Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Borders 'Bin-gate': a saga of briefing and bungling

At least one of the regulatory bodies responsible for competency and ethics in Scottish local government may be asked to investigate recent developments and dealings linked to the Borders Waste Management Strategy, elements of which smell almost as bad as some of the rubbish the council has to deal with on a daily basis.

To claim the strategy itself is in tatters would be an understatement as those responsible for the mess attempt to juggle various pots of money while overseeing a significant reduction in the amount of waste being recycled.

The revelations in a Scottish Borders Council briefing note, leaked to the media this week, appear to confirm that when councillors decided last December to withdraw garden waste collections from towns in the Borders they were unaware that a bid for money to pay for the mandatory introduction of food waste uplifts next year was in trouble because it had been lodged too late. So was the decision to bin the green bins taken on a false premise and with incomplete information?

By the time SBC had submitted its application to Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS), that organisation's £20 million pot, which was available on a first come first served basis, had been fully allocated. Now we learn that the cost of garden waste collections - the figure appears to have mysteriously risen from £475,000 to £610,000 - is virtually identical to the amount needed to implement the food waste service. A remarkable coincidence!

Our neighbours in Dumfries & Galloway secured £1.6 million, but SBC, which had been strongly against food waste collections from the outset, got nothing. Had a timely and successful bid been made to ZWS then Borders gardeners may have expected to keep their fortnightly green bin uplift as well as being able to put out their food scraps for the bin men.

The extraordinary briefing note, which was only given to the council administration's inner circle until the press got wind of it, also sets out to demolish the sterling efforts by former Hawick councillor Andrew Farquhar to petition the council for the restoration of the green bin service.

Mr Farquhar's petition may have already attracted hundreds, if not thousands, of signatories. But months before the Petitions Committee at Newtown St Boswells has had the chance to consider the matter senior councillors have set out to rubbish the campaign, if you'll pardon the pun, by briefing against it. A highly questionable method aimed at undermining a noble and worthy cause.

The briefing note discusses measures which would allow a report to be prepared with the cost of reinstatement 'inflated' by adding in the cost of vehicles, and for supplying households with green bins after the council initiated a scheme to take those same bins away.

And the note goes on: "We would add that of course in re-introducing any service there would be a challenging “equality issue” in respect of rural proofing to be addressed." So much for democracy.

Along the way the messenger gets shot with allegations of "misleading" press reports concerning the issue. Then comes an admission that officers did not secure available funding, but they apparently had no indication from ZWS that the funding well was dry.

The majority of Scotland's local authorities beat SBC to the punch as the following statement from ZWS confirms: " Zero Waste Scotland has provided 21 funding awards to local authorities in Scotland to roll out food waste collections. This funding was distributed on a first-come first-served basis, and other local authorities submitted their bids earlier in the process than Scottish Borders Council."

Surely this fiasco with its undertones of incompetence, briefing notes and cover-up is worthy of investigation. At the very least Borders council taxpayers are due a full explanation.

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