Sunday, 14 May 2017

£23 million contract signed despite worldwide warnings


Councillors in the Scottish Borders sanctioned a £23 million project in 2012 to deal with the region's municipal waste several years after the publication of highly respected research which warned the technology was risky, potentially hazardous, and dangerous to health.

The Borders scheme, which was abandoned after at least £2.4 million of taxpayers' cash was lost, features in a recently completed research project by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) representing 800 grass roots groups in 90 countries.

It would appear members of Scottish Borders Council (SBC) either ignored separately produced strong criticisms of a process known as pyrolysis and gasification or were not made aware of the dangers before amending a deal with contractors New Earth Solutions to build a plant incorporating the technologies at Easter Langlee on the outskirts of Galashiels.

Lead authors of the GAIA report Neil Tangri and Monica Wilson conclude that even in 2017 "the potential returns on waste gasification are smaller and more uncertain, and the risks much higher, than proponents claim". It surely begs the question what were the potential returns five years ago when Borders signed on the dotted line.

The new research uncovered the fact that over $2 billion had been invested in the projects listed in their report alone, all of which closed or were cancelled before commencing operations.

It is not entirely clear why SBC, which signed up for the development of a conventional compost producing plant in 2011, 'upgraded' to the completely unproven pyrolysis model just a year later by way of a so-called contract variation.

The decision to change horses in mid-stream may or may not become known after the authority releases confidential information relating to the disastrous saga on the orders of the Scottish Information Commissioner.

GAIA point out that in 2008 - just as SBC was starting their procurement process - a US study for a government agency surveyed a large range of gasification technologies and found the processes were unproven on a commercial scale for treating municipal solid waste.

It also found that solid and liquid residuals might be hazardous, and furthermore, that the technologies required pre-treatment of waste and were more expensive than conventional incineration or landfilling.

The new report also points out that in 2006 the UK Government's Department for Environment began a new technologies demonstrator programme to overcome the perceived risks of implementing new technologies in England and to provide accurate and impartial technical, environmental and economic data.

The programme was meant to spend £32 million on 10 projects. Resulting projects were subsequently evaluated and found to be largely unsuccessful. All four pyrolysis and gasification projects hit major snags; two of them did not even proceed to operational status. A third was unable to run long enough to study the process and was closed down while the fourth has not yet been completed.

Then in 2010 a report by the German development agency on the subject concluded that severe challenges were unsolved, specifically "There is no reliable technology readily available. High costs for technical development, repair and maintenance make it unprofitable. Dangerous threats exist to the environment and health due to carcinogenic waste".

GAIA say in their report: "Existing data does show that dozens of projects have failed for a variety of technical and financial reasons. These failures highlight a widespread inability to meet projected energy generation and emission targets, or to simply maintain consistent operation.

The document catalogues notable failed projects in Canada, USA and Europe, including the UK.

A section dealing with New Earth Solutions, the company selected as waste management champions by Borders councillors,points out the now bankrupt business was associated with six failed or abandoned gasification projects.

In 2016 NES disclosed that it would be unable to pay £9 million to unsecured creditors. It also had bank debts of more than £50 million.

GAIA add: "Local governments were also impacted financially: the failure of one of the New Earth Solutions projects cost the Scottish Borders Council at least £2.4 million."

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The egos have landed!

DOUGLAS SHEPHERD on the shake-up at Scottish Borders Council

Apparently there was more horse trading than you'd witness at the Doncaster Bloodstock Sales, but less than four days after the last local government result was announced in the counting hall at Kelso we have a brand new multi-coloured administration ready to take over the reins at Scottish Borders Council.

There seems to be fewer shades than last time when every political faction bar the Tory blue had a hand in running the multi-million pound budget which is supposed to deliver efficient, high quality local services. In fact the Conservatives did have strength in numbers after the 2013 polls but failed to seize power.

This time round their 15-strong group may have fallen short of an overall majority on the 34-member authority yet again. But the Independent Group - surely an oxymoron if ever there was one - has come riding to the rescue, ensuring decisions can be carried in the council chamber. More about the Independents later.

It must have come as a shock to many when it was announced that "rookie" councillor Shona Haslam (Con. East Tweeddale) would succeed David Parker (Ind. Melrose & District) as leader, Mr Parker had been at the helm for fourteen years, and after his re-election on Friday he made it pretty clear he was 'interested' in carrying on as SBC's top banana.

Instead, Councillor Parker is set to serve as Convener which commands a £25,000 salary and involves representing the authority at events and ceremonials. He will also be responsible for Health, according to a council statement.

Ms Haslam has succeeded to the leader's job - complete with £33,450 salary - even before dipping her toe into local government waters.

