Foot tunnels fiasco: Greenwich Council launches inquiry

Greenwich Council is to launch an independent inquiry after the collapse of a £11m project to refurbish the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels, it has been revealed.

Both tunnels have been left uncompleted and in a poor condition following the failure of the scheme, which began in April 2010.

Now Greenwich Council is taking legal action against three contractors, after it was forced to step in and run the scheme itself.

It is also commissioning an independent inquiry into the way it handles major projects, a report to be presented to the council’s cabinet on Tuesday says. (see the report here)

The report says the two tunnels provide “an unacceptable and deteriorating environment for users”.

Both tunnels should have been refurbished, with new lifts, lighting and security measures, by April 2011.

However, the project ran late and over-budget. Two and a half years after it started, both tunnels are in a poor condition, with no lift at the Woolwich tunnel – which appears closed to passers-by – and unreliable new lifts in its Greenwich counterpart.

The report reveals contractors Dean & Dyball Civil Engineering, Hyder Consulting and Sweett were sacked on December 2011, three months after council officers began “intense scrutiny” of their performance.

Hyder already has a sorry record in Greenwich town centre, having been behind botched proposals to pedestrianise it in time for the Olympics which were shelved in 2011.

Council contractor Lakehouse was drafted in to get the tunnels into a usable condition in time for the royal re-opening of the Cutty Sark, but no work has been carried out since then.

The council is to take legal action against the three sacked firms to recover its costs in clearing up the mess – but just how much these costs are is being kept secret.

While the report says the council has “a good track record in managing large scale projects”, an “independent person” is to review the council’s management of such schemes, reporting to chief executive Mary Ney.

It adds that any further work should take just four months to complete.

The report is the latest twist in a saga, but is also Greenwich Council’s most open admission to date of failures in the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels project.

Already, a damage-limitation exercise has begun, with the extremely rare step of the council issuing a press statement drawing attention to the report – albeit on a Friday night, after the deadlines of the local newspapers, but in time for its own propaganda weekly Greenwich Time.

Even before the refurbishment started, rumours spread in 2009 of lengthy closures. When she tried to investigate, council leader Chris Roberts told London Assembly transport chair Caroline Pidgeon she should ask a Labour member of the assembly instead. The council later “lost” further correspondence from her on the topic.

During 2010 and early 2011 the Greenwich tunnel was plagued by sudden closures as the old lifts broke, while the Woolwich tunnel was closed altogether due to problems with the stairs. Its reopening in December 2011 demonstrated the difficulty the project was in, but there was no word from Greenwich Council explaining what was going on.

Indeed, a hint at the chaos came last year when Denise Hyland, the cabinet member in charge of the project, blamed the delays on “hidden structures“. This comment was later revealed to be nonsense after a Freedom of Information request put in by this site.

New lifts appeared in Greenwich in 2012, but remain plagued by breakdowns. In August, seven people were treated by medics after an “unusual smell” at the tunnel – but the council dismissed it as “a false alarm”.

Finally, last month Denise Hyland referred only to “contractual issues”, but added there was still government funding available to complete the project.

24 comments

  1. Whenever I read stories such as this my first thought is always.”I wonder how many people have come away from this with a bundle of cash for doing sod all.” We never seem to find out though.

  2. This sorry saga is almost beyond belief, the incompetence surrounding the project is truly staggering. At least Greenwich Council is now being open about the matter, though I imagine it had no other choice after all this time. However, on this side of the river you would be mistaken for thinking the Greenwich tunnel doesn’t exist, apart from a brief notice two and a half years ago when the work started, the Tower Hamlets Council “newspaper” has never again mentioned the subject, I have to rely on this blog to keep up to date.

  3. It seems everything to do with the tunnels is plauged by delays and long periods of nothing happening. I’m still waiting for the answer to my FoI request about the chainage signs in the Woolwich tunnel (http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/woolwich_foot_tunnel_chainage) that I expected would take about an hour tops to answer – just get the engineering department to look up the plans and jot down the figures. It’ll be two weeks overdue on Monday when I expect to have to chase them again.

    Islander: It was pretty much the same story in Newham re the Wooliwch Tunnel, although finding anything on that website is rather challenging.

  4. Chris M: re your request to find out what the chainage numbers refer to in the tunnel: why don’t you get a tape measure and work it out yourself? It shouldn’t even take an hour. I’d love to know the answer too, but this doesn’t strike me as the best use of council tax: if it cost them 12m quid to (not) get lifts fixed, how much will this cost? Btw, chainage is defined here http://www.wordnik.com/words/chainage so there’s no reason it should be measured in chains. Let us know when you find out the answer though.

  5. Yes, I learned that chainage need not these days refer to chains a few days after submitting the request. I submitted it through FoI afer a customer service enquiry failed to provide any response months.
    I must admit though to not having thought to take a tape measure down there myself.

  6. If you don’t i will! I’m really intrigued now. But I bet no-one at the council will know the answer.

  7. […] There is to be a  Council discussion this Tuesday, on this crisis, but it looks like it is going to take place behind closed doors (the public and press are being asked to leave prior to it being discussed). Although this is in line with exemptions allowed if there is to be any sensitive legal issues discussed, it is very convenient that the public, who have been asking continuous questions of the council on this subject over many years, will not be able to hear what has gone on. My colleague Caroline Pidgeon, Leader of the Lib Dems on the London Assembly and Chair of the Transport Committee, has been pressurising our Council on this subject for a long time with little response from Greenwich. Also all credit to the 853 blog for keeping the pressure up on this subject and breaking the news so quickly…. […]

  8. Finally something is happening. As you said the press release highlighting a story that is not ridiculously positive about Greenwich is quite extraordinary! Let’s hope we get some action.

  9. Are the official figures available to compare usage of the foot tunnels with the cable car? Might be interesting context, given the relatively low media coverage of the problems with the former.

  10. Might be able to rustle some up – I’ve certainly got some cable car stats somewhere, tunnel figures might be more difficult but I know some people who might know…

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  12. The report to Cabinet is simply astonishing.

    The original contractor DDCE was on site from March 2010 until December 2011, but apparently did not finish ANYTHING. The Council’s ‘framework’ (i.e., untendered) contractor completed the installation of the south lift and the re-roofing.

    So… the total additional costs to Council taxpayers include: (1) the framework contractor; (2) the Council employees managing the framework contractor; (3) the outside legal counsel apparently required to sue DDCE; and (4) the NEW contractor to finish the still-outstanding, and rather significant, work required.

    I am lost for words…

  13. i heard at the last count it was 22m,a lot to cover up!mmmmm
    by the way i did work there

  14. Chris M: I went down there today, and yes, it’s in metres. The signs increment mostly in 20’s and are 20m each apart. A tape measure (or some large strides) would have saved you (and the council) going an FoI request!

  15. Why are these foot tunnels the responsibility of Greenwich Council anyway? Given their LCC/GLC heritage, wouldn’t it be more appropriate for them to be under TfL’s wing?

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