by DOUGLAS SHEPHERD
Readers of the Border Telegraph's letter column this week may have noticed that a senior member of Scottish Borders Council's Executive finally emerged through the apparently impenetrable wall of silence to defend the local authority's role in the waste treatment project debacle.
We now know - thanks to Councillor John Mitchell - that SBC tried, from 2008, to deliver a £70 million Public/Private Partnership Project "using innovative [useless more like!] technology". During the process, which lasted seven long years, Mr. Mitchell says the council spent resources on staff and advisory fees (for well paid consultants) which ultimately had to be written off when the contract could not be fulfilled.
But SBC's actions had been vindicated during audits by their own external auditors KPMG and by public watchdog Audit Scotland with a risk register for the project also scrutinised independently. This meant, according to Councillor Mitchell, there was a full understanding of the risks faced by the council in attempting to deliver the project with their chosen contractors New Earth Solutions Group.
That appears to suggest for the first time that councillors who took various fundamental decisions linked to the (non) development of a waste treatment facility at Easter Langlee knew exactly what they were doing.
Here's the crucial passage in the councillor's letter: "At each stage of this process, proper risk assessments were undertaken and there is no evidence to suggest that the council proceeded at any time with other than appropriate advice and due diligence".
So the buck stops with the elected members who, from this day forth, cannot possibly blame officials for the waste treatment project shambles. But it would be reassuring if Councillor Mitchell and his colleagues allowed local taxpayers access to the hundreds (maybe thousands) of documents generated during the seven year saga which produced precisely the square root of absolutely nothing...and that's putting it politely.
In a swipe at the council's critics, and at those seeking a detailed explanation of how and why their millions 'went down the pan', Councillor Mitchell wrote: "Continued efforts to identify stories where there are none is simply diverting public attention away from the real challenges the council faces in delivering a complex waste management solution which meets European, Scottish Government, SEPA, and local requirements both now and in the future".
Hold on a minute. Is the councillor seriously suggesting that SBC's achievement in squandering £2.4 million [a very conservative estimate, according to "industry insiders"] of other people's cash is a non-story? Perhaps others are better placed to pass judgement on that particular aspect of the fiasco.
A spokesman for UKWIN (United Kingdom Without Incineration Network) told us: "Scottish Borders Council should never have pursued incineration as a means of
waste management. Compared to some other local authorities who entered into
long-term incineration contracts SBC got off light, but it still wasted time and
money that should have been devoted to investing in real zero waste solutions.
We all hope they have learned their lesson."
And many will remain unconvinced that selective auditing by an array of accountants who looked at narrow aspects of a huge public contract can be interpreted as a clean bill of health for those who messed up at SBC.