A committee which is supposed to analyse and dissect important decisions taken at Scottish Borders Council has refused to initiate an investigation into the failure to deliver a state-of-the-art waste treatment facility at Easter Langlee.
The so-called Scrutiny Committee was only re-formed a matter of weeks ago, but it appears the range of issues open for consideration may be extremely limited.
After being told council taxpayers and other members of the public could submit requests for action by the committee, retired journalist Bill Chisholm, who originally hoped that politicians representing the Borders might push for an independent investigation to pinpoint the reasons for the lost millions, asked Scrutiny to intervene.
In his request at the beginning of May Chisholm wrote: "I would wish Scrutiny to examine the circumstances surrounding the Council’s proposed Integrated Waste Treatment Facility at Easter Langlee, Galashiels, the various decisions taken during the life of the original and amended contracts with New Earth Solutions Ltd, the reasons behind the cancellation of the 24-year deal with NES after just four years, the abandonment of a vital environmental project for the Borders, and the subsequent loss and write-off of at least £2 million of public money."
A growing number of demands for information about the debacle, lodged with SBC under Scotland's Freedom of Information system, have been refused on grounds of "commercial confidentiality" clauses in the council's contract with NES. The secrecy is due to last until 2021, and the council seems determined to write off the wasted millions without even giving its own council taxpayers a meaningful explanation.
Some of the FOI requests are expected to end up with the Scottish Information Commissioner for a final decision once SBC is finished reviewing them. The Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, can order public authorities to release information if a request passes the public interest test.
This week Chisholm contacted the council to ask whether his request for a Scrutiny inquiry, submitted a month ago, was still being considered. He asked: "I assume it takes weeks (a month so far) to scrutinise requests for scrutiny. Has it actually been kicked into touch or is it still “live”? What a complete and utter farce."
The council response reveals that in fact his request had been rejected at a meeting of the committee ten days earlier.
Council clerk Jenny Wilkinson told Chisholm: " The Scrutiny Committee considered your request at its meeting held on 28 May 2015 and decided not to undertake a review at this time. The Council has discussed the issues of the waste contract with Audit Scotland who have in turn referred the matter to the Council’s External Auditors, KPMG, who will review the Council’s actions as part of the statutory audit process for 2014/15.
"Their report (the Council’s annual audit report) will be published by 30 September 2015. Any issues arising from that review will be made public and reported back to Audit Scotland, as well as the Council. A further enquiry into the Council’s actions, in effect duplicating the auditors’ work, is therefore considered inappropriate at this time."
When asked for his reaction, Chisholm said: “The Scrutiny Committee’s refusal to investigate this extremely serious financial loss of £2.3 million (and counting) proves the system recently devised to examine council decisions is worthless. What is the purpose of Scrutiny if it is not to carry out a thorough review of the catastrophic failures associated with the waste management project?
“I’m convinced that because councillors of every political persuasion were involved in the fateful and financially disastrous decision of October 2012 to radically amend the New Earth Solutions contract no politician is prepared to grasp the nettle. They are too afraid of the consequences in case those responsible might be held to account.
“Instead there is a batten-down-the-hatches attitude with every request for information repelled on grounds of ‘ commercial confidentiality’. Had SBC been in the private sector the outcome of this costly failure would have been markedly different. Heads, as they say, would have rolled."