Stephen Hodder's Clissold Leisure Centre in Hackney was supposed to show how first-rate public buildings could tackle urban deprivation. Now it is two years late, four times over budget, and the council is slashing public services. How did it all go so wrong?
The Clissold Leisure Centre was always intended to be a landmark project – but not a landmark of mismanagement and overspending. The centre, designed by award-winning architect Stephen Hodder for Hackney Council, was meant to be a showpiece of ambitious public sector building and to provide a focus for regeneration in one of the country's poorest boroughs.

Instead, it has cost almost four times its original budget and exacerbated the council's dire financial crisis. The situation has led to huge public spending cuts, the closure of the borough's other pools and a bitter local outcry.

"The Clissold is the worst thing that has ever happened to Sport England," says a source close to the organisation that channelled £10m of lottery funding into the complex of two 25 m pools, a gymnasium and tennis courts. "It was even worse than Wembley," the source adds.

Conceived in 1995 to replace three crumbling pools in the borough, the project is more than two years late, and Building has learned that the centre is set to miss its latest opening date, set for next month. It is unlikely to open until the autumn.

A combination of a shifting brief, procurement problems and on-site trouble with the building's complex roof and exposed concrete walls had already pushed the bill from £7m in 1995 to £26.7m by the beginning of this year. There have since been more problems, the latest being a glass screen between the entrance foyer and the sports hall that is struggling to get a fire rating. The screen is two storeys high and 33 m wide; if it has to be replaced, the cost may be as high as £90,000.

Basic work is outstanding: main contractor MJ Gleeson is still on site dealing with snagging problems on stonework and making mechanical alterations. The centre's two swimming pools, fitted with state-of-the-art ozone filtration systems, have been filled but black algae has spread across the water.

When all this is fixed, the council will still have to pay for fitting out before private firm Leisure Connections takes over and customises the building. The deal, which has taken months to finalise, calls for Hackney to offload all of its leisure facilities and Leisure Connections to back up its bid with £2m of investment capital.

The council has been criticised for poor management of the project. Although lottery funds provided a grant of £8.5m in June 1997, the council had to return five months later to ask for another £1.5m, as the brief for the scheme had expanded.

This top-up should have meant that the council would have to find only £1.9m, yet it has had to pour in £16.7m of local authority funds. This is a disastrous figure for a borough that had piled up debts of £40m last year.

A public interest report into Hackney's finances by the District Audit Office two years ago drew attention to the council's "poor project management skills" on the scheme and the inability to "identify and contain delays and the resulting significant overspends". Despite this report, the council continued to overspend, leading the District Audit Office to demand a full investigation into the Clissold fiasco in last year's annual summary of the council's performance.

Prestige architecture was inappropriate – a grand statement can only do harm without proper management

Ken Worpole, writer and Hackney resident

For a council looking to set new standards in leisure procurement, Hodder was an obvious choice to design the centre. The Manchester-born architect has made a name for himself designing leisure buildings, and won the Royal Fine Art Commission's building of the year award in 1992 for his pool at Colne, Lancashire. This year, his £5.5m pool at Darlaston, near Walsall, which has a timber semi-monocoque roof, is tipped to win a RIBA award.

But Clissold was far from plain sailing. Among a catalogue of delays, the most time-consuming were those caused by the complexity of Hodder's roof. This was designed as a series of shallow, latticed-steel vaults that formed a wave across the building. "The architect's dream was hard to make a reality," says a Hackney council spokesman. "It led to redesigns that caused delays right down the line," Hodder adds.

Hodder had to work with engineer Whitby Bird & Partners to simplify plans and find ways to cut costs. The solution, involving the removal of an interstitial layer, worked well but held up progress.

Then there were problems with deflection during installation – each pair of trusses along the roof's steel spine bowed at a different rate. This meant having to wait until each pair was in place and surveyed before the positioning of the next two could be calculated. It was crucial to get this right – otherwise the aluminium roof cladding would impinge on the curtain walling, but the process of placing the trusses and stiffening the roof added months to the programme.

The slow progress prompted Gleeson to move forward with other packages that were to have started after the roof was finished, but this created sequencing problems.

With such a sophisticated roof, last-minute work was perhaps inevitable. Hodder says that a lack of organisation was part of the problem, but says that the client's timetable meant work began before everything was ready. "We had to start on site without all the information co-ordinated – then we had to re-evaluate the roof with the subcontractor. Looking back, we should have said: 'Sorry, let us go away for three or four months and conclude this'. But there were financial reasons for beginning the scheme when we did. The irony was that the decision to accelerate on site proved more costly," says Hodder.

Another element that caused delay was the fairfaced concrete, with Hodder's radical structures proving particularly hard work. The main staircase pushed the limits of what was possible, with stairs and landings cantilevered off a spine wall only 400 mm thick. Shallow concrete slabs that spanned large areas also tested the construction team.

