Monday, 30 November 2015

Another DNA controversy facing Borders-based partnership


A Welsh television channel has commissioned an independent consultant to examine complaints about a series of programmes which rely heavily on work and research on DNA by Melrose company The Moffat Partnership fronted by broadcaster and author Alistair Moffat.

It is claimed DNA Cymru, currently being broadcast by S4C - the Welsh language channel - has misled viewers by attempting to define what it is to be Welsh without adequate scientific evidence. Critics have also alleged that public money has been used to promote Mr Moffat's company which charges up to £190 for an individual DNA test.

This new controversy, which has received detailed coverage in the Welsh language publication Golwg, comes hard on the heels of strong criticism of Mr Moffat's recent five-part series about Scotland's DNA, published by The Scotsman, from academics at University College London.

As we reported earlier this month, genetics experts at UCL were so concerned by the activities of Mr Moffat and his team that they set up a special website several years ago "to set the record straight". According to Professor Mark Thomas, one of the group responsible for developing the site, many of the claims made by The Moffat Partnership are not soundly based in fact, and are nothing more than "invented stories".

Several well known Welsh celebrities feature in the current S4C series, and their DNA samples are said to connect them to people who lived more than a thousand years ago.

The Golwg article tells how Welsh singer and politician Dafydd Iwan's DNA test strongly suggested he was a descendant of Welsh speaking kings who at one time controlled lands in England before retreating west in the Fifth Century when the Saxons arrived.

But Professor Thomas explained there was no basis to the claim that genetic ancestry could be traced directly back to the Fifth Century. Dafydd Iwan was certainly related to warriors from the Fifth Century, conceded the professor, but so was everyone else in Europe.

A spokesman for S4C told Golwg their complaints committee, which includes members of the S4C Authority, had commissioned independent advice about the complaints regarding DNA Cymru. Work on the report was continuing, and the committee would consider its contents in the coming weeks.

Supporters of the series have defended the information used in making the programmes as 'dependable and scientific', and say the test results could be used to identify genetic patterns in present day populations.

However, Professor Thomas has dismissed some of the claims made in the series as "mad", adding that there were no experts, apart from those employed by The Moffat Partnership, who agreed with that company's theories.

"Absolutely nothing they have said has been published in a scientific journal, which is the minimum needed for scientific credibility for this kind of thing", said Professor Thomas.

The challenges and criticisms levelled at Mr Moffat's company by the geneticists at UCL, including a full English translation of the Golwg feature can be found by following this internet link:

Debbie Kennett, a genetic genealogist who updates the website, has written a critique of the S4C programmes on her blog here:

Commenting on the first programme in the series, which was broadcast earlier this year on St David's Day, Ms Kennett writes: "It contained very little in the way of real science and was little more than a promotional tool for the commercial genetic ancestry business CymruDNAWales, one of the trading names of the Moffat Partnership, a company founded by Alistair Moffat. The editorial integrity of S4C was also brought into question when it transpired that Ian Jones, the CEO of S4C was an old friend of Alistair Moffat's".

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Council-speak gibberish cannot hide the truth!


Executive members at Scottish Borders Council will, no doubt, be poring over a Corporate Transformation progress report in the lead up to their meeting next Tuesday when the future of local government service priorities will be under the spotlight.

The problem is that some if not the majority of the elected members may find it difficult to fathom the true meaning of some of the obscure phraseology used by the authors of a document which would have officials of the Plain English Society scratching their heads in sheer disbelief.

The eleven-page main report and four accompanying appendices are all liberally sprinkled with language not normally used in day to day conversation while the documents also display red amber and green symbols to mark the status of each of SBC's 17 "pieces of work" within the Corporate Transformation Programme.

For instance, local electors should be aware that "a CPP Strategic Transport Board was established in May 2014 and has developed and overseen a significant transport change programme. Projects implemented include a Joint Transport Procurement Framework". Eh?

Meanwhile another section of the report tells us under the heading Co-Production : "A short-life working group has been established to progress this work stream with representatives from key
departments across the Council and key partner agencies. An agreed definition of the term co-production has been produced and work is now underway to develop a toolkit/workbook to assist staff to implement the approach and any training requirements will also be identified. It is anticipated the work will be completed by Spring 2016."

