THE plans to build a new swimming pool and leisure centre on Helensburgh’s waterfront have been back in the headlines again recently.

The main works contract was awarded two weeks ago now. And in a few days' time – on July 15, to be exact, once the statutory ‘standstill’ period expires – we are due to find out the name of the contractor and, more importantly, the value of the contract, last heard of with a budget in the region of £19.5 million.

Will the forthcoming announcement bring to an end the questions that have hung over the project for pretty much all of its life so far? That’s hard to say without a crystal ball, but I suspect not.

Two councillors who are not, in my experience, renowned for asking awkward questions just for the sake of it – Kieron Green and Helensburgh’s own Richard Trail – have already called in public for more financial transparency around the scheme, and for officials to “learn lessons” from the mistakes made on past major projects. That doesn’t inspire confidence.

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Nor does Argyll and Bute Council’s oversight of another major infrastructure scheme on its patch – the regeneration of Rothesay Pavilion, where the budget has nearly doubled from original estimates, where the authority has repeatedly approved the spending of more of its cash to keep the project afloat, and where – admittedly, at least in part, due to the Covid-19 lockdown – the contractor recently collapsed into administration.

In response to Richard Trail's concerns, council officials supplied him with a five point plan for the management of a successful project. Those points included establishing a good working relationship between the council and the contractor, regular monthly meetings between the two parties, daily supervision of the work on site, taking early remedial action if the project starts to fall behind schedule, and monitoring the financial standing of the contractor throughout the project.

All very laudable and desirable, but also, to this layman at least, also rather obvious: if those points have not been part of previous major council infrastructure projects, why not? And if they have, why the need for Cllr Trail to say he thinks the authority needs to learn from past mistakes before work starts on the waterfront?

Then there’s the pier next to the leisure centre site – closed since 2018 and not, for a variety of reasons, likely to reopen any time soon. The council doesn’t want to spend any more money on Helensburgh's pier than it absolutely has to – understandably, at least up to a point – but no matter how bright, new and sparkly the new pool is, it will always be significantly less sparkly for being sat next to a crumbling, decaying, unused pier.

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And the huge sums to be spent on the new leisure centre will only throw into ever sharper relief the lack of money being spent on the pier.

Additionally, alongside the approval of the main works contract last month was the approval of the ‘full business case’ for the waterfront project – i.e. how the council plans to get all the numbers to add up. Here, too, there are questions.

It’s always been my understanding that the viability of the waterfront project as a whole rests not on the swimming pool, or the car park, or the improved flood defences, but on the ‘retail element’ – the shops the council hopes will be built, and either sold or leased, on the part of the site nearest to West Clyde Street.

(Shops which, incidentally, the Helensburgh public doesn't particularly seem to want: any time questions have been asked, formally or otherwise, about the project, the public's enthusiasm for more retail units has been limited to say the least.)

But that element of the project remains a grey area. Literally. The shopping aspect wasn’t included in the proposals that got planning permission 18 months ago, and on the drawings of the site that I’ve seen, the area marked ‘retail units’ really is just a big blank patch of grey.

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So what’s the plan here? My guess – and I may be wrong – is that the council will hope to sell that patch to a private developer and put the cash towards the swimming pool cost.

But in the post-Covid economy, how much would such a sale bring in to the council’s coffers? Walk-in stores were already struggling before the coronavirus lockdown drove us even further into the arms of online shopping. What will the current crisis, and the severe economic recession everyone, including the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, warns is coming our way, do for this crucial aspect of the project – and for the viability of the scheme as a whole?

Of course I’m just an ordinary inexpert observer, thinking aloud. The people who are in charge of the waterfront project know a lot more about these issues than I do.

But I’d warn them against any temptation to fall back on a reply of “don’t worry about it, trust us, we know what we’re doing, just let us get on with it” – because it’s our money that is being spent here.

If it’s built on time and on budget, and if it washes its face in the long term, the waterfront project ought to do Helensburgh an enormous amount of good. If it doesn’t manage any of those things, it has the potential to be a millstone round the town’s neck for years to come.

I know which I’d prefer. But without proper, open, public scrutiny, the questions that have dogged the plans for years already aren’t going to go away.

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