In addition, Hodder was meticulous about the concrete's finish. Huge effort went into ensuring that panels ran smoothly, with even shadow gaps, and there was a demanding exactness over the detailing. "The drawings for the concrete subcontractor were unusual," Roger Johnson, Gleeson's project manager, told Building in 1999. "Normally, you position the bolt holes where they are best for reinforcement, which might not be symmetrical." Hodder insisted that the holes be perfectly aligned.

The two years of delays have had far-reaching consequences. Hackney's debts, to which the Clissold fiasco has been a principal contributor, have forced £58m of cutbacks that have crippled the borough's public services. Rubbish collections have been slashed, hundreds of jobs threatened and workers have been left to face wage cuts.

The present situation is dire. In the poorest part of the borough there is no swimming provision at all

Adam Hart, Hackney Co-operative Developments

One irony is that an earlier round of staff cuts was partly blamed for the mismanagement at the Clissold. As the District Audit Office put it: "Slimming down the workforce, while economically justifiable, has led to a disproportionate fall in the level of support."

The cuts have already begun to affect other leisure projects in the borough. London Eye designer Marks Barfield found that its watersports centre, completed this month, had to be switched to a design-and-build, fixed-price contract. It looks likely that this procurement policy will now become standard practice in Hackney, but the council has refused to confirm this.

The social effects have been disastrous.

Three pools have had to close – two on the site now occupied by the new centre and one at nearby Haggerston – to make way for the Clissold. This leaves one facility to serve 195,000 people.

The most mourned loss has been that of Haggerston. The pool was closed after health and safety concerns, and an internal report to the council in February 2000 recommended the "transfer of revenue funding from Haggerston to Clissold pool". The closure of the much-loved listed building has prompted English Heritage to place it on its Buildings at Risk register.

Those worst hit are local schoolchildren, some of whom are now unable to go swimming – an infringement of the national curriculum. At Laburnham primary school, now without any swimming provision at all, every child wrote a letter to the council complaining of the closure of Haggerston baths.

"The present situation is dire," says Adam Hart, a local resident and director of Hackney Co-operative Developments. "We have the ludicrous situation of only one pool and, for many schools, transport is tricky. Haggerston baths are in the poorest part of the borough and now there is no swimming provision at all – it's a serious issue of social justice."

Hackney residents feel betrayed and sidelined. "The project was conducted from start to finish over the heads of local people," says Ken Worpole, a writer on urban and social policy who lives in the area. "There was not even a board up outside it to tell you what was going on. There should really have been an integrated consultation throughout, but they stopped consulting before the first brick was laid."

One aspect of the saga that especially rankles with Worpole is that the Cube Gallery in Hodder's home town of Manchester is showcasing an architectural exhibition about the Clissold. "I was upset that the architects were exhibiting there – it felt like a kick in the face to the people who paid for it," said Worpole, who believes the people of Hackney should have been the first to see what their leisure centre will be like.

Le Corbusier would have been proud

Whatever its construction problems, spiralling costs and delays, Clissold Leisure Centre weighs in as probably the most glamorous local swimming pool in the country, writes Martin Spring. The serial award-winning architect, Hodder Associates, justifiably regards it as the practice’s most exciting building yet. Silvery and gleaming, the building advertises its delights grandly to the modest side street in north London where it is situated. Like modernist caryatids, six y-shaped steel columns heroically support a streamlined aluminium roof canopy and stand guard over a glass curtain wall protected by banks of metal louvres. The glass wall is the shop-window to the main pool, and one corner is cut away to entice in the punter. The full palette of neomodernist materials and features are on show, executed with the meticulousness that is Hodder’s trademark. As well as the silvery roof canopy, tubular steel columns and aluminium brises soleil, the building sports terracotta cladding panels and white-rendered lift cores, plus a cantilevered staircase in fairface concrete that Le Corbusier would have been proud of. The big twist to these predictable forms and materials is in the roof. What looks from the street like a flat metal canopy reveals on the inside a series of spectacular slashes. From sharp points at one end, these open up into wedge-shaped barrel vaults supported on a diagonal latticework of steel ribs. The barrel vaults are raised above clerestory windows, which spread daylight through the interior and provide glimpses to neighbouring wave-shaped barrel vaults. The internal layout is as crisp as the use of materials. Changing rooms and support spaces in a cruciform arrangement divide the rectangular plan neatly into four main spaces at each corner. These four spaces accommodate two 50 m pools, sports hall and entrance hall. An obligatory flume in sky-blue fibreglass sits uneasily in this purist architectural setting. What Hodder dismisses as “a necessary evil” could well be the main attraction to the leisure centre’s younger and more eager visitors. After the centre finally opens, management problems will still be an issue. Such a refined building will demand intensive maintenance which will be expensive for a cash-strapped local authority. The pure white-rendered flank wall, for example, is a perfect whiteboard for graffiti.