An “absence” of management by Three Rivers District Council contributed to the William Penn Leisure Centre rebuild lapsing into an expensive debacle, auditors have found.

An investigation into the redevelopment, which overran by more than two years and £4 million, found the district did not have enough staff to supervise the construction.

Meanwhile poor performance by the architects WS Atkins plc and Gee Construction Ltd also contributed to the project’s disastrous outcome, according to a report.

Accountants Grant Thornton said: “The council placed trust in Atkins and Gee as they are both recognised, reputable firms.

“The council considered it received poor levels service from both contractors and officers worked hard at all stages of the project and particularly after the dismissal of Gee, at which point the council regained control of the site and enabled the completion of the works within a challenging political environment and with limited resources.”

The investigation into the William Penn fiasco will be discussed at a meeting of the council’s ruling Liberal Democrat executive.

The redevelopment of the William Penn leisure facilities began in March 2007 and was initially expected to last 12 months and cost about £4.6 million.

External auditors, Grant Thornton, were commissioned by the council – at a cost of £18,000 – to investigate where Three Rivers went wrong with the project’s management.

The auditors highlighted there were a number of risks naturally associated with a project of this scale.

However it said the in the William Penn project there was an absence of “formal project management”, insufficient council staff to manage a project on such a scale, poor contractor performance and unforeseen technical difficulties.

The council appointed WS Atkins plc to provide the architectural design of the new facilities and commissioned Gee Construction Ltd to be the main contractor.

Watford Observer:

William Penn Leisure Centre.

However, a series of delays and disputes and infighting between the council and its contractors ground project to a halt.

Grant Thornton’s report states: “The overall partnership working approach between the council and Atkins and Gee was not conducive to good outcomes for any of the parties involved, with correspondence we have seen indicating that each contractor blamed the other for the issues that arose.” Last year, a settlement was agreed between the council, Atkins and Gee in which the council was paid £700,000.

Grant Thornton’s report said more stringent council oversight of the project could have prevented it failing so disastrously.

It said: “The management of these risks more robustly through a formal project management approach could have mitigated these risks significantly.”

The report adds: “The risks on this project that became issues could arguably have been more effectively mitigated at the very start of the project if the council had completed a comprehensive risk assessment.”

The report goes on to say that: “In hindsight, the council was not adequately prepared to take on such a major project and the contractor relationships associated with it.” The ability of council staff to manage the scheme was also brought into question.

The report states: “The project team included a project manager who was a relatively junior council officer, charged with the responsibility of the day to day running of the project.”