No, not even the combined brain power of every member of staff at Not Just Sheep and Rugby could make head nor tail of that one. But you could not make up a quote like the one above.

As regular readers of this humble publication will know, we have been keen to shed our own spotlight on the council's less than glowing record in the field of waste management. Yet another strategy detailing how SBC plans to deliver this most basic but essential of all its services is being worked on as local landfill percentages rise and recycling rates plummet.

We tracked down the brief references to waste management in an appendix which reveals that consultants have been commissioned yet again to advise on the way forward. This, after more than a million pounds was squandered on so-called "experts" during the New Earth Solutions fiasco. One law firm managed to trouser no less than £650,000 for (ahem) top class legal advice before the entire contract with NES had to be abandoned on financial and technical grounds.

The document which will be presented to councillors next week tells how Zero Waste Scotland had "facilitated" a workshop in October "to agree the priorities against which the outputs of the Options Appraisal will be assessed". No, we cannot work that one out either. But there's more of the same: "From this various collection scenarios have been agreed for modelling".Well that's a relief.

The report on waste management is even split into sections headed Milestones Achieved and Milestones To Be Achieved. One of the yet to be achieved milestones is the procurement of another consultant to undertake a strategic environmental assessment for the umpteenth waste management plan. Another gravy train, no doubt.

A previous edition of the blueprint, compiled in 2013, predicted SBC would achieve the council's projected Landfill Allowance Scheme (LAS) allocation up to 2020/21. It went on: "As a result the council is unlikely to face any financial penalties should the Scottish Government decide to reinstate the LAS."

The forecast was for a landfill rate of just 14.7% in 2015/16, "which is well on the way to achieving the Scottish Government's target of only 5% to landfill by 2025."

But now the 2013 version has been shredded, its predictions already in tatters. The Borders LAS figure for 2014/15 was 16,876 tonnes, falling to 16,098 tonnes in 2015/16. However, in reality SBC landfilled 30,666 tonnes in 2014 or 61.4% of the total rubbish collected. Fines for exceeding the limit would have been extremely expensive had they been in force.

Instead of baffling council taxpayers (and councillors) with liberal helpings of gobbledygook, surely it is time to finalise a waste management plan which everyone can understand. The rest of the Corporate Transformation Programme (whatever that is) is also in need of translation into a much simpler form of words. 

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Compromise in Borders housing land dispute


Scottish Government planning officers have rejected the claims of house builders who wanted an additional 3,750 development plots allocated in the Scottish Borders on top of the existing 9,000 units available for the construction of new homes.

Instead a detailed examination of Scottish Borders Council's Local Development Plan has concluded there is a probable shortfall of 916 plots, and the local authority has been ordered to identify additional sites within 12 months.

The decision by so-called planning Reporters, contained in a massive 1138-page report on the local plan, appears to end the long-running counter claims by builders and Borders local government officers over the crucial issue of meeting the housing land requirement.

The year-long examination of hundreds of policies included in the SBC document involved detailed analysis of dozens of submissions from various parties with a particular interest in housing, transport, wind farms and other development topics.

But it was undoubtedly the housing land dispute which occupied much of the Reporters' time after Homes for Scotland (HFS), the national organisation representing the house building industry claimed there was insufficient land allocated in the Borders to realistically meet future demand.

HFS challenged the statistics put forward by the council on housing completions, and considered the housing land shortfall was likely to be in the range of 3,250 to 3,750 units.

That argument was backed by a number of builders including the locally based J S Crawford, of Melrose. They claimed the council's proposals took no account of market demand factors or of the land requirements for affordable housing.

However, in a forthright defence of its position, SBC said the plan provided a generous and effective five year supply of land within each of the region's market areas to meet demand.

According to the council: "The industry is unable to present robust and persuasive evidence to support the position beyond their own sites, and have chosen to disengage. We remain open to meeting with house building colleagues for a constructive discussion about house building in the Borders.

"In relation to comments that there will be a shortfall of over 3,000 units this is considered untenable and contrary to proper planning. The total demand and need for the Borders is 12,537, and with an average completion rate of 450 units per annum this would provide over 28 years supply."

The three-man team of Reporters - Richard Dent, Scott Ferrie and Dilwyn Thomas - say in their report it would not be appropriate to recommend that "a further allowance of generosity be added to the housing land requirement" which was what HFS was asking for.

Instead the conclusion is a shortfall of 916 housing units. The report continues: "It would be more appropriate to require the council to prepare and adopt supplementary guidance aimed at redressing the shortfall in meeting the requirement.

"This would provide the council with an opportunity to undertake a detailed assessment of the environmental and other impacts of identifying additional housing sites, and would allow public consultation to be undertaken in that regard."

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

"Revolutionary" energy-from-waste plant lost £37 million in a year


The latest financial performance of the 'pioneering' energy from waste plant seen as the template for an identical facility at Easter Langlee on the outskirts of Galashiels may prove to be extremely embarrassing for senior elected members and leading officers at Scottish Borders Council.

A set of seemingly devastating accounts, newly published by the owners of the thermal treatment plant at Avonmouth, near Bristol, shows a staggering operational loss of more than £37.8 million in 2014/15 compared to a deficit of £645,000 in the previous accounting period. The plant now has financial liabilities totalling £59.2 million, up from £51.5 million in 2014.

The multi-million pound losses - largely due to defective technology which has still not been rectified - were being clocked up before, during and after a sizable delegation from the Borders local authority toured the Avonmouth site last October and returned highly impressed by what they saw.

However, SBC has rejected Freedom of Information requests for details of the visit and for copies of documents and minutes of meetings related to the two-day trip, claiming the information is exempt because it is classed as "commercially sensitive". It now seems clear the journey south to carry out "due diligence" completely failed to detect a raft of technical shortcomings and heavy financial losses being experienced at Avonmouth.

As far back as 2012, Borders councillors unanimously approved proposals for an Avonmouth-style  Energy From Waste (ERF) facility to handle up to 60,000 tonnes of local household waste each year even though the technological processes being experimented with were not ready to be marketed.

And in February this year more than £2 million of council taxpayers' money had to be written off (without any detailed explanation) when the council suddenly abandoned the disastrous contract with waste management company New Earth Solutions (NES). Many calls for an investigation and full disclosure have gone unheeded.

Since the contract's termination NES has offloaded the poorly performing plant in south-west England to a consortium led by an Australian bank, Avonmouth's main financial backer with a £20 million stake in the ERF. The deal, concluded in July, did not involve any money changing hands.

The newly published accounts confirms that the technology which SBC signed up for three years ago is still not fully developed.

The report says: "It is the opinion of the Directors that the plant remains within an extended commissioning and developmental stage, being a revolutionary design for generating energy from waste material.

"A sustained programme of capital expenditure has been developed which is targeted at eliminating weaknesses in the current operational performance, improving plant availability that will deliver a substantially improved financial performance from the end of 2015".

That statement provides further damning evidence that SBC failed to take adequate precautions in 2012 before deciding to gamble on a similar solution for the Borders' considerable waste disposal issues. There is an overwhelming public interest argument for all documents and correspondence surrounding that multi-million pound gamble to be released for public consumption.

New Earth Energy (West) Operations Ltd, the former operators of the Avonmouth plant, have been replaced by a new company called Avonmouth Bio Power Energy Ltd complete with an entirely new board, including representatives from the Australian Bank.

The recently installed directors explain that until recently the vast majority of UK generated Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) has been exported, generally to the EU. Their report continues: "However, this practice is coming under increasing scrutiny where the costs and environmental impact of transporting waste combined with the risks associated with storage and transport mean there is increasing focus on retaining RDF for the domestic market".

So how does that declaration fit with New Earth Solutions' message to shareholders and investors only last month?

According to directors of the Premier New Earth fund which was supposed to but could not come up with the money for the Borders project: "Changes to the European RDF export market suggest that a major opportunity was developing in those markets which would enable New Earth to refocus as a waste only, major RDF exporter.

