Volunteers working to one day reopen Aberdeen’s disused Bon Accord Baths claim the city council is “really hampering” efforts to bring the art deco building back into use.
The Bon Accord Heritage group has hit out at the local authority, accusing senior political figures and officials of being “largely disengaged” with their work to reopen the Category B-listed swimming pool – despite promising to set up a working group of officials to work alongside them.
Aberdeen City Council allowed the charity to take responsibility for the building last summer, meaning the public could gain entry to see the restoration in progress.
Since then, the pool hall has been made wind and watertight, while work to increase security – keeping vandals out – and removing vegetation from the roof has been carried out.
A feasibility study currently underway could soon spell out the full cost of full restoration, which is expected to take years.
So far, around £40,000 has been raised with plans to submit applications for funding in tandem with the council next year.
Closed by the local authority in 2008, the city’s oldest pool has remained drained ever since.
Calls for masterplan millions to benefit Bon Accord Baths were denied
Last week, calls for council officials to lay out options for investing potentially hundreds of thousands of pounds in the council-owned facility in Justice Mill Lane were voted down.
Councillors from the SNP and Liberal Democrats – the two parties in charge when the the axe fell – had pressed for the funding to come from a £150 million pot of cash set up to bankroll regeneration works in the city centre and at the beach.
Trustees said while there was a “considerable amount” that could be achieved with millions from the council, they “do not expect this”.
And during last week’s meeting on the city centre masterplan refresh, council finance convener Ryan Houghton updated members on joint work on the project.
Having heard nothing from the Conservative group leader until Aberdeen Journals raised their concerns, volunteers used the 81st anniversary of the baths opening to air their frustrations.
Trustee Fiona Stevenson said: “It sounded like Aberdeen City Council has been proactive in offering us regular support, when they’ve been largely disengaged with us, not responding to our communications or requests for meetings.
“This lack of engagement is really hampering our efforts.
“What Bon Accord Heritage believes is needed is comprehensive and proactive input from officers across council services.
“Despite an initial positive meeting in late 2020, apologies were tabled for subsequent meetings and it has not been possible to arrange new dates.
“Infrequent dialogue takes place with an estates officer on practical issues concerning the building, the licence to occupy and the draft lease.
“We were promised a working group of officials, but that’s been non-existent.”
Since hearing their concerns, Mr Houghton has sought out the group and has arranged a visit to meet with members, including new chairman Bruce Strachan, in the coming weeks.
Charity’s wishlist from the council to help reopen Bon Accord Baths
Meanwhile, trustees are asking for the council to publicly pledge support for reopening the baths, and for the building to be included in the city centre conservation area, a dedicated team of council officials to engage with them, help with funding applications and for the local authority to clear machinery in the basement and of asbestos.
A detailed report, outlining the efforts required to rid the building of the deadly substance, was recently put together for councillors.
The group already carries out the daily security checks of the building and take on any urgent maintenance work having “effectively taken over” the running of the building.
Insurance and utility costs are met by the council, which is committed to other works too.
Bon Accord Heritage was offered a long term lease on the premises this summer but had expected to be able to speak to officials about their needs – so are yet to respond to the offer.
To add to frustrations, they claim they have had no reply to a letter sent to council chief executive, Angela Scott, last month.
Back in June, councillors, MSPs and MPs were all invited to a preview event at the baths before public open days, but only 11 politicians – six from the SNP, two Tories, two from Labour and an independent councillor on the administration – took up the offer.
‘Recriminations are not helpful’: Council’s Covid response might be behind strain on Bon Accord Baths talks
Councillor Marie Boulton revealed she had not been privy to discussions about any working group – and could not account for the chief executive’s alleged failure to reply.
The administration’s lead spokeswoman on the masterplan said: “It is important we all get together once again and move forward, I’m not interested in ‘he said, she said’.
“Recriminations are not particularly helpful for anyone and I would be interested to see where they have got to.
“I have not been party to conversations but, certainly, if they have written to us we should respond and we can take that up with officers.
“But I would not like to make any assumptions as I am not aware of the contact – and no one has come to me to say they have not been able to get through to officers.
“I had a good relationship with the previous chairman so I would have thought someone might have contacted me if they were having problems.
“We also have to reflect that we have been going through Covid for almost two years, which has stretched our estates teams as they pulled out all the stops to keep schools and other council buildings open.”
Mrs Boulton confirmed she would be interested in attending the meeting between Bon Accord Heritage and her administration colleague, Mr Houghton.
Trustees described the promised access to high-ranking councillors as “a positive step, but a small one,” demanding more still from the local authority.
Mrs Boulton added: “I remember the Bon Accord Baths and so I understand the city’s love affair with them.
“Every group wants to think their project has merit and serves funding – but our officers have spent time with them, getting an application ready to submit for capital funding and the charity requested it was not submitted.
“We are not at the detailed stage of allocating money from the £150m city centre fund for this or that – what we asked for last week was for officers to come back with visioning.
“It has to come down to business cases, sustainability and deliverability and the council cannot be simply the only choice and that is why officers were working with them on the other source of funding.
“I am not saying this is not a priority but we need to look at it in the round.
“What we need to do is get to a better place in the relationship and hopefully we can all move forward together.”
Update September 3: Since this article was first published on August 31, council chief executive Angela Scott has responded to Bon Accord Heritage’s letter.
There has been an outpouring of public support and more councillors have voiced backing for the charity’s work.
All members of the council’s city growth committee – which controls Town House purse strings – have again been invited to meet the team at the baths.