Public deserves to know the facts of ‘secret’ pool deal

Irrespective of the spin certain people might like to put on it, the Dimensions leisure centre saga leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
One of the reasons people like myself get frustrated with the public sector is the sheer lack of transparency which pervades so many elements of its work.
The ‘settlement’ reached between Stoke-on-Trent City Council and multi-millionaire businessman Mo Chaudry in recent days is another case in point.
No wonder some councillors are up in arms about what they are calling a ‘secret deal’.
I suspect there will be a few Freedom of Information (FoI) requests winging the council’s way as a result.
Thanks to the settlement, Mr Chaudry has agreed to drop his long-standing threat of legal action against the local authority.
But just what does this agreement entail and has it cost the taxpayers of the city? Either way, surely they have a right to know.
It is more than three and a half years since The Sentinel’s front page revealed the planned closure of the splash pool at Dimensions.
It is more than two years since the police investigation into the proposed closure of the facility in Burslem was dropped through lack of evidence.
But I dare say most observers are still none the wiser as to what went on, who spoke to whom, or what exactly was being proposed back in early 2008.
What we do know for definite is that the Dimensions controversy led to the arrest of former city councillor Roger Ibbs and the then elected mayor of Stoke-on-Trent Mark Meredith.
Mr Chaudry was also arrested but no charges were ever brought against any of the men and the investigation was dropped.
All three men then spoke of their relief, said there should never have been a police inquiry and basically seemed to be blaming each other for what became the ultimate political hot potato.
The closure plans were abandoned after a huge public outcry and a council report which conveniently concluded that shutting the Dimensions pool would actually cost money rather than save it.
Talk about closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Initially, councillors had been told the scheme would save about £60,000 a year but a subsequent report found that the loss of visitor income and loss of income from services like vending machines would result in a net cost of £42,000.
Mr Chaudry says he had negotiated a deal with the city council to close the splash pool and have them pay him £100,000 a year to offer people discounted admission to his Waterworld attraction.
The city council has now finally admitted that discussions did take place with Mr Chaudry over the possible closure of the facility.
Now we can argue about whether or not any such contract would have represented a good deal for the taxpayers of Stoke-on-Trent or whether or not local authorities rather than private businesses should be providing such facilities.
But I can’t get past the fact that what we are talking about here is a leisure attraction – the number of visitors to which had risen consistently in the years leading up to its proposed closure.
This begs the question why anyone at the council – politicians or officers – thought there was merit in shutting the splash pool in the first place.
Sadly, we’ll never know who got the maths wrong and no-one will ever be named and shamed or punished over the affair.
But surely, given recent developments, we should be able to get to the bottom of the settlement brokered between Mr Chaudry and the council.
If the authority didn’t have a contract with Mr Chaudry then why have we never had a statement from them saying as much?
I’d like to know whether or not Mr Chaudry has been financially compensated for any breach of contract or perceived damaged to his reputation. I’d also like to know how much taxpayers’ money has been spent on solicitors’ fees dealing with Mr Chaudry’s threatened legal action.
How can the public possibly judge whether or not their money is being well spent or take a view on whether or not the council has learned lessons from this sorry saga when there is such a clear failure to communicate.
It seems obvious that mistakes were made when the Dimensions splash pool was being considered for closure and that senior figures at the council spectacularly misread the public mood when discussions were taking place with Mr Chaudry.
However, it appears that no-one is accountable and the long-suffering public is once again being asked to accept bland statements which attempt to gloss over what is a monumental PR disaster.

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