Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Cost of that divorce...at least £2.8 million

The case for an independent investigation into what might be dubbed 'Easter Langleegate' or even 'New Earthgate' may grow stronger by the day. But senior figures at Scottish Borders Council appear to be in no mood to apologise or even express regret following the loss of up to £2.8 million of public money. Instead they seem happy to write off the vast sum,close the entire topic down, and move on.

Far from accepting responsibility for a fiasco which has cost the Borders dearly, our local government leaders, like Sir Malcolm Rifkind, seem convinced they have done nothing wrong. But at least Sir Malcolm confessed to a possible error of judgement.

Indeed a council spokesman is quoted as saying: "£2 million was properly spent on the Waste Treatment Project with New Earth Solutions (NES). Given the contractual obligations with New Earth the money was used both appropriately and we believe effectively."

The vast majority of local taxpayers will surely regard that statement to be both incredible and highly questionable. Perhaps someone in authority at Newtown St Boswells might tell the world what the return has been for such a massive outlay from the council's near-empty coffers.

We require a detailed breakdown of how the money was spent, which parties were beneficiaries, and why the plug was not pulled much earlier on a 24-year contract which was apparently heading for trouble not long after it was signed.

According to the official contract award notice detailing the £65 million deal between SBC and NES in April 2011 the four most important criteria for the local authority were technical capability, value for money, experience and quality of service in that order.

But when New Earth Solutions (Scottish Borders) Ltd, one of 31 active and dormant subsidiaries of NES Group, submitted an application to the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency on May 27 2013 for a permit to operate the Easter Langlee integrated waste recovery and renewable energy facility, the group's only other power generating facility at Avonmouth, Bristol had produced its first electricity just 19 days earlier.

So it could hardly be said NES could claim to possess the technical capability or the experience in what was being classed as a revolutionary and virtually untried method in the UK waste management sector.

It must have come as no surprise to those closely associated with the Borders scheme when it subsequently encountered "project specific issues in terms of technology and funding".

At least one back bench councillor has had the courage to raise questions about the flawed contract in public. It makes a refreshing change after all of the previous chapters in the unfolding drama were heard and acted out in private.

Hawick member Watson McAteer, who recently parted company with the ruling group at SBC, said: "The fact that the council has already sunk more than £2 million on the integrated waste management strategy with the prospects of any residual benefit being negligible is a great concern to Borders taxpayers.

"At a time when services have been cut or reduced, including removal of the garden waste collections, this money could have been used more effectively. I have met with council officers and asked that they confirm that an investigation or review of the circumstances will be completed so that lessons can be learned and any failings if they exist are properly identified and addressed."

But council leader David Parker countered: "There is absolutely no reason to believe that the New Earth project was anything other than well managed throughout. Given that every decision that was taken by council over the eight year life of this project and that the documents are all available, Councillor McAteer can conduct his own review if he wishes."

At the very least it is to be hoped that Councillor McAteer takes up the offer made by Councillor Parker. And if the mountain of paperwork generated by the saga is readily available for inspection then perhaps an independent investigation would not be too difficult to arrange.

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