Monday, 29 June 2015

Consultants and lawyers to board another council gravy train


Having just squandered almost two million pounds on expensive consultants and some of Scotland's costliest legal firms, Scottish Borders Council's Integrated Waste Management Strategy in complete disarray less than 18 months after the crucial document was given the green light. So it's back to square one with a blank sheet of paper.

But even before a brand new Member-Officer Reference Group (MORG) has the chance to get down to business there have been warnings that more environmental specialists and 'expert' legal brains from the private sector will have to be hired to assist with the region's umpteenth Waste Management Plan.

Meanwhile the council's Audit & Risk Committee has shrugged off criticism of its handling of the disastrous waste treatment contract with New Earth Solutions (NES) which is set to cost taxpayers many millions more. According to a committee Minute all risks had been included in reports to council, with a clear audit trail, and the importance of lessons learned being applied to future procurement was acknowledged.

The air of complacency is under-scored by another sentence in the Minute which states: "It was recognised that not all decisions made by council would be popular within the public domain."

Unfortunately our local authority has declined to make public the risks which accompanied the bizarre decision to radically alter the New Earth contract in October 2012 with a so-called Deed of Variation.

A report last week which marked the return to the drawing board strategy yet again says: "The council terminated the contract with NES due to significant concerns relating to progress, technical deliverability and risk transfer." Those concerns are also shrouded in secrecy.

The embarrassing list of ineffective initiatives aimed at providing the Borders with a fit-for-purpose waste treatment facility stretch back to 2002. Each scheme seems to have been blighted by a common curse with all of them ending up as extremely costly failures. It will be interesting to see if the perhaps aptly coined acronym MORG can finally deliver.

MORG will re-examine a range of options including the possibility of developing a purpose-built plant to exclusively deal with waste from within the council area. But there could also be opportunities for joint working with neighbouring authorities who already have treatment plants of their own.

The combined approach was a runner ten years ago when a Lothian and Borders waste strategy was being worked up. But that idea also ended up in the rubbish bin after lengthy and expensive consultations and the production of glossy literature which now gathers dust on the shelves of local government offices across south-east Scotland.

First step in the 2015 campaign - remember time is rapidly running out if Borders is to achieve Scottish and European landfill reduction targets - will be a Strategic Environmental Assessment Screening Exercise, whatever that might be.

The report to council says: "The costs for undertaking the exercise are anticipated to be in the region of £15,000. It is likely that consultancy support will be required to take this forward as this is a specialist area. The costs for undertaking the legal review have been estimated to be in the region of £12,000.

"Failure to develop a Waste Management Plan puts at risk the council's ability to comply with future European and National Waste Policy and Regulatory requirements."

If Borders councillors had insisted on the implementation of their original 2011 contract with NES instead of switching to a high risk strategy via the 2012 project Deed of Variation then those requirements would be attainable now and with a much reduced bill for landfill tax.

Instead, consultants in their shiny offices and law firms like the Edinburgh practice which trousered almost £700,000 of Borders taxpayers' money during the New Earth debacle will be rubbing their hands in anticipation of another lucrative 'earner'.

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