How Burslem's Dimensions splash pool saga unfolded
MILLIONAIRE Mo Chaudry criticised the city council for running a taxpayer-funded rival to his own business and claimed the authority's financial support for Stoke City and Port Vale had set a precedent for using public funds to support private businesses.
Exchanges between the WaterWorld owner and city council officers show the entrepreneur immediately threatened legal action when it became clear that a plan to shut Burslem's Dimensions splash pool and divert customers to his business had collapsed.
• READ MORE: The full Dimensions correspondence here
Today's disclosures show Mr Chaudry was told by a senior officer that a deal had been agreed – in the full knowledge of elected mayor Mark Meredith. But as public and political opposition spiralled the council's former chief executive Steve Robinson distanced the authority from any agreement. The city council has never formally declared that a deal was in place. These are some of the key exchanges between the two parties.
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RECORDS released yesterday date back to October 2007 when Mr Chaudry was discussing plans to expand WaterWorld into a major leisure complex with houses, a fitness centre, a hotel and an ice rink.
Peter Hayes, the council's interim director of communications, told Mr Chaudry: "Mark Meredith says you two have had a chat about your plans. He would rather deal with this himself."
Details of a Renew North Staffordshire meeting held at WaterWorld in November 2007 show Mr Chaudry asked the council to publicly support his expansion plans, which have never been developed.
They include the first reference to WaterWorld benefiting from the closure of council swimming facilities.
A summary, written by Renew's Andrew Tharp, states: "City council to develop a swimming contract with Mo in anticipation of future swimming facility shortages."
Plans to shut Dimensions were not made public until more than four months later, in February 2008.
A SENIOR council officer met Mr Chaudry on January 4, 2008, to discuss a plan to shut Dimensions splash pool and offer an incentive for customers to visit WaterWorld.
In an email sent to Mr Chaudry and copied to Mr Meredith later on the same day, community services director Julie Seddon states that plans were 'agreed' to shut Dimensions and run a £50,000 'pilot' of free access to WaterWorld for school age children.
Ms Seddon arranged a meeting between Mr Chaudry and Mr Meredith to 'drive progress', suggesting the proposal should eventually be promoted in its own 'Our City' magazine and The Sentinel.
She thanked Mr Chaudry for his 'enthusiasm' and said she was looking forward to watching a DVD of Mr Chaudry's appearance on TV show The Secret Millionaire.
In an email to the elected mayor on the same day, Mr Chaudry said: "More or less everything is agreed in principle subject to finalising the detail and signing the formal agreements."
He also offered his support in setting up a mentoring programme, telling Mr Meredith it would improve the city's 'credibility' with central Government and 'counter negative press' over school closures.
PLANS to shut Dimensions splash pool to save £60,000 were revealed by The Sentinel on February 25, 2008.
Then cabinet member, Labour's Mohammed Pervez, told The Sentinel: "The council is required to provide swimming facilities but this is a splash pool. You have to question whether the city council should be providing this service."
The council made no reference to its discussions with WaterWorld.
Labour councillors Jean Edwards and Dave Conway quit in protest over the planned closure. Labour member, Alan Joynson, followed days later.
Mr Conway claims Mr Pervez and Mr Meredith 'categorically denied' any meetings with Mr Chaudry.
The plan to close Dimensions by the end of March, 2008 – which still made no reference to WaterWorld – was narrowly approved on February 29.
RESIDENTS launched a campaign to save the pool – with more than 7,000 signing a petition against the plan.
A public meeting to discuss the campaign was held on March 20.
Unbeknown to residents, Mr Chaudry emailed the council's PR department on the same day to outline a plan to offer half-price entry to city taxpayers at WaterWorld during certain periods of the day.
He offered to provide a discount for two months before agreeing 'a long-term scheme to fund the ratepayers access to WaterWorld.
In exchanges with PR chief Mr Hayes he suggested the scheme would win public support for the Dimensions closure, adding: "It is high time something positive came out of all that has gone on. This will take the heat off everyone for the time being."
On a planned press release to reveal the WaterWorld deal, Mr Chaudry said: "The last thing anyone wants is to mess up and get further backlash."
AS PRESSURE mounted the council failed to confirm a closure date for the pool and councillors voted to postpone plans for further examination.
On April 3, a scrutiny committee demanded a 'full investigation' into the closure plans and called for a full review of the leisure service.
The letters reveal that Mr Chaudry met Mr Robinson a day later.
It became clear that the apparent agreement was in jeopardy and his relationship with the authority began to sour.
Mr Chaudry threatened to sue over a deal he felt had been broken, while Mr Robinson attempted to distance himself from any 'alleged agreement' by pointing out that individual councillors and officers do not have the power to circumvent the democratic process.
Mr Robinson told Mr Chaudry: "You stated that you 'did not wish to play the race card' but felt that the council was not, in effect, being even-handed in its relations with you.
"On a more general note, it did appear at our meeting that you were seeking to force the council to act in a way supportive of your commercial interests and outside of established processes through the threat of legal action. I am not sure whether this was intentional or perhaps a reflection of different approaches to 'doing business'; however, I do not feel that it is helpful."
In a strongly-worded riposte, Mr Chaudry, pictured right, expressed his frustration that a taxpayer-funded facility was allowed to rival his business, stating: "I wonder how our two professional clubs would feel if the council decided that they wanted to get in to professional football and would allow their customers to pay only a fraction of the entry price and be subsidised by the rate payer."
He questioned financial support for Stoke City's Britannia Stadium and a £2.5 million loan to Port Vale, adding: "My grievance here is that these professional football clubs have received substantial financial benefits from the rate payer."
SAVINGS of £60,000 by closing Dimensions were a significant underestimate, according to Mr Chaudry's claims.
But the results of the council's service review, which were published on June 6, concluded that no such savings could be made.
Announcing that the pool was saved, Mr Pervez said: "The figure of £60,000 is not there, and therefore we cannot justify closing Dimensions splash pool."
Mr Meredith and Mr Chaudry, and senior councillor Roger Ibbs – who Mr Chaudry suspected of helping to derail the Dimensions deal over a personal grievance – were later arrested on suspicion of various offences. A seven-month inquiry led to no charges being brought.
Mr Chaudry revealed in November 2009 that he was to sue the council to clear his name over what he has always maintained was a deal the council had broken.
He was paid £21,850 to end his legal threat in September 2011, at which point the council 'acknowledged that discussions had taken place' and apologised for 'confusion.'
• READ MORE: The full Dimensions correspondence here