Greenwich Council told a Government agency that the unfinished Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnel works had been completed, a minister has said, even though it now admits the tunnels are in a poor state of repair.
The project, which has been beset by delays, remains unfinished after the contractors were sacked last year, and last month Greenwich Council commissioned an independent investigation into what went wrong.
But local government minister Mark Prisk told Bermondsey MP Simon Hughes that Greenwich Council said the works, which had been funded by an £11.5m grant, had been finished – and any further work would have to come from the council’s own funds.
The cash was awarded by the Department for Communities and Local Government in November 2008. But the project moved to the Homes and Communities Agency, which took charge of monitoring progress on the project.
In a written response to the Liberal Democrat MP, Mr Prisk said: “The borough confirmed that all eligible works funded by the Homes and Communities Agency were completed as per the conditions of contract and that any remaining works would be funded from their own resources.”
However, contractors Dean & Dyball, Hyder Consulting and Swett were sacked in December 2011 following slow progress on the project, with the council issuing a series of misleading and evasive answers about the project until it finally owned up to the problems four weeks ago, and announced plans to take legal action against the firms.
The funding letter, signed by Greenwich’s assistant chief executive John Comber (and obtained by this website under the Freedom of Information Act), outlines the schedule of works.
It’s clear to anyone who uses either tunnel that the works are nowhere near finished – only the lifts and south rotunda in the Greenwich tunnel have been completed, along with the stairwell in the Woolwich tunnel. Greenwich Council refuses to publicly discuss what hasn’t been completed for fear of inflating new tenders to finish the work.
It’s also worth recalling Greenwich cabinet member Denise Hyland’s answer at a council meeting when asked, bluntly, if the Government’s money had run out.
“The budget is considered sufficient to complete the project, subject to the contractual issues being resolved with the contractors involved in the first phase of the works,” she said, despite the fact the council had claimed the works were completed and all the money had been spent.
I’ll leave it down to you to decide whether that, in retrospect, was a misleading answer. Incidentally, Greenwich has still not announced who will lead its investigation into the foot tunnel fiasco, and other big projects.
Whether or not the council misled the HCA – it’s certainly clear the government agency wasn’t taking enough notice of what was happening with its money.
To make matters more complex, the HCA’s functions in London were taken over by the mayor’s office earlier this year, which now means the responsibility for keeping track of the grant falls to a certain Boris Johnson, who has consistently batted away requests that he put pressure on Greenwich to finish the project. City Hall may now have to sit up and take more notice of what’s going on beneath the Thames.
Leader Chris Roberts declined to answer questions last night as Greenwich Council’s cabinet met to discuss the collapse of the scheme to refurbish Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels.
The cabinet met to agree on a course of legal action to recover funds from the three contractors involved in the £11m project, who were kicked off the job in December last year.
Conservative leader Spencer Drury criticised a report into the failure, saying it lacked “clarity about what had and hadn’t been done” in the tunnels since work began early in 2010.
He pointed to the frequent breakdowns of the new lifts at Greenwich, installed at the beginning of this year.
“I got the implication you thought the lifts were furnished, but that’s not the experience of tunnel users,” he said.
However, Cllr Roberts said he would ask officers to write to him with answers, adding he did not want to discuss what would be in a new contract to complete the work.
“We will publish full figures when they’re agreed, but I don’t to big the contract up,” he added.
Chief executive Mary Ney said the identity of who will lead the council’s review of the project should be known by the end of the week.
Under questioning from cabinet member John Fahy, she added the council’s role in the fiasco will be thoroughly examined.
Saturday update: Apologies for the lateness of this, but here a recording of the discussion, chaired by Chris Roberts, featuring assistant chief executive John Comber, Conservative leader Spencer Drury, chief executive Mary Ney, and cabinet member John Fahy.
It’s Greenwich Foot Tunnel that gets all the attention, but if you want a graphic example of the chaos that’s surrounded Greenwich Council’s handling of the foot tunnels fiasco, now to be the subject of an independent inquiry, you need to head to Woolwich. For months after the tunnel was reopened, it still bore a sign claiming it was closed. It’s finally been replaced, with the quality of information that you’d expect of an authority with a generously-funded communications department.
See, the government’s beastly cutbacks meant the felt tip ran out before they could colour in the arrow properly.
But there are several questions left unanswered by the unusually damning report into the botched refurbishment programme. I’ve a few, have you got any more?
Why didn’t council officers undertake “intensive scrutiny” of the project fron the start? After all, the report makes clear this was a “uniquely complex and specialist project”, yet “intense scrutiny” only took place 17 months into the scheme, when it was clear things were going wrong. Why was this?
