Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Last dregs of credibility drain away

DOUG COLLIE on yet another shattering blow for some Borders councillors

The flagship waste incinerator which was the scene of a 'due diligence' inspection by a large Scottish Borders Council delegation has developed so many technical glitches that its new owners have been forced to shut it down...and the plant will not fire up again until at least 2018.

Those readers who have been following the embarrassing fiasco linked to the local authority's 24-year contract with waste treatment "experts" New Earth Solutions will be aware of how impressed councillors and senior officers were on returning from their trip to the NES facility at Avonmouth, near Bristol in October 2014.

These representatives of tens of thousands of Borders electors declared themselves "illuminated and impressed" by what they had seen. A scaled down version of the dual Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) and Advanced Thermal Technology (ATT) model being pioneered in south-west England would provide the ideal solution for the Scottish Borders' waste disposal needs.

'Due diligence' had been achieved, council taxpayers were assured. However, subsequent investigative work by Not Just Sheep & Rugby has shown all was not well with the Avonmouth set-up before, during and after the much-heralded visit.

The spluttering ATT plant which is used to convert refuse derived fuel (RDF) into electricity via processes known as gasification and pyrolysis has been functioning at only a fraction of its full capacity, and NES offloaded it in 2015 to a new consortium, Avonmouth Bio Power (ABP). SBC's due diligence claims were already unravelling in spectacular fashion.

Now, any trace of credibility remaining with the delegation has disappeared with the bombshell news of the EfW (Energy from Waste) plant's closure which apparently occurred several months ago.

Avonmouth Bio Power's first set of accounts describe the calamitous issues and financial losses sustained into 2016. Yet members of SBC were convinced as far back as 2012 that Avonmouth's technology would soon propel the Borders to the summit of Scotland's waste treatment league.

A Strategic Report from ABP (Energy)'s directors explains that ever since the initial plant implementation, the inability of the NES MBT plant to keep the supplies of RDF within specification has driven development of the ATT plant's capability to accept a wider than intended and continually variable RDF specification.

"Whilst a number of improvements were achieved, the plant has consequently always operated at below its targeted design point. This has led to reduced thermal output and reduced availability. As a result throughput of RDF has not met the financial targets and the export of electricity has been significantly below expectations."

It is surely a matter of grave concern that similar problems and issues would almost certainly have cropped up at the Easter Langlee treatment facilities had they been delivered. So where is the documentary proof that the Borders delegation did indeed achieve 'due diligence'?

The ABP report points out that as NES Group were not in a position to improve the quality of RDF or provide sufficient funding to allow the plