Spa wars

Bath should have been basking in the tourist revival brought about by the inauguration of its restored baths. But it all went wrong, reports Alexander Garrett.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

On 7 August 2003, Pavarotti, Carreras and Domingo - the Three Tenors - gave a gala performance to a purring audience of 7,000 at Bath's Royal Crescent. The occasion was to celebrate the re-opening of the town's famous thermal spa. The first spa baths in Bath were built by the Romans back in the first century AD, but their most recent incarnation closed for business in the late 1970s.

As the strains of Nessun Dorma rang out across the World Heritage city, the spa, originally planned to be open for the Millennium in 2000, was still under wraps (it was later revealed that the baths had been filled with tapwater for the visiting VIPs). But few doubted it would meet a new opening date that October.

The opening never happened. Fast-forward more than two and a half years to spring 2006 and Bath's spa buildings, in a quiet backstreet near the town centre, are still firmly closed behind wooden hoardings. A seagull wheels overhead above the corrugated iron canopy installed to protect the rooftop pool from bird droppings, while a group of builders in hard hats examine a shattered pane of the sleek tinted glass on the exterior of the building. A banner over the entrance proclaims hopefully: 'If one in 30 visitors use the Spa, it will be full every day.'

Before the end of April (if everything goes to the latest plan), the spa will be handed over to the operating firm Thermae Development, and the first guests could be dunking themselves in its hot, pungent waters within weeks. But after the litany of cost overruns and missed deadlines so far, nobody's putting money on it.

Since the burghers of Bath learned nine years ago that their application for £7.8 million of Millennium Commission funds had been approved, the spa restoration scheme has lurched from one crisis to another, looking less like a restoration drama than a comedy of errors. Local anger has welled as the original budget of £13 million has soared to £37 million and rising (excluding legal and interest costs), with council tax payers expected to make up the difference. And far from providing the promised tourist renaissance, the project has so far made Bath the butt of jokes, inviting comparisons with other well-known project management nightmares such as the Millennium Dome and the Scottish Parliament.

It has demonstrated, critics say, what happens when a local authority dabbles in a property development beyond its expertise, and when political pride overturns pragmatic decision-making. Or as local Labour MP and critic-in-chief Dan Norris puts it: 'It's about people being simply out of their depth.'

Says Tory councillor Bryan Chalker: 'They have cocked it up at every turn. It's not much bigger than a Georgian townhouse, but they've spent more than £30 million on it.'

It's a debacle that has scarred all the parties involved; not just the 'client', Bath and North East Somerset council (BANES) - infamously dubbed by construction minister Nigel Griffiths as 'the most incompetent council in Britain' - but also the main contractor Mowlem and the architects Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners, the latter more used to basking in glory for buildings such as the Eden Project and the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo.

Bath's hot springs were discovered in Roman times, but it was during the Georgian period that taking the spa waters became fashionable and the baths now under restoration were first built. Some 1.2 million litres of mineral-rich hot water rise under the streets of Bath every day, and over the years it became recognised as a valuable therapy for a variety of ailments, including rheumatism, arthritis, skin diseases and muscular disorders. But in the 1970s, two things happened: the NHS, which by now accounted for 95% of users, stopped sending people, as belief in the medicinal powers of the spa waters waned; and in 1978 a schoolgirl died of meningitis after swimming in the Beau Street baths. The spa was closed.

But Bath without its baths seemed only half a town, and so it wasn't long before the dream of reviving them began to take shape; during the 1980s, a variety of ambitious schemes were sponsored by the likes of Champneys, Lord Selsdon and Peter de Savary.

In 1997, the Millennium Commission funds were secured, and Grimshaw won a competition against 147 other architectural firms to design the buildings, with Mowlem as the main contractor.