But the former national director of Asthma Scotland obviously has the support and confidence of her Conservative colleagues and those who prefer not to divulge their politics. She is certainly not afraid to speak her mind and express forthright views.

Following her resignation from her high profile role with the asthma charity because of 'interference from London' she told Third Force News: “Management (in England) think they know best and don’t listen to what’s happening in Scotland.
“It’s not so much they don’t understand devolution or how politics work north of the border; they don’t actually want to know. They believe Westminster is the pinnacle of politics and we should learn from them. They just totally miss the point.”
There had been speculation that members from the SNP, Liberal Democrat and Independent ranks might combine to keep the Tories at bay. But if there was such a plot then it must have fizzled out quite quickly.
Seven of the eight so-called Independents have decided to team up with the Tories, the exception being veteran Hawick member Davy Paterson, an executive member in the last set-up.
The presence of one of the newly elected Independents alongside the 15 Conservatives might raise a few eyebrows among local Labour supporters. Robin Tatler (Ind. Tweeddale East) stood as a Labour candidate in the same ward last time round, appearing at a campaign launch in 2012 with Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont.
In 2017 he ran for election alongside, and presumably against, Ms Haslam, and both were successful. Before polling day he told a local newspaper: "Independent councillors have held the balance on SBC in the last two administrations and although being elected as an Independent I would work with all like-minded councillors to achieve the best for Tweeddale and the Borders".
As one observer commented: "In the Scottish Borders it wasn't only Labour voters who were zipping straight across to the Tory fold".

Saturday, 6 May 2017

FAKE NEWS - if only it wasn't

DOUG COLLIE indulges in some wishful thinking

Hundreds of new jobs will be created in Scotland following claims that the Scottish Government is to set up a Commissioner For Secrecy to force public bodies to become more transparent.

Under a reversal of the Freedom of Information system local councils, health boards, government departments and other agencies funded by taxpayers would have to apply to the Scottish Commissioner For Secrecy [SCFS] if they wanted to keep information from public consumption and scrutiny.

Details of this unusual initiative have been leaked to Not Just Sheep & Rugby by a reliable source who wished to remain anonymous. Ironically, had the new regime been in place he would have had to seek permission to conceal his identity.

It has been estimated there would be thousands if not tens of thousands of requests each year from the public sector to keep reports, minutes, records of private meetings and inter-departmental emails hidden away. That is why the SCFS will need to be a massive organisation with an army of staff and tens of millions of pounds at its disposal to process a flood of cases.

Our source told us: "Wouldn't it be great if the boot was on the other foot, and instead of having to request information, private citizens were entitled to it unless the organisation concerned applied for and received an exemption from the Commissioner?"

There have been examples since the FOI system was introduced of authorities withholding material from requesters when refusal to divulge could not be justified. Many cannot understand why information should not be on public display as a matter of course. Why should an organisation which gets its money from long suffering citizens have the power to conduct business in private at the drop of a hat?

Indeed, only recently we reported on the Scottish Information Commissioner's investigation into secrecy at Scottish Borders Council following the collapse of a £80 million waste management contract and the loss of millions of pounds, including £2.4 million from the public purse.

When asked for copies of documents held in its files, SBC refused on grounds of commercial confidentiality. They argued that releasing the information would damage their contractor's business. It did not matter that the company in question was a debt-ridden failure incapable of delivering the project on both financial and technical grounds.

But much of the stuff the council was unwilling to produce - according to the Commissioner - did not even relate to the contractor but concerned the local authority's own deliberations and decision making. An apparent cover up to protect those responsible for the waste contract disaster?

In other words the requested material should never have been withheld.

Nevertheless, in a bizarre and seemingly misleading statement after the decision was issued SBC certainly did not concede that it had flouted Freedom of Information regulations.

The statement claimed: "The determination that the relevant information is no longer confidential means the council can now release that information without breaching its contractual obligations".

Laughable and ridiculous is how that assertion has been described by a good few who have read it.

Perhaps all this kind of nonsense will end when the SCFS is launched some time soon .However it seems highly likely that squads of specialist lawyers will be engaged to fight each authority's corner, and that will be a considerable drain on resources.

A spokesman for the Association of Really Secretive Entities [ARSE] said in a confidential statement: "-------------!".

Friday, 5 May 2017

Borders spinning industry just grows and grows!

Guest columnist CHEVIOT CHARLEY with a message for the new administration at council HQ

Some of our readers may be old enough to remember the days when members of town and county councils in the Scottish Borders spoke for themselves, could be contacted at virtually any time of the day or night by journalists and members of the public, and were responsible for promoting a positive image for their local authority.

