Friday, 25 March 2016

Bristol trip little more than a junket


A publicly funded trip to Bristol by a party of twelve councillors and six highly paid officials, which cost Borders council taxpayers almost £4,000, appears to have achieved virtually nothing following the revelation that no notes relating to the visit were taken and not a single report was generated after the junketeers returned home.

The huge group from Scottish Borders Council (SBC) spent a night at an upmarket Bristol hotel (cost £2,283) before being taken on a guided tour of New Earth Solutions' (NES) waste treatment plants at Avonmouth which should have provided the template for a similar facility at Easter Langlee on the outskirts of Galashiels.

But at the end of the day NES could neither fund the Borders project nor prove their brand of technology was fit for purpose. The fiasco resulted in the (admitted) loss of £2.4 million by SBC, money which has been written off without any public apology or explanation.

So what exactly was the purpose of the 'jolly' to south-west England in October 2014? Attempts to extract information about the trip via the Freedom of Information route have been ongoing for almost a year with the council determined to keep this and other aspects of their bungling well away from the public gaze.

Now, the results of a lengthy investigation by Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew, have been released. She has ordered SBC to provide the requester with a limited amount of additional information.

 Her decision notice has confirmed that on this occasion - as on so many others involving SBC - there are no written records of the visit on the council's NES file. It is a situation which stretches the bounds of credulity and means the local authority cannot be held to account under FOI legislation.

Such shoddy record keeping - if true - must also amount to extremely bad practice which should not be tolerated by national watchdogs such as Audit Scotland (AS). But when SBC's lack of written records on a number of fronts was raised with AS last September their response was decidedly laid back. They said: "It is for each council to determine the best way to share information, in some instances a verbal update may be more appropriate than a written one". What utter rubbish.

According to Ms Agnew's investigation report: "The investigating officer asked the Council to comment on why so few documents had been identified as falling within the scope of the [FOI] request, for example why none of it post-dated the visit.

"The Council explained that the Avonmouth trip was an information gathering and familiarisation event for councillors, to increase their base knowledge of the project and the proposed solution: a decision about the project was to be made at the beginning of 2015.

"The Council submitted that there were no minutes taken on the day or further meetings organised by officers to discuss the visit. The council maintained that it was for the individual members to use the insight provided by the trip as a firm grounding when considering the information and recommendations in the February 2015 report to the Council."

In the absence of any written documentation resulting from the jaunt to Avonmouth, how did the 22 elected members who did not get seats on the gravy train manage to join in the decision making process which resulted in a totally unanimous judgement to ditch NES and walk away from a £65 million contract?

And when asked in a separate FOI request for information contained in reports which led to the February 2015 decision, the council replied: "Other committees were given briefings in relation to the waste management project, but these briefings were verbal in nature and there is no written record".

No doubt the efforts to peel away the layers of secrecy around this disastrous episode in the annals of Borders local government will continue. And it is also a racing certainty that SBC will redouble its efforts to prolong the cover up. The public interest has not been well served in this tawdry affair.

An expert in local government procedures and practices told us: "I cannot believe they do not have notes from the visit or at least an agenda with discussion points. This visit would have been fundamental to the decision not to continue.

" The decision around why they agreed to weaken their position through varying the contract is equally baffling, and officers should be made accountable for this, as this is what left the local authority with limited options".

*For the record, those who took part in the beano at council taxpayers' expense without a pen between them were: Councillors - Davidson, Renton, Brown, Campbell, Ballantyne, Mountford, Scott, Gillespie, White, Edgar, Paterson and Parker. Officers - Tracey Logan, chief executive; Rob Dickson, project sponsor; Kirsty Robb, project accountant; Jenni Craig, project board member; Ewan Doyle, project manager and Ross Sharp-Dent, project board member.

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