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DALE HASLAM: Unravelling Dundee Olympia secrecy in 4 stages

The Courier investigative journalist Dale Haslam reviewed 800 pages of Olympia documents – and says secrecy snowballed as the crisis escalated.

More maintenance issues for Olympia
The Olympia in Dundee. Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson

What should have been a triumph for Dundee has become an embarrassment.

And, as Steve Finan so astutely put it in his February 14 opinion column, questioning how the Olympia debacle happened is not talking down Dundee – it is merely setting the high standards our city is entitled to.

So it is important, then, that council bosses do their bit to learn lessons on how to be better next time and save taxpayers millions of pounds.

But local authority chiefs are not playing ball, as I discovered when I reviewed 800 pages of Olympia Dundee documents.

As the crisis has snowballed since in recent years, The Courier has asked the council to provide details about decision making in the last 15 years.

Its response? Muddled, at best. It lacks transparency.

A swimmer dives into the pool at Dundee Olympia, where rust affects diving boards
The centre re-opened after two years in December. Image: LACD

Authorities can either publish everything to come completely clean – or refuse to publish any documents it would not usually publish.

If the latter happens, it is up to people to ask for papers using Freedom of Information (FOI) laws.

The only problem is, the council has chosen to go with neither of these two options fully and has instead done a mix of both half-heartedly.

And that has led to confusion, for several reasons.

1 – Missing minutes

While the council has published meeting minutes covering August 2013 to November 2021, it has left some out.

To be clear – this is not down to some technical glitch.

It is a proactive choice to stop taxpayers seeing what was decided – at their expense – at meetings attended by senior civil servants.

An estimated six key meetings took place in the 12 months up to April 2016 and yet there is no sign of those minutes.

What happened at those summits? Is there something the council wants to hide?

2 – Reports under wraps

The highly-paid bosses at these meetings – keen to get to the bottom of problems – request investigations and consultations and there are mentions of reports being drawn up.

But many of those reports remain under wraps.

There was discussion at a meeting in 2017 about a health and safety consultancy firm writing a report after inspecting the pool hall.

But the council has not published it, or several others.

This is confusing because the council has published one consultancy report conducted by a third party.

The glass exterior of The Olympia in Dundee.
The Olympia in Dundee. Image: Andrew Robson/DC Thomson

3 – Why have names and job titles been redacted?

The 800 pages of documents published lack detail.

Whoever was responsible for deciding what to withhold – whether that be the council or Leisure and Culture Dundee – has removed things illogically.

The names – and sometimes job titles – of senior managers at key meetings have been redacted.

This is despite clear guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office which states: “The more senior an employee is and the more responsibility they have for decision making and expenditure of public money, the greater their expectation should be that you disclose their names.”

4 – Inconsistent data on Olympia Dundee meetings

Not only do we not know for sure who was at these meetings, but most reports do not say who said what.

This is inconsistent because the council has also decided to publish one email exchange between three senior managers, with their names and what they said included.

Consistency is important because some bosses argued Olympia should close for repairs while others argued it should stay open to protect income.

How can taxpayers be expected to know if bosses are representing their interests if the council does not publish clear and consistent data?

There are other bits removed that – from the outside at least – appear baffling.

In May 2022, swimming organisations expressed concern the Olympia 50m pool might, in fact, not be 50m.

Tilly Webster and mum Lyndsey outside Dundee Olympia as it reopened.
Tilly Webster and mum Lyndsey as Olympia Dundee reopened. Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson

It turned out that it was measured in 2014 and given temporary 50m status, but there was supposed to be another inspection before the end of 2015.

The council says the problem has since been sorted out – but something is hidden.

The 800-page cache includes one mention of the pool length, at a meeting in March 2015.

The section is titled ‘pool length – fully addressed’ – but then the paragraph that follows is totally blacked out.

A sign states 'We're open' at Dundee Olympia
Olympia Dundee has been beset by problems. Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson.

And it’s not the only one. There are five other lengthy redactions. Without knowing what has been removed, it is hard to understand why.

If it were replying to a Freedom of Information request, the council would have to indicate why it was keeping information from the public, but it has chosen not to do so in these papers.

Secrecy, yes, but council has faced challenges on Olympia Dundee

Despite all of the above, it is important to give the council some credit.

The papers show its staff has consistently made a concerted effort to repair faults and get Olympia fully functioning.

It was also largely hampered by Covid-19 and lockdown measures.

For example, one key contractor is based in the Netherlands.

This meant its staff were unable to travel to Scotland to do repairs and inspections during the strictest lockdown.

Such things could not be helped.

But now, in 2024, everyone should be pulling in the right direction to get the centre up to scratch.

We can only do that, however, if there is trust and transparency.

The first step on that journey is publishing all, not just a selected few, of the Olympia papers.

  • Dale Haslam is an investigative journalist for The Courier and its DC Thomson sister title The Press and Journal.