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Exposed: minister's Bath Spa row

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The Bath Spa debacle has taken a further turn for the worse, with the exposure of confidential angry exchanges between central and local government.

Local councillors accused construction minister Nigel Griffiths of abusing his ministerial position in his treatment of the affair.

Politicians at Bath & North East Somerset Council have claimed Griffiths misled the press and public during his visit to Bath in February.

The spa project has been beset by problems, including leaking floors and peeling paint - problems that have led to a legal dispute between the council, the architect Grimshaw and the contractor Mowlem.

The councillors claim they were led to believe that Griffiths was acting in a ministerial capacity when he branded them 'the most incompetent in Britain' during his tour of the troubled facility.

When Conservative councillor Malcolm Hanney used the Freedom of Information Act to get to the bottom of the affair last month, officials at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) distanced themselves from Griffiths by saying he was acting in 'a non-departmental capacity'.

In a letter to DTI chief Patricia Hewitt this week, Hanney wrote: 'Griffiths has now confirmed that his visit to Bath was not a ministerial visit but a private visit at the invitation of Mowlem, which he combined with a political visit to a nearby constituency.

'This is not how he has previously presented this visit to the press or public.'

In his letter, Hanney also drew attention to Griffiths' comments in a parliamentary adjournment debate last week.

He wrote: 'He proceeded to state Mowlem's position as regards the pool paint issue, without seeking any views or comments from Grimshaw and/or the council.

'I am at a loss why the minister would be seeking to intervene in a matter where there is prospective litigation.' But, in response, Griffiths told the AJ: 'The council's case will flake off quicker than the paint will flake off the pool.

'I was invited both by local MP Dan Norris to meet small businesses and by Mowlem to look at the spa, and decided it would not be a good idea to spend more taxpayers' money by arriving with an entourage of civil servants.' It is understood that the minister has received a further invitation to visit the spa next week, which at the time of going to press was dependent on council approval.

Griffiths also branded the council's actions 'a smokescreen', adding: 'We have an international building with a well-known architect, and the council seems to fall into the category of an incompetent client, as the spa is three years late and three times over budget.' Heated correspondence has emerged in the wake of the visit between local and central government, with Griffiths branding the project 'a fiasco' and the council's comments 'delusional'.

In response, council leader Paul Crossley accused the minister of being 'badly misinformed and poorly briefed'.

According to the council, as of the end of February, the total scheme costs were projected to be £35 million, of which the council has paid £17 million.

Discussions continue regarding who was to blame for ordering the paint in the spa. A council spokesperson said: 'We are continuing to work towards a solution with Mowlem in light of its recent offer.'

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