Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Inaccurate and misleading? We may never know

A damning report which claims Scottish Borders Council acted irresponsibly and demonstrated gross incompetence in losing at least £2 million of taxpayers' money on the abandoned waste management facility at Galashiels has been branded inaccurate and dismissed as misleading in a statement from the local authority.

The report, compiled by retired journalist and Borders council taxpayer Bill Chisholm, has been submitted to Audit Scotland with a request for an inquiry. It tells how successive administrations at Newtown St Boswells have failed to provide the area with a waste treatment plant capable of diverting rubbish from landfill.

Chisholm carried out his own detailed investigation into the fiasco which ended two months ago when councillors decided in private session to walk away from a 24-year contract with their contractors New Earth Solutions Group (NES).

The public was told £2 million spent on the "reckless venture" would be written off without any explanation as to where the money went. And when Chisholm lodged a Freedom of Information request with SBC asking for details of risk assessments made prior to the contract he was told these were being withheld on grounds of commercial confidentiality.

In the course of his investigation Chisholm contacted NES, but they also refused to give him any details of how much the broken contract had cost the group or discuss the reasons why the £27 million Easter Langlee project became financially and technologically bankrupt only weeks after a large delegation from SBC declared themselves delighted following a visit to NES's "sister plant" near Bristol.

The report claims the project's failure hinged on a crucial decision taken in October 2012 to try to develop two separate phases of the waste facility at the same time even though the technology for a so-called Advanced Thermal Treatment (ATT) plant had not been tried and tested.Instead, SBC and NES should have gone ahead with phase one of the scheme - as agreed in the original contract - and this would have allowed the Borders to cut its landfill rates by 80%.

"This entire saga has been shrouded in secrecy, and my attempts to uncover the facts repeatedly ran into difficulty because both the council and the company they hired wanted to keep everything under wraps", Chisholm told us. "As I say in the report the people of the Borders deserve more than that. The elected members and officers who presided over this debacle should be identified and held to account."

But after copies of the report were given to local newspapers and media this week the council hit back although their brief statement was somewhat short on detail.

 A Scottish Borders Council spokesperson said: “The Council has considered the letter and report by Mr Chisholm and finds its contents not accurate and therefore its conclusions misleading. As such, the Council will not be responding to it.
“The Council has acted properly and appropriately throughout the waste treatment project and will continue to do so.
“Given the contractual obligations with New Earth, all monies spent were expended both appropriately and we believe effectively.
“As part of the closing down of this project, like any other, a lessons learnt exercise will be completed.”

Asked about the council's assertion that his report was both inaccurate and misleading, Chisholm commented: "It would be helpful to have a list of the inaccuracies and some pointers as to the misleading sections of the 10-page document. But no doubt SBC is unable to go into such detail on grounds of commercial confidentiality."

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