Audit committee satisfied with West Kirby sea wall project

A watchdog council committee said it was satisfied the costs and contracts for the West Kirby sea wall were “in accordance with the law.”

The West Kirby flood alleviation scheme, a huge 1.1km project, aims to protect 70 properties along the coastal town’s seafront on the Wirral as well as save lives. However, it came under fire for its rising costs and impact of construction on businesses in the area.

Businesses in West Kirby said the loss of car parking spaces during the construction turned it into a ghost turn though one councillor said he had never seen the town’s marine lake so busy now the wall is complete.

Advisers on the scheme said homes that would have been flooded every ten or 20 years before the wall’s existence are now only at risk from a once in a 200-year storm and John Curtin from the Environment Agency previously said that without the wall, ‘the town would eventually die from flooding too frequently.”

Work on the wall was completed in September 2023 after more than a year of construction with a final budget of £19.7m compared to an initial budget of £9.6m. The council’s own contribution to the project has not increased.

According to Wirral Council, high inflation over the construction period drove up the costs with delays related to ground works, improving the look of the wall to a wavy design, and difficulty relocating the RNLI station added to this.

At an audit and risk management committee meeting, councillors unanimously agreed to approve work by council auditors that all risks were managed throughout the project. This had been referred over by the council’s environment committee in March.

Representatives for the Environment Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) who helped fund the project praised the scheme and its “exceptional” contractors. An audit carried out by DEFRA said they were reassured about the need for additional funding.

In a statement, Jonathan Meacher, a member of the public, said much had gone wrong with the scheme, it should be subject to independent scrutiny, and evidence provided to the committee was far from complete arguing the council had been “poorly served.”

Simon Fox, Assistant Director for Highways, said the scheme had undergone value-for-money testing and efficient contracts, adding, “I’m confident that’s already been scrutinised because we have had DEFRA doing an audit on the way the grant funding was awarded.”

He said, “We’ve had to make a very robust business case and explain why we need the additional grant funding. I’m confident it’s been thoroughly scrutinised by the correct organisations that have expertise in this field.”

Cost increases were attributed to unexpected ground conditions, relocation of the RNLI station, improving flood gates, and high inflation. Council officers said these additional costs were funded by the Environment Agency subject to a “rigorous business case, submission, and approval process.”

Mr Fox also said councillors were kept informed of delays and cost increases and referred to Mr Meacher’s statement, adding, “That statement in my view infers a lack of competence from the council offices who procure and manage these suppliers which I totally refute.”

He said a failure to approve the report “may imply a lack of confidence in the credibility not only of those council officers responsible for delivering the project but also in the senior civil servants from government organisations.”

Cllr Stuart Kelly said that given the council’s own contribution hadn’t increased, he didn’t think “the council should waste further resource when it actually hasn’t lost a penny from day one,” and was satisfied with how contracts were procured, reviews were done, and the additional costs.

He said, “It’s a big civil engineering project by the sea. You could almost in fairness have said as soon as you put a spade in the ground, it’s not going to look anything like what you produce in your computer models.”

Ian Lockhart from the Environment Agency said the procurement process was the best option for the council, adding, “It was a very challenging time to be able to deliver an engineering and construction contract during a period of hyperinflation.”

Elizabeth Lowe from DEFRA said the project had been difficult to deliver the project due to public realm, keeping the road open, and nearby houses and while costs had gone up, it had a cost-benefit ratio of two to one.

While Cllr Jenny Johnson said there were still lasting concerns related to the RNLI being able to deploy and some lessons needing to be learned, she added, “The risk and scrutiny lies more with DEFRA and the Environment Agency than it does with us.”

Image: LDRS

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