Has the £11 million from the government run out? The funding came from a government programme. Last month, the cabinet member in charge, Denise Hyland, was asked in a council meeting if the money had run out. Her answer was that the budget was “considered sufficient to complete the project, subject to the contractual issues being resolved with the contractors involved in the first phase of the works” – the first, tiny hint of a problem. Yet this didn’t answer the question – has the money run out?
Did cabinet member Denise Hyland knowingly mislead the public? On 26 October 2011, Denise Hyland blamed the delays on “hidden structures” in an answer to the co-ordinator of Greenwich Cyclists. We now know this answer was nonsense. This was at least a month after council officers started “much more intense scrutiny” of the project. As someone that’s a full-time cabinet member with a big portfolio (“regeneration, enterprise and skills”) she must have known what was going on. If not, why not?
Will heads roll as a consequence of this inquiry? Again, as the politician in charge, and the one that should be giving direction to council staff, what exactly was Denise Hyland’s role? After all, big projects in other parts of the council (such as schools) have gone smoothly, once work has begun. Her lead council officer, John Comber, who earns £155,000 per year, also surely has questions to answer.
Will we ever get to see the results of this inquiry? Will the report be published? The two foot tunnels are important crossings used by hundreds of thousands of people from across London and far beyond. Will Greenwich Council try to cover up the findings?
The issues surrounding the foot tunnels fiasco go to the heart of the way the council is run. This isn’t a party political issue – the opposition Conservatives have also failed to ask questions in council meetings about this. (Away from the council benches, local Lib Dems* and Greens have also failed to apply pressure.) The failure of the foot tunnels project should shame every Greenwich councillor. But what are they going to do to put things right?
(* I should acknowledge that Lib Dem assembly member Caroline Pidgeon has pursued the issue from City Hall.)
Greenwich Council is to launch an independent inquiry after the collapse of a £11m project to refurbish the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels, it has been revealed.
Both tunnels have been left uncompleted and in a poor condition following the failure of the scheme, which began in April 2010.
Now Greenwich Council is taking legal action against three contractors, after it was forced to step in and run the scheme itself.
The report says the two tunnels provide “an unacceptable and deteriorating environment for users”.
Both tunnels should have been refurbished, with new lifts, lighting and security measures, by April 2011.
However, the project ran late and over-budget. Two and a half years after it started, both tunnels are in a poor condition, with no lift at the Woolwich tunnel – which appears closed to passers-by – and unreliable new lifts in its Greenwich counterpart.
The report reveals contractors Dean & Dyball Civil Engineering, Hyder Consulting and Sweett were sacked on December 2011, three months after council officers began “intense scrutiny” of their performance.
Hyder already has a sorry record in Greenwich town centre, having been behind botched proposals to pedestrianise it in time for the Olympics which were shelved in 2011.
Council contractor Lakehouse was drafted in to get the tunnels into a usable condition in time for the royal re-opening of the Cutty Sark, but no work has been carried out since then.
The council is to take legal action against the three sacked firms to recover its costs in clearing up the mess – but just how much these costs are is being kept secret.
While the report says the council has “a good track record in managing large scale projects”, an “independent person” is to review the council’s management of such schemes, reporting to chief executive Mary Ney.
It adds that any further work should take just four months to complete.
The report is the latest twist in a saga, but is also Greenwich Council’s most open admission to date of failures in the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels project.
Already, a damage-limitation exercise has begun, with the extremely rare step of the council issuing a press statement drawing attention to the report – albeit on a Friday night, after the deadlines of the local newspapers, but in time for its own propaganda weekly Greenwich Time.
Even before the refurbishment started, rumours spread in 2009 of lengthy closures. When she tried to investigate, council leader Chris Roberts told London Assembly transport chair Caroline Pidgeon she should ask a Labour member of the assembly instead. The council later “lost” further correspondence from her on the topic.
During 2010 and early 2011 the Greenwich tunnel was plagued by sudden closures as the old lifts broke, while the Woolwich tunnel was closed altogether due to problems with the stairs. Its reopening in December 2011 demonstrated the difficulty the project was in, but there was no word from Greenwich Council explaining what was going on.
Indeed, a hint at the chaos came last year when Denise Hyland, the cabinet member in charge of the project, blamed the delays on “hidden structures“. This comment was later revealed to be nonsense after a Freedom of Information request put in by this site.
New lifts appeared in Greenwich in 2012, but remain plagued by breakdowns. In August, seven people were treated by medics after an “unusual smell” at the tunnel – but the council dismissed it as “a false alarm”.
Finally, last month Denise Hyland referred only to “contractual issues”, but added there was still government funding available to complete the project.