Bath, the favoured retreat of the Romans, is awash with claims of council mismanagement

FOR THE Romans and the Georgians, the hot springs created a decadent playground. And for the thousands who visit each year to admire the glowing, golden stone buildings and historic sites, it is a remarkable cityscape.

But behind the glorious facades, Bath, a World Heritage Site and one of the country's biggest tourist attractions -mainly because its Roman Baths and Georgian Pump Room - is a divided city, with many believing it is failing its visitors and residents.

Its biggest problem is the ill-fated Bath Spa project - a leisure complex based around the hot springs - which has suffered constant delays and design faults and has now cost every person in the district pounds 98; it is at least three years behind schedule with the local authority, Bath and North-East Somerset Council, now unable to say when it will finally open.

Last month, it was announced that new boreholes will have to be dug, adding a further pounds 300,000 to the bill, while there is a continuing dispute between the council and the builders, Mowlem, about the waterproofing of the floors. The final cost could be as high as pounds 35m, almost three times the original budget while the council's share has risen from pounds 11m to pounds 17m; the remainder comes from lottery money.

Yesterday, Mowlem offered a compromise deal in which it would take over complete responsibility for the project in order to end the drain on public money; in return, it said it would guarantee the opening of the centre within six months of a handover. The council was still considering its response.

However, some say the Spa controversy is just part of a bigger picture, in which the city is suffering from poor planning, bad traffic and parking management and problems with litter, graffiti and public drinking, which means it is failing to measure up to competitors such as Edinburgh and Oxford. And even some of the lustre is disappearing from its magnificent Bath stone buildings, after a cut in grants for restoration and repair.

Martin Tracy, a member of the board of the Bath Festivals Trust and chairman of the Walcot Street Traders' Association, a street of independent shops specialising in arts and crafts, said: "The city is suffering from a kind of malaise of which the Spa is the worst example. The idea of the Spa is an excellent one but who is going to be made accountable for the mistakes?" He said that although Walcott Street was relatively safe, independent traders in other parts of the centre had been forced out because the council had imposed rent rises of up to 25 per cent.

"There seems to be an apathy about the way the city is being run, which seems incompatible with its status as a World Heritage Site ... I love this city - there are few places I'd rather live - but it is lacking in leadership. And all of my members would agree with me. We are not moaning, we just don't want the city running downhill.''

Michael Briggs, the chairman of the Bath Preservation Trust, said: "The Spa of course is an unmitigated disaster, which at least in part is due to appalling mismanagement on the part of the council."

Mr Tracey and Mr Briggs said they feared that the mistakes of the Spa would be repeated at the Southgate centre in the city, a 60s complex which, after many delays, received planning permission for redevelopment. "It is very important to get this right" said Mr Briggs.

The trust is concerned that, following the withdrawal of English Heritage grants that helped in the renovation and repair of Bath's 5,000-plus listed buildings, the city council also ended its share; their contribution had been about 40 per cent.

Mr Briggs said: "The main important buildings, such as Royal Crescent, are still in pretty good condition but many of the other, lesser properties in private hands are not ... The stone is deteriorating and not in very good condition because people cannot afford to do the work themselves. In a World Heritage Site, that is a disgrace.''

The criticism comes on top of strongly worded attacks on the city's governance by newspaper columnists. Miles Kington, of The Independent recently wrote: "What you have is a World Heritage Site run by people who could not manage a sweet shop satisfactorily.''

He accused the city of permitting too much late drinking, allowing poor buildings to be built, bad traffic management and discrimination against small shopkeepers by raising rents. Jaci Stephen, the television critic, caused a furore last year after writing in The Mail on Sunday the city was parochial, boring, crime-ridden and overcharged tourists.

Several people said the city was run by a "complacent clique" and was hampered by the fact the council was a Liberal Democrat/Independent/Conservative coalition that hampered dynamic thinking.

The council rejects many of the criticisms and cites consistenently high tourist numbers and the success of the city's Christmas market and ice rink as evidence of Bath's continued vigour. A survey of visitors rated the city's attractions higher than other British historic towns and 74 per cent said they would recommend a visit to the city. The council's leader, Paul Crossley said: "We accept there are problems with litter and parking and we are working to try and address them. So far as the Southgate development is concerned, we are replacing a rather tacky 60s development with a much more sympathetic shopping centre but the process of signing up all the leases is taking a long time.

On the Spa, Mr Crossley said: "The council is as embarrassed as anyone else and is working with the architects and builders to get the project finished."