"The combination of high recycling rates and significant waste to energy capacity in Northern Europe has led to a structural shortage of RDF supply, which in turn has led to a significant demand for RDF from the UK in the last three years".

And these were the organisations selected by SBC to run the region's crucial waste management services for 22 years. It seems the move to cancel the contract only four years in is one of the very few decisions the council got right throughout the entire six year saga.

Surely the Borders public has a right to know how and why their money was squandered on a catastrophic liaison with firms which could not deliver financially or technically.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Borders economy heading for oblivion?


A devastating set of statistics which charts a dramatic loss of manufacturing jobs in the Scottish Borders has failed to alert local politicians and community leaders to the worsening plight of the local economy.

While the Highlands and Islands continues to bask in special levels of investment and effort, the south of Scotland is virtually left to its own devices with little sign of pressure from inside the region to secure a much better deal for the Borders.

The Scottish Annual Business Statistics for 2013 were published in a 250-page document in August of this year. The tables for each of the country's 32 local government areas cover key topics such as annual turnover of local companies, costs associated with wages and salaries, and the employment levels in each business sector.

The data allows comparisons to be made between 2008 and 2013, and in many instances the Borders fares badly despite claims by the Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise and the local authority that every effort is being made to expand the region's economic base and to create and attract well paid jobs in a bid to halt the long-term drift of talented young people out of the area in search of career opportunities.

In 2008 the Scottish Borders region had 4,397 business "units", a figure which had fallen to 4,227 in 2013. In the same six year period total employment dropped from 31,700 to 29,200. It appears the economy has shrunk rather than expanded.

The situation in the local manufacturing sector should have alarm bells ringing. Back in 1997/98 around 9,000 Borderers were making things. But by 2008 the total was down to 6,000 and a further 1,000 manufacturing posts - one sixth of the total - were shed in the space of those six years to 2013. The 5,000-strong manufacturing workforce has probably dwindled even further by now.

The yearly turnover of the 270 manufacturing units - down from 303 in 2008 - of £574.2 million is exactly the same as it was back in 2008. The 2012 figure was £608.3 million. Gross wages and salaries in manufacturing slumped from £111 million in 2008 to £106.1 million in 2013, reducing the spending power of those working in manufacturing.

Older residents of the Borders communities will recall that not so long ago the entire region relied to a significant degree on textiles for its economic well-being. But this traditional regional trade, which earned Hawick, Selkirk, Peebles and towns in between a global reputation for quality clothing and knitwear, has taken a fearful pounding in recent decades.

According to figures compiled in 1981 there were 7,800 jobs in textiles Borders wide, and even less than 20 years ago almost 50% of manufacturing posts (4,400) lay in the textile and apparel factories.

A report commissioned by Scottish Enterprise Borders in the year 2000 predicted the textile sector employment levels would drop to just 2,700 by 2010. But the latest set of statistics show the total was down to just 2,200 in 2010 with a further 500 posts gone by 2013 when the total stood at 1,700.

Twenty textile producing businesses were lost between 2008 and 2013 during which time turnover in the sector declined from £161 million to £156.2 million. Gross wages and salaries slipped from £34.6 million to £30.9 million.

It seems incredible that even in the face of all of this damning evidence little is being done to bring truly major investment to the ailing region.

One economics expert told us: "There does not appear to be anyone with any clout who can argue the Borders case in the corridors of power. Despite numerous studies commissioned over the years by various agencies nothing of any significance has been achieved.

"It seems clear the loss of the local enterprise company in 2008 has had a very negative impact. And the fact that no-one seized on these gloomy figures when they were published appears to show an air of complacency".

The information has come to light less than six months after the publication of Our Borderlands Our Future by the House of Commons Scottish Select Committee which made a number of recommendations to tackle the economic issues faced by the Borders and Dumfries & Galloway.

Sadly there are no signs of the report being acted upon. Meanwhile countless millions of pounds in economic aid continue to be directed into Scotland's northerly outposts while at the other end of the country the Borders economy lies on a proverbial trolley in desperate need of special treatment.