But things started to go wrong before a single stone had been laid. Thermae, which was brought in to operate the spa when it was finished, had trouble raising the £5 million it was required to put into the scheme, a sign that might have set alarm bells ringing. When it did come through with the cash, a bunch of New Agers - of which Bath has a plentiful supply - known as the Springs Foundation, sought an injunction to prevent new boreholes being drilled on the grounds that this would damage the hot springs.

However, by July 2003, the spa was confidently believed to be just days away from opening - staff had been employed and bookings taken - when it was discovered that paint on the sides of the rooftop pool was starting to peel. This, coupled with the discovery of leaks from the complex's steam rooms, heralded an 18-month stand-off between Mowlem on one side and BANES and Grimshaw on the other. Mowlem said that cheap paint had been specified to cut costs; BANES said the paint hadn't been applied properly. In April 2005, Mowlem walked out before it was forcibly removed from the project, with each side promising to see the other in court.

Capita Symonds was brought in to replace Mowlem. It compiled an extensive catalogue of 'faults' that it said needed to be remedied - at a cost of £1.3 million - before the spa could open, including broken glass, sub-standard fire doors, leaking floors, rusting steel and defective wiring. One of the hazards of the never-ending project became clear: materials and fittings installed up to five years ago had either decayed or been overtaken by new technology.

Before Christmas, it was decided to replace the original system for disinfecting the water with a new enhanced UV system. Then, it was found that the entire external glazing needed to be replaced because of 'defects'. Since then, fingers have been crossed and Bathonians have been collectively holding their breath, with everyone hoping that this time it's really going to happen.

Bath's troubled bid to revive its heritage comes at a time when the spa sector, both at home and abroad, is bubbling like an overheated jacuzzi.

The Spa Business Association estimates that in the UK the sector accounted for a turnover of £1.5 billion last year and that it is growing at 10%-15% per annum. In the US and Canada, there were a whopping 136 million spa visits last year, generating some $11.2 billion and employing 280,000 people.

What these figures hide is that the spa sector now embraces the various treatments and therapies offered by hotels, sports clubs, beauty salons and health clubs, many of which don't involve water at all, and very few of which involve natural springs bubbling out of the ground. The spas of the Victorian age and earlier were largely about taking a 'cure'; today's spas offer instead pampering, relaxation, beauty treatments and well-being.

Points out Suki Kalirai, chair of the Spa Business Association and chief executive of beauty salon chain Re-Aqua: 'Spa treatments such as massage were prevalent in Indo-China 4,000-5,000 years ago, and it was the Romans who applied the ideas in a water environment - so it doesn't have to be connected with water.'

A number of factors are behind the growing popularity of spas, says Kalirai.

'There's the preoccupation with lifestyle and well-being; increasing interest in beauty and a desire to look younger; and stress, which prompts people to look for relaxation treatments.'

Spa towns have lost out on two fronts, he believes. People no longer need to visit to drink the water, as it is now available in their local supermarket, while waning belief in the medicinal benefits of bathing in spring water has meant that public subsidies have been cut. 'In France, that category has survived much more, because they are still subsidised,' he adds.

In the UK, today's most popular leisure spas are places such as Ragdale Hall in Leicestershire, where you can indulge yourself in a series of pools with whirlpool and cascade features, sweat it out in the sauna and steam room, choose from a list of exotic therapies such as lemon and avocado scrub and electro acupuncture, or simply find a quiet room and settle into a sofa.

Quite where Bath's spa will fit into this picture remains to be seen.

Says Peter Rollins, Thermae's marketing manager: 'In many ways, we are more akin to the European spas in countries such as Italy, Germany, Spain and Hungary, where the benefits of bathing in natural waters are still widely recognised.'

Bath's spa has been heralded in some quarters as leading a revival of the spa town tradition in places such as Buxton, Harrogate, Leamington Spa and Tunbridge Wells. But the unique advantage of Bath, he says, is that it is the only town that has heated waters you can bathe in - at 45deg-46deg C the water actually has to be cooled down.

