Hodder soon encountered the sort of problems that go with local government work. “In the early days, there was a constant change of personnel at the council,” he recalls. “Tony Ellison, the chief executive, left, the [in-house] project manager changed. There was a tremendous lack of continuity.”
Kim Wright, director of community and leisure at Hackney, admits: “It’s no secret. There was no overall political control and it was a fairly chaotic managerial arrangement.”
But the real difficulties started in 1997 when Sport England, one of the scheme’s co-funders, designated Hackney a priority initiative area, which meant, according to Hodder, that there was money available to take the budget to £10m. However, what should have been a boon for the project quickly became a poisoned chalice.
“That prompted Hackney, not unreasonably, to rethink the brief,” says Hodder. “I felt there were things that we could improve … the size of the gym facility could be bigger, there was no spectators’ facility. There was quite a lot of public consultation that led to changes – for example, to the changing rooms because of the Orthodox Jewish community.”
There was debate, too, over the scheme’s two 25m swimming pools. Some felt that there should be a single 50m Olympic pool – an idea that was dropped – but one of the pools was stretched from six to eight lanes.
These were substantial changes, but Hackney was keen to start work on site as soon as possible, partly because it had been advised that this would save on VAT. However, tenders for the project came in at £13m, £3m higher than anticipated. The design team and the council came up with a compromise budget of £11.5m, but in the meantime Gleeson, the contractor, was being pushed to get started.