced uncomfortable questions and criticism after a pack of five wolves at Camperdown Wildlife Centre was put down in spring 2023.

The animals were euthanised after showing unusual behaviour in the wake of an injury to alpha male Loki.

There was a huge outpouring of grief from locals with many questioning the need to put down all the animals in the group.

Loki, the alpha male wolf at Camperdown Wildlife Park.
Loki, the alpha male wolf at Camperdown Wildlife Centre. Image: Camperdown Wildlife Centre/Facebook

It later emerged staff at the zoo, run by LCD, had faced threats as a result of the decision.

After initially withholding information from The Courier, LCD eventually released a report, through Freedom of Information, into what had happened.

It revealed how the wolves had escaped from their enclosure twice following the death of Loki, leading to the decision being taken on safety grounds.

5. Criticism over lack of transparency

The organisation has faced criticism for failing to be transparent on a series of matters – particularly the Olympia closures.

In February, Councillor Kevin Keenan – Labour group leader on the council – accused LCD of being “secretive” in its handling of the Olympia saga.

His comments came after the charity only published minutes of meetings where it had discussed the closure of the centre when it was pressed on the matter by The Courier.

Labour councillor Kevin Keenan. Image: Gareth Jennings/DC Thomson

Lib Dem group leader Fraser Macpherson has also been repeatedly critical of the lack of information surrounding the Olympia situation.

As of July 5 2024, LCD had not published agendas or minutes for any of its 2024 meetings on its website.

LCD has also failed to respond to at least three Freedom of Information requests from The Courier about the Olympia closures dating from February this year – despite them being well past the 20-day response deadline.

6. Backlash over plans to close visitor attractions

LCD came under further fire in January 2024 when it emerged the board had secretly agreed on plans to close Caird Park golf courses, Mills Observatory and Broughty Castle.

The details only came to light when The Courier got its hands on council budget papers.

The organisation said the move would save about £500,000 a year.

But the plans provoked a furious backlash from locals who wanted to see the venues saved.

Dundee City Council budget proposals
Broughty Castle, Caird Park golf course and Mills Observatory could close. Image: DC Thomson

The SNP administration eventually removed the proposals from its 2024/25 budget.

However, just weeks later, the plans were back on the table when the authorities launched a public consultation.

Hundreds have since signed a petition to save the observatory.

Council leader Mr Alexander has also said he aims to see the attractions saved, though a final decision on their future is yet to be made.