John McLellan: Council heading for own goal over Pitz

The new Meadowbank sports centre was expected to enter the final straight today, with the appointment of Graham Construction as the main contractor to deliver the facilities in less than two years.

Thursday, 11th October 2018, 6:00 am
Hearts Dave McPherson looks on as Edinburgh Lord Provost Eleanor McLaughlin kicks the ball to Hibs goalkeeper Andy Goram at the opening of the Pitz in October 1989

Councillors are being asked to give the go-ahead at today’s finance ­committee, but the information before them is such thin gruel it makes Oliver Twist’s starter look like a Black Forest gateau.

The committee report contains no information about any of the four shortlisted tenders apart from price and a mark for quality and, surprise surprise, Graham’s bid came top for quality but at the lowest price, £39.3 million. There is no explanation as to how the quality rating was achieved, other than ten unidentified criteria were used. In other words, councillors who are there to scrutinise major council decisions are expected to nod through a £40m deal with no information other than the successful ­bidder’s top line price.

Graham Construction completed the £37m Commonwealth Pool refurbishment, a £17.8m sports hub in Glenrothes and a £3m expansion of Edinburgh University’s Pleasance sports and exercise centre, so it has a track record in leisure facilities. It also led construction of Ulster Hospital’s £112m inpatient block and is now delivering the £57m Belfast Maternity Unit so there is no reason to believe it is anything other than a fine company. But this information is from the ­company website, not the council’s tender analysis.

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The other shortlisted firms are not even named so for all we know they might have a similar background and councillors have nothing on which to base an informed comparison. The usual commercial confidentiality reasons will be cited, but there are two other items on a confidential B Agenda today so including a third with more detail would have been no hardship.

There are other oddities in the report, such as the mysterious emergence of a Meadowbank programme board to produce a masterplan for the whole area, the membership of which has not been divulged apart from its chair, Director of Place Paul Lawrence. But the biggest surprise is the proposal to scrap the sale of the Pitz five-a-side football pitches run by Powerleague at Westbank Street in Portobello, even though the effect of giving up a potential £3m receipt has still to be measured. Nor has a U-turn been discussed with Powerleague, which owns the long-term lease and would presumably expect compensation even though its operation is being discontinued.

According to the report, such is the strength of local opposition that carrying on with the Westbank sale risks damaging the council’s reputation in the community and also reduces the chances of a commercial development getting through planning.

Curiously, the report also says there could be a problem with the Scottish Government if the site is sold, but offers no explanation. On the other hand, the report recognises that halting the sale puts the council’s “professional reputation” at risk. As the proceeds from Westbank were supposed to help fund new Meadowbank, the other risk is the council doesn’t have enough for the sports centre and as it will probably give Westbank over to affordable housing, that means a lower return. But what signal does a U-turn at Westbank send to opponents of the Meadowbank redevelopment? The administration can’t pay heed to loud voices in ­Portobello and completely ignore those in Meadowbank, Marionville and Willowbrae?

Minimising the housing density on the rest of the Meadowbank site, as the council must surely do now, will widen the financial gap further, but as if by magic, an unallocated pot of £7m has been found down the back of the council’s 2023-24 capital budget sofa as a contingency.

Even with that low tender from Graham Construction, it looks like that £7m will be needed. As legendary sports commentator Arthur Montford might have said, it’s a stramash.

Trouble builds over homes

There’s no love lost between Edinburgh Council and West Craigs Ltd, the firm planning 1400 new homes near the airport and the subject of a successful appeal to the Scottish Government.

The Government reporter told both sides to thrash out their differences, but instead the pair have been wrangling over access to information about transport plans for the area which the council wanted to keep secret.

WCL went to the Scottish Information Commissioner which ruled the council was right to withhold some, but not all the information, and also failed to respond within the statutory time limit. Another stramash.

Not cooking with gas

Scotland Gas Networks’ mains work at the Duddingston junction over-running, the start of work to replace setts on Brighton Place, resurfacing work on Willowbrae Road and a storm-damaged wall on Smokey Brae have made Willowbrae Road a street to avoid over the past fortnight. Nothing could be done about Smokey Brae, but despite the nearby resurfacing work being rescheduled, the apparent inability of SGN to stick to schedule has caused no end of disruption. Stramash number three…