A local authority’s “shaming catalogue of errors” led to a contract that never should have been signed, for a building that was never fit for purpose.

The mistakes surrounding Conwy county council’s £3.6m white elephant project to site an HGV depot at Mochdre Commerce Park is a sorry tale - highlighting a lack of leadership, policies ignored or misunderstood, and no one being held to account for organisational failings which permeated the authority’s project management.

Conwy county council’s CEO Iwan Davies called the episode “highly regrettable” at a virtual governance and audit scrutiny meeting on 22 February, as he outlined measures he hopes will prevent a repeat of the fiasco.

Cllr Anne McCaffrey, who sat in on the committee, called it “a really quite shaming catalogue of errors”.

The saga began in May 2016 when the council entered into a 35-year lease with Conygar Investment Company PLC (Conygar Strand Ltd), on a number of units at Mochdre Commerce Park in Colwyn Bay..

The idea was to move all of the authority’s HGV vehicles and equipment under one roof from nine sites across the county in a bid to save cash.

However, incredibly, no one bothered to check if the building was structurally fit for purpose - until after the £240,000 per annum plus vat leasehold agreement had been signed.

Eventually a council survey, when it looked to install inspection pits for vehicles, revealed the floor could not take the vehicles' weight and showed 21 other issues that rendered the unitts unfit for purpose

The contract the council had signed meant did not allow for any redress and the council had no choice other than to continue pay rent.

With solicitors and report fees added in, more than £1m has already been wasted on the facility, which Cllr Donald Milne described as “the biggest financial liability in the history of Conwy”.

If lease payments aren’t negotiated down at this year’s review, it could cost the council at least £3.6m plus service charges, up to 2031 – when there is a 15-year break clause in the lease agreement.

That is without calculating how much officer and staff time has been lost investigating the project, along with legal fees, costs for reports and money spent finding alternative provision for HGVs. An independent report into the debacle was commissioned by Conwy county council with solicitors DWF LLP, based in Newcastle.

Originally confidential, a redacted version was released under the Freedom of Information Act in 2020.

The report listed the technical deficiencies of the units in detail which included: the concrete slab floor was not “fit for purpose”; there were problems with drainage; defective lightning protection; and a “defective installation of ground gas management systems to external areas”.

In all 22 defects or areas of work needed rectifying.

The study also revealed a catalogue of errors in management which led to the council handing out taxpayers’ cash for little return.

The original plan (Project K) started in 2013, and was led by the authority’s estates department with a remit to find new offices for the council's environment, roads and facilities (ERF) section.

But in August 2014 the officer in charge of the project left the council's employment and it appears no one in authority thought to replace him.

The independent report said: “From mid-2014 onwards the paperwork indicates  there is much reduced internal project governance.

The report noted that there was "no evidence a building survey was commissioned or the suitability of the property was investigated in any detail" and said that checks “fell below the standards expected from a diligent and prudent authority” and described missed opportunities to “identify some of the key issues involving the defects”.

In May 2015, aware the building was on a former tip, the council’s cabinet told council officers it should only proceed with the deal, if it was “supported by legally enforceable assurances confirming the property was free of inherent defects and specifically any issues resulting from ground conditions”.

What council officers finally agreed was a limited 10-year warranty which  excluded the building condition and left out all pre-contract issues.

According to the study, even if the authority could have claimed any recompense from Conygar it would not have covered the rent on the property.

Two departments were involved after the project leader left; neither thought it was their responsibility to lead it or raise the lack of scrutiny as an issue. No one in the council’s hierarchy recognised the void left by the departure of the project manager.

In 2020 the building was on standby as a temporary morgue during the Covid crisis, with the Welsh Government picking up the bill for rent. Fortunately it has not been needed.

Currently it is being used for “storage and distribution of pandemic related equipment” said CEO Mr Davies during his 22 February presentation, where he outlined the progress being made to ensure such poor management never occurs again.

Council managers will undergo training and new systems for project management will be established

Meanwhile the council has declined to reveal if anyone has faced disciplinary actions over the failures.

Mr davies said he remained “bitterly despondent about what happened” but the risk of a recurrence was “very, very low, if non-existent”.