The success of Bath spa is by no means a foregone conclusion. Rollins says his company will be targeting between 90,000 and 130,000 users a year - about 250-360 a day. Most of those will be visitors to the town, he predicts, although locals will be repeat customers. If the projections are correct, that should generate a healthy £2 million-£3 million a year before the deduction of running costs.

BANES stands to share in any profit, but nobody predicts that the council will recoup its investment any time soon. All the signs are that the moment the spa is handed over to its new operator, the legal fight will begin.

The blame game began in earnest when the peeling paint was discovered in 2003. Mowlem says that even before then, the project was mired in bureaucracy as more than 3,000 changes were introduced, each of which had to undergo a lengthy approvals process.

But it was over the paint and damp-proofing that the two sides finally fell out. Mike Ward, a senior member of the Mowlem project team, insists that both materials were specified by the design team, consisting of Grimshaw and structural engineer Ove Arup. 'In both cases, the material in question had no track record of use in similar circumstances. Our concerns in each case were notified to the architect.'

In a letter to the Bath Chronicle, Simon Vivian, group chief executive of Mowlem, went further: 'BANES stubbornly and persistently refused to work with Mowlem to resolve issues, preferring to focus its energies on dodging blame rather than progressing the project,' he wrote.

For its part, Grimshaw is keeping quiet; the firm declined to comment when approached by MT. As for BANES, Nicole O'Flaherty, the councillor with direct responsibility for the spa, refuses to get drawn into specific issues. 'We are very seriously looking at the potential of claims against other parties,' she says. Much of the criticism, she adds, has been politically motivated. The spa project is the brainchild of the council's biggest party, the Lib Dems, with Conservative and Labour members on the hung council largely opposed.

And for some of those political opponents, the question is whether the project should ever have been started. Labour MP Dan Norris, whose constituents live in the rural area outside Bath but have nevertheless had to shoulder their share of the bill, says: 'The local authority should never have got involved in an area where they have no expertise. They were attracted by the Millennium Commission money and thought they would get a £13 million facility for an investment of £3 million.' He predicts that the eventual cost, including legal action, could rise to £55 million.

Says Nick Raynsford, the former local government minister and construction minister: 'This long, long and very sad saga goes right to the heart of the problem of small local authorities undertaking complex construction projects without the necessary expertise. It's not the only one; in Stoke they have got into an appalling mess over their cultural quarter plans, and Scarborough is in deep trouble because they have mishandled their sea defences. And the problem is seen particularly with one-off projects; you can't expect local authorities to be staffed up for the type of complex project they might do only once every 30 years.'

Raynsford adds that BANES should have taken steps to avoid confrontation with its builders. 'In the last 10 years, progressive opinion in the construction industry has advocated an emphasis on partnering, in which you have a team with both sides joined together, sharing in risks and sharing in the benefits. In Bath, they seem to have ignored that.'

Malcolm Hanney, a Conservative member of BANES council and a former investment banker, is scathing in his condemnation of how the project was initiated.

'There was no independent project management, no investment appraisal, no transfer of risk to the private sector,' he says.

With a dowry of £11 million, he adds, the council should have found a private-sector company prepared to take the project and the risk with it. Instead, it wrote a blank cheque. Under the existing contract, Thermae will receive about 85% of the spa's revenues; on a discounted cashflow basis, that means the council's investment of up to £30 million is worth only £3 million.

O'Flaherty is defiant. 'If 5% of tourists who come to us stay for an extra night as a result of the spa, that will generate an extra £20 million a year for the local economy,' she says. 'This project was never intended as a milk cow.' Even with the cost of the spa, BANES's council tax is lower than that of the surrounding local authorities, she argues.

'I think it's sacrilege that millions of gallons of natural hot water go down the drain every day.'

It remains to be seen whether the completed spa will turn out to be the white elephant that its critics predict or the popular success that the council has promised. Bath may have restored its soul, but at considerable cost to its pride and its coffers.

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