It meant each councillor could be judged on his or her contribution over four years. There was little opportunity to escape the wrath of the voters if they 'got it wrong', and there was no lucrative salary to persuade candidates to stand for election. They were in it for the love of the game, and maybe even to serve the public by improving local services in their communities.

A local councillor was very much on the front line. The likes of Roxburgh County Council or Hawick Town Council - plus the region's other three county councils and ten town councils - did not have a single press officer between them to shield their elected members from awkward questions. Yet quality of service was arguably superior to the level being delivered nowadays.

During those heady local government days of the 1960s and early 1970s when the bins were emptied every week the Borders economy leaned heavily on spinning and weaving for its well-being. A job at the local mill was a job for life even if the wages were low so that bosses could prosper.

The labour intensive yarn and cloth making businesses may have virtually disappeared from the Borders valleys, but a completely new version of spinning and weaving has developed in recent years.

Scottish Borders Council, which will soon be back in business following this week's municipal elections, can claim the credit for the growth of the reconstituted Borders spinning (or should that be spin doctor's) trade.

A recent Freedom of Information request produced a response which showed the authority's so-called communications and marketing department, which did not even exist a couple of decades ago, now has "14.43 Full Time Equivalent" members of staff and an annual budget of £505,000.

In its reply the council told the requester: "this includes Communications, Digital Media, Graphic Design and Print Service staff". A well-equipped unit capable of covering up the misdeeds and errors of its employers.

Some of the job descriptions outlined in the FOI might convince the public that their councillors are no longer required to sell their plans, ideas, or decisions to the voters. The work is done for them.

Listen to this.It is the remit of two Senior Communications and Marketing Officers:

"To manage and co-ordinate the effective operational delivery of a special customer-focused internal and external communications and marketing service which aims to actively promote a positive image of the Council, and the Scottish Borders region and the people and communities we serve. To co-ordinate the agreed programme of work in order to support Elected Members and Departments to deliver their corporate performance objectives."

Above those two members of staff sits one Corporate Communications and Marketing Manager. The job description "To lead and manage a corporate customer-focused external and internal communications function, including design, print, web and digital media services, that will enable the efficient and effective delivery of the Council's corporate and departmental public relations objectives.

"To work proactively in partnership with senior management and elected members to identify, plan and deliver professional communications solutions to meet business needs and to ensure that communications is fully integrated into Departmental business strategies".

If you're having difficulty in interpreting all of that, then join the club. It probably means that your local councillor had better not go off message by criticising a decision or challenging some dubious policy idea. We're all customers of a business nowadays. How sad.

There was certainly a distinct lack of meaningful opposition during the previous administration's reign. No-one seemed prepared to put their head above the parapet even if they disagreed with what was being done in the public's name.

Some may wonder where are the mavericks like Haig Douglas or Rory Hamilton who used to grace the Borders council chambers, getting under the skin of pompous conveners and provosts, and even challenging scowling town or county clerks? They certainly did not suffer fools gladly.

It is to be hoped our newly elected band of local representatives - unfortunately many of them will be hamstrung by their respective political party stances - are not finely tuned robots. May they have the guts to speak out when necessary and actually represent the views of taxpayers by sticking an arm up and voting against a silly notion. Mind you it might be difficult with both hands tied behind their backs.

If at least some of them can escape the clutches of the growing band of spin doctors working on those "fully integrated business strategies" and promote their own thoughts and ideas then perhaps the image of Borders local government will improve. But don't hold your breath!

Sunday, 30 April 2017

No justification for council cover up, Commissioner rules


Scottish Borders Council has been told in no uncertain terms there is strong public interest in understanding what steps it took to ensure its disastrous waste management contract which cost taxpayers at least £2.4 million was "robust".

Rosemary Agnew, the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC), has handed down a wide ranging decision which instructs SBC to disclose the entire contents of five reports which they had been determined to keep secret or at least heavily censored.

The documentation had been requested under Freedom of Information, but the local authority repeatedly refused applications, claiming publication of financial and technological material about their contractors New Earth Solutions Group (NESG) would damage that company's commercial interests and hand advantages to its competitors.

However, following nine months of intensive investigations by Ms Agnew's staff, it was discovered that much of the information withheld from the five reports related not to NESG and its technological or financial assets, but to the council's own financial or administrative matters.

"That one paragraph in Ms Agnew's decision notice appears to point to a deliberate cover up by SBC over a considerable period of time", was how one local government expert summed up the situation for us.

And the council's stance must have been considerably weakened and made to look somewhat ridiculous when SIC's investigating officer found that some of the withheld information had been published on the internet.

