Has Kingston Council lost control of the project to replace The Kingfisher Leisure Centre?
Kingston Council spent many hundreds of thousands of pounds in 2020-21 on architects, designers, and project and planning consultants to push forward their plans to build a new leisure centre on the site of Kingston Town's Kingfisher Leisure Centre, now demolished
But it appears that Kingston Council’s processes for managing a project of this scale have not been up to scratch
I have unearthed evidence that the council may have lost control of its plans to replace The Kingfisher Leisure Centre at an early stage
In July 2021, the Chief Executive’s office hired consultants to review and assess several aspects of the governance and control of the proposed development including procurement, project planning, and decision making and “to identify the proper routes of escalation and the reasons why there had not been timely escalation to the Chief Executive”
This timing of the review coincides with the Council’s initial planning application to demolish The Kingfisher Leisure Centre which was submitted on 16 June 2021, an application which was approved by the Liberal Democrat Council’s Planning Committee on 1 September 2022.
The decision was then delayed as a result of a legal letter to the Council from Leigh Day sent on 26 October 2021, a delay which continued until the Council at least agreed “plans” for a possible facility to replace The Kingfisher Leisure Centre at a Planning Committee meeting in spring 2022
But were Kingston Council's plans for a new leisure centre ever sound? And was the cost of implementing those plans ever fully understood and under control?
It is to be noted that the estimated cost of building a new leisure centre was initially stated to be £40 million. In September 2022, the council announced that the estimated cost had already risen to £53 million, even before the invitation to tender for the contract had been sent out
It is noteworthy that incidents that arose prior to July 2021 in relation to the provision of a new leisure centre to replace The Kingfisher were not mentioned by officers or councillors at the planning committee meeting on 1 September 2021 at which the demolition of The Kingfisher was approved
It makes you wonder who actually knew about the problems and why they were not taken into account in the hasty decision to demolish The Kingfisher Leisure Centre?
Any governance or decision-making failure relating to a project of the size of the planned new leisure centre would indicate yet more clearly that Kingston Council and its staff have lost control
And yet the Council has plans to redevelop vast swathes of Kingston Town under its "Transform Kingston" project, including selling off council buildings at The Guildhall for redevelopment and building on the Cattle Market. The Council has also already signed off on the redevelopment of The Cambridge Road Estate, a vast project that will triple the number of housing units on the estate over 15 years
Kingston residents urgently need to know:
What went wrong with the Council’s plans for demolishing and rebuilding The Kingfisher Leisure Centre and what the consequences were – financial and otherwise - of what happened?
What significant decision-making failures relating to major plans to demolish The Kingfisher Leisure Centre and build a new centre were not referred to the Chief Executive in a timely manner, and why not?
When did the problems arise and who should have dealt with them?
How might what happened affect the rest of the Council’s plans to redevelop Kingston Town and what are the risks to which residents are exposed if similar events happen again?
Why did Kingston's Councillors not disclose issues that arose to residents and taxpayers at the time or since?
How did the events that arose affect the Council's ability to deliver its existing services and how might that ability be affected by similar events in the future?
What did the consultants' report say and what action did the Council take as a result of the report?
The list of matters that the consultants were asked to address is broad and covers not just the rebuilding of a new leisure centre but the wider Transform Kingston project
The work even stretched to a detailed assessment of the “effectiveness of the Council’s tender and contract regulations"
That sounds like a lot of work
Just reading and making sense of the documents produced by the Council would be a herculean task- believe me, I’ve read enough of them myself
But to do the job properly, the consultants would also need to interview staff members, organize their thoughts with reference to good practice, write a substantial report and potentially attend a presentation meeting with the Chief Executive and other senior members of staff
And yet, the total fee paid for the work was less than £6000, a few days’ effort for a well-qualified, professional consultant and a tiny fraction of what you would have to pay a well-known consulting brand
How could so much work, including an assessment of procurement processes and their implications for the council “as a whole”, be carried out properly for so little?
Perhaps the council has forgotten the old saying that “if a job is worth doing, its worth doing well”
Or maybe its heart wasn’t really in the work in the first place
A broader question is what does this governance failure indicate about the adequacy or inadequacy of governance and decision-making processes at Kingston Council?
Kingston Council wants to develop on, or to redevelop, the vast majority of publicly-owned land in Kingston and to allow developers to redevelop many of the privately-owned buildings and spaces across Kingston Town
This requires the strongest governance and decision-making processes