Furious Bath councillors write to construction minister’s boss Patricia Hewitt with claims of ‘improper’ action

The war of words over the Bath Spa project took a pre-election political twist this week when Bath and North-East Somerset council called on construction minister Nigel Griffiths to resign over his intervention in the £40m scheme.

The council has written to Patricia Hewitt, the secretary of state at the DTI and Griffiths’ boss, demanding an apology after he used a House of Commons debate to call the local authority “the most incompetent council in Britain”.

Griffiths also branded Bath MP Don Foster, a Liberal Democrat, “the weakest MP in the country” after Griffiths visited the project, which is five years late and £27m over budget, last month.

In his letter to Hewitt, seen by Building, Malcolm Hanney, the council’s executive member for resources, says: “It was improper to ask the chief executive of a local authority to arrange a private meeting and/or party political wheeze while purporting to be acting as a government minister as he did during and after his visit.”

Speaking to Building, Hanney added: “He probably does need to be considering his position. He’s doing the industry no good at all.”

The council claims that Griffiths misled it over the official status of his visit on 7 February, which it said it now believes was a political act aimed at smearing the Liberal Democrat and Tory council.

It also alleged that the visit was arranged at the behest of contractor Mowlem.

He probably does need to be considering his position. He’s doing the industry no good

Bath councillor Malcolm Hanney

Griffiths has conceded that his visit was not a DTI-sanctioned visit but one made by a concerned MP. He has refused to apologise and said he would visit the project again on Monday in his official capacity as construction minister.

The slanging match was sparked off during a debate about the Spa last Wednesday in the House of Commons.

In the debate called by Wansdyke MP Dan Norris on cost-effective buildings, Griffiths claimed the council had “insisted on reducing the quality of certain items” used on the Spa, including a £200,000 cut in the paint bill, which will eventually cost £4.3m to sort out.

This prompted a furious response from councillors, who have protested that Griffiths failed to obtain a briefing from the council or architect Grimshaw. In particular the council is livid that the minister has scolded it for not replying to Mowlem since the contractor offered to complete all the works for a final fee of £26m.

It emerged this week that the council only received Mowlem’s detailed offer, contained in a document an inch-and-a-half thick, on Thursday.