In a submission to SIC, the council said the withheld information was "commercial or industrial in nature". It related to commercially sensitive issues, both in terms of financial arrangements and in respect of the technology which NESG intended to implement in its facility at Easter Langlee.

But in fact the inability to deliver both the technology and the hard cash to build the waste treatment plant were the reasons why the council's risky venture failed, and the project had to be abandoned. Yet SBC maintained its policy of strict secrecy even after NESG plunged into bankruptcy.

SBC's arguments on those grounds have been dismissed by the Commissioner. She says: "Having considered the information which the council has withheld in this case, the Commissioner is not persuaded that it is all covered by the confidentiality agreement in the contract.

"The council has not explained clearly why the information withheld from the five reports is covered by the confidentiality clause. It is not explained why the information is commercially sensitive, and has only provided general arguments in relation to the harm that would, or would be likely to be caused by disclosure".

SBC considered the withheld information to be of market value. It could, in its view, be used not only for the advancement and exploitation of the innovative technology, but for future contract bids within the waste industry. As soon as the information was placed in the public domain, it would strip the owner of the information of the benefit it is entitled to as owner..

"The council's arguments focus on the detriment which the successor company to NESG would suffer, if technological information was placed in the public domain, allowing competitors to benefit", states Ms Agnew. "It has not addressed the fact that most of the information withheld from the five reports does not consist of technical data. The council has not explained why information relating to its own matters is still sensitive".

In relation to the technological processes which NESG intended to implement at Easter Langlee, the Commissioner decided that there was 'far more information in the public domain than the council has acknowledged (or was perhaps aware of)'.

She said it was generally accepted that technology changed and developed over time and what was once considered innovative and secret often became standard and widely known as time passed.

"The Commissioner accepts that there is significant public interest in understanding what steps the council took to ensure the project was robust. There is strong public interest in understanding what measures that the council had taken in order to limit its financial exposure in a project which had been on-going for four years and had involved substantial sums of public money.

"In the Commissioner's view, disclosure of the withheld information would serve the public interest in informing the public about the actions and decisions taken by the counci, the basis for those actions and decisions, and the reasons why the project failed. As noted above, the project had involved many years of work, and substantial sums of public money".

Ms Agnew says the integrated waste management project would have had a direct effect on residents in the council area. She had given weight to the particular circumstances of the case, which incurred the council investing substantial time, money and resources, in a project that ultimately did not come to fruition.

In the circumstances, the Commissioner finds it legitimate for the public to seek to understand what happened, and in the public interest for this understanding to be as complete as possible.

Scottish Borders Council has been given until June 12th 2017 to release the information. The local authority has the right to appeal to the Court of Session on a point of law only.

"Risky" council loans under the spotlight


A collection of eleven so-called LOBO loans totalling £43 million which were taken out by Scottish Borders Council between 2002 and 2006 are now valued at £71 million, a research project by an independent organisation has revealed.

Figures obtained under Freedom of Information also show that the interest rates paid by SBC on the bank loans during 2016 exceeded the percentage charged by the Public Works Loans Board [PWLB] in every case.

And an attempt by Ludovica Rogers, a member of Debt Resistance UK [DRUK], to obtain copies of invoices for brokers' fees charged when the loans were arranged for SBC proved unsuccessful after the local authority told her the information was "no longer held".

The same reason was given for not supplying the requester with copies of contracts, invoices and tender documents for Treasury Management Advisers used to facilitate the eleven loans from Belgian, Irish and German banks and from Barclays. Again, the paperwork was said to be no longer retained on council files.

LOBO (Lender Option Borrower Option) loans are held by over 60% of UK local councils and housing associations who turned to them around the time of the global financial crash. But experts say LOBOs are "risky and toxic" with variable interest rates which increase repayments as time goes by.

Servicing loans is already a significant drain on resources at SBC, as it is on every public authority in the country. According to their latest audited accounts the Borders council forked out £12.32 million on "interest payable and similar charges" in 2015/16. The equivalent sum for 2014/15 was £11.806 million. These amounts far exceed the £8.9 million in savings which the council has been forced to make in its 2017/18 budget.

Total liabilities at SBC at fair value are quoted at £359.322 in 2015/16, up from £337.273 million in the previous financial year. This includes the portfolio of loans drawn down over many years from the PWLB, an executive arm of The Treasury which lends money to local authorities.

In 2016 the average interest rate charged by PWLB was 2.55% on the loans it issued. Interest paid by SBC on the eleven LOBO loans in its collection ranged from 2.87% to 4.2%.

