THE Chard regeneration scheme had to be scaled back because the district council was “unrealistic” about how much the town’s new leisure centre would cost, according to a new report.

South Somerset District Council committed millions of pounds towards the construction of Chard Leisure Centre, which opened in November 2021, as part of its flagship Chard regeneration scheme.

The council announced in August 2021 that it would be putting phase two of the regeneration scheme – comprising the revamping of Boden Mill and Holyrood Lace Mill – on hold due to a lack of available funding.

Officers have now admitted in a new report that the scheme had to be scaled back because the council did not accurately predict how much it would cost to build the leisure centre on the former ACI brownfield site in the town centre.

Natalie Fortt, the council’s regeneration project manager, laid out the findings of the report at a virtual meeting of the council’s district executive committee on Thursday morning (January 6).

She said in her written report: “The initial costings for the leisure centre were based on Sport England per metre costings for Leisure Centres.

“However, this did not take in to account the difficulties of building on a brownfield site with ground contamination issues and the inclusion of historic and listed buildings.

“The design of the leisure centre also developed in response to public consultation, becoming a full-sized five-lane swimming pool.

“The initial costings were therefore unrealistic and the scope of the overall programme has been reduced in order to deliver the leisure centre within the budget available.”

The council stated in September 2021 that it would seek to redevelop Boden Mill and Holyrood Lace Mill when funding became available – hinting that the latter may come forward through the private sector after the new unitary authority formally takes control in May 2023.

Councillor Peter Seib, portfolio holder for finance, legal and democratic services, said: “This is about trying to learn from the experience and trying to improve our project management in the future.

“It’s not a witch-hunt or a holding to account of individuals – it’s about making sure that next time we have a major project, we do it better because we have learned from the last one.

“Everybody seems to be very, very positive about what has happened in Chard. It is a good reason to go and visit the town centre, and it’s accessible on several levels to the people of Chard. It is proving to do what it was intended to do.

“We are a public authority, and we do this sort of work quite deliberately where the market will otherwise not deliver.

“When you hit awkward ground conditions and so on, to an extent you have to take it on the chin, dig into corporate reserves and meet those costs.

“What has been achieved has been achieved within the budget and to time, but is less than the full roll-out we had envisaged.”

Mr Seib added that since the project’s beginning there had been “a vast, broad increase in construction costs across the whole industry”, which was “frankly beyond the control of the council.”

Councillor John Clark, portfolio holder for economic development, said that delivering the leisure centre ahead of schedule was “a major achievement in trying circumstances” and welcomed the council’s honesty regarding the overspend.

Councillor Martin Wale, however, claimed the council had not heeded warnings from Chard ward members about the difficult ground conditions associated with the leisure centre site, which may have driven up the project costs.

Mr Wale (whose Blackdown and Tatworth ward surrounds Chard) said: “I and Jason [Baker – Chard Holyrood ward member] and others all commented on the ground conditions well before this project was started, on many occasions.

“We had experience from The Guildhall next door a few years ago and knew this site would have problems.

“Public consultation is only good if you listen to it. We must take note of public opinion when doing regeneration projects for our towns.”

In light of the Chard Leisure Centre report, the committee voted unanimously to introduce new “end of stage assessments” for any capital project whose budget exceeds £1M, along with higher-risk projects with a budget of £250,000 or more.

Plans to demolish the derelict Building 11, next door to the Chard Leisure Centre, are expected to come before the council’s area west committee for debate on February 16.