Sunday, 10 July 2016

Disastrous waste treatment contract: details made public


A file containing over 190 documents, which has been released under Freedom of Information, reveals how the contractors for the failed Scottish Borders waste treatment facility were subjected to withering criticism from consultants and council officials as the multi-million pound project slipped further and further behind schedule.

Not Just Sheep & Rugby hopes to provide readers with some of the contents of emails, reports and written updates over coming weeks in an effort to expose exactly what went on behind the scenes as New Earth Solutions Group, the firm appointed by Scottish Borders Council to build the treatment plant at Easter Langlee, failed to deliver over a four year period. But as was the case with previous releases the documentation has been liberally redacted (censored).

A series of insurmountable technological and financial issues resulted in the chosen solution for waste management in the Borders being scrapped after SBC spent over £2.4 million of taxpayers' money for no return.

But the newly released papers appear to show the Easter Langlee project was dogged by problems from early 2013 - shortly after councillors decided to adjust the contract with NES to include untried technology - until the two parties gave up and parted company in February 2015.

The council has been extremely reluctant to divulge more than the scantest details of their costly association with NES, a group which plunged into administration last month. And the offshore fund which was supposed to finance the Borders development had provisional liquidators appointed a few days later.

Now, correspondence linked to monthly ARE (All Reasonable Endeavours) reports in which NES was supposed to reassure the local authority they were doing everything possible to overcome outstanding issues, offers a much fuller account of the fiasco.

Elected members took the decision in October 2012 not to proceed with the conventional Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) system planned for Galashiels, and instead voted for a so-called Deed of Variation to the contract with NES to include the Group's misfiring version of Advanced Thermal Technology (ATT) which was untried and untested commercially.

However, issues and delays had obviously surfaced barely six months later when the company received a strongly worded letter from SBC. In it, the authority wrote: "The Council has previously noted its concern that the ATT development work timetable has slipped and continues to slip, and that the delays to that development work do not appear to be being mitigated.

"It is concerning that there is a further delay in this process and that it appears inevitable that a further request for extension of time will require to be submitted to the council."

The letter, dated May 2013, goes on to request a "realistic and achievable timetable and action plan". Yet the same outstanding problems were still present in early 2015.

A follow-up letter in June 2013 from SBC states: "SBC are aware that the development of any new technology is not without its problems. However, on review of the May ARE report the current issues are being treated as business as usual and there does not seem to be any urgency to take additional steps to make up time lost on the ATT development - no weekend working and large time lags between dependent tasks".

SBC's level of concern was such that they commissioned technology consultants SLR - the firm picked up fees totalling £184,000 for their project advice - to visit the New Earth Canford research facility in Dorset "to provide us with a health check of ATT development and an independent assessment of NES' performance".

One of the two main reasons for the Borders project's abysmal failure was the inability of Isle of Man-based New Earth Recycling & Renewables [Infrastructure] Fund (NERR) to finance the £21 million treatment centre. There are repeated references to NERR's apparent shortcomings and delay within the files, but all figures relating to the amount of cash actually in the fund have been blacked out.

In an item of correspondence also dated May 2013 the council is asking questions on funding and financial closure.. The message reads: "We have not received a detailed update on new subscriptions into NERR. Previous updates suggested a slowdown in the rate of new subscriptions."

The same subject is dealt with in an email to NES from SBC in July 2013. It states: "As NERR is the funder of last resort for the project it is critical that the council has an understanding of whether it will have sufficient funds to finance the project".

To be continued....

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