Borders taxpayers will have to continue funding repayment of the LOBOS until 2065. Copies of the loan agreements supplied to Ms Rogers show they varied in length from 45 to 60 years.

DRUK claims on its website: "Debt affects all of us, whether it's personal, local council or national, we are implicated in the system which makes the majority poor and powerless and keeps the one per cent in power.

"Bankers, brokers and advisers have tricked councils into taking out expensive, risky loans, endangering our essential services. Taxpayers' money is being unnecessarily wasted while the private sector is making huge profits".

SBC has arranged two recent loans from the PWLB totalling £12 million.

Details published by the agency show that on February 24th 2017 the council was advanced £8 million over 10 years at 2.05%. And on September 29th 2016 a loan of £4 million was agreed, again over 10 years at 1.49%. The reasons for the loans being taken are not specified.

The LOBO portfolio obtained by Ms Rogers is published below.


BARCLAYS        £6,000,000                    2.87%                     £10,644,275             2005

DEXIA                £3,000,000                    3.70%                       £4,923,092              2004      

DEXIA                £3,000,000                    4.03%                       £4,923,092              2004

DEXIA                £3,000,000                    4.20%                       £4,923,095              2004

DEXIA                £5,000,000                    3.82%                       £7,925,583              2005

DEXIA                £5,000,000                    3.75%                       £7,805,971              2005

DEXIA                £5,000,000                    3.80%                       £7,885,250              2005

DRESDNER       £4,000,000                    2.95%                       £6,552,578              2004

DRESDNER       £4,000,000                    3.50%                       £6,552,578              2004

WEST LB           £3,000,000                    4.10%                       £5,866,924              2006

EUROHYPO      £2,000,000                     2.95%                      £3,013,545              2006

TOTALS           £43,000,000                                                     £71,015,983

Dexia Bank, a Belgian-based institution, which had to be bailed out in 2011. It is now known as Belfius Bank.

Dresdner Bank, a German fiunance house, was acquired by its rival Commerzbank in 2009. Commerzbank also owns Eurohypo. West LB is based in Dublin.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Veil of secrecy ripped apart

DOUG COLLIE on a 'breakthrough' ruling by Scotland's Information Commissioner

Attempts by Scottish Borders Council to hide behind their own wall of silence for six years after a £80 million waste management contract went disastrously wrong have been scuppered by Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew.

The bungling local authority, forced to abandon plans for a garbage disposal facility near Galashiels after squandering £2.4 million of taxpayers' money, has repeatedly withheld information linked to their contract with New Earth Solutions Group [NESG] on grounds of commercial confidentiality.

Freedom of Information (FOI) requests were refused amid claims by SBC that to divulge material they had considered in secret would be damaging to NESG's business and could benefit their competitors. The council even stuck to that line after NESG crashed into administration in 2016 with debts of over £50 million.

The limited information released by SBC officials and councillors who sit on a so-called FOI review group was consistently redacted with generous helpings of black ink used to obscure sensitive or embarrassing sections of the documents. It rendered the published material worthless and meaningless.

According to senior council staff the confidentiality clauses associated with the 24-year deal signed in 2011 would remain in place for at least six years after the contract ceased to exist in February 2015.

But following a nine month investigation by the Scottish Information Commissioner's (SIC) staff, the Borders local authority has been told their reasoning for confidentiality simply will not wash. The council has been instructed to provide unedited copies of the censored reports by June 12th.

Ms  Agnew concludes in a 17-page decision notice just issued: "The Commissioner notes again that much of the information withheld from the five reports relates not to NESG and its technological or financial assets, but to the council's own financial or administrative matters".

A Freedom of Information campaigner who has studied Ms Agnew's report, told us: "There is now strong evidence that SBC  mounted a smokescreen to cover for its mismanagement of its dealings with New Earth Solutions Group and their funding partners (New Earth Recycling & Renewables Fund) who were supposed to come up with £23 million to build the treatment plant for the Borders.

"Perhaps publication of the censored stuff will provide an indication of who was responsible for an extremely costly four-year saga which ended in failure. Having followed this story since the contract was abandoned I am amazed there has been no investigation into what went wrong. At least Ms Agnew and her staff have 'done their bit'".

The SIC decision states: "The Commissioner finds that Scottish Borders Council failed to comply with the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (the EIRs) in responding to the information request.

"The Commissioner found that the council failed to comply with regulation 5 (1) of the EIRs, by failing to make available information which it later disclosed during the investigation; was not entitled to withhold information under regulation 10 (5) (e) of the EIRs; failed to comply with regulation 13 (b) and (c) of the EIRs, by failing to provide an explanation of its decision to rely on regulation 10 (5) (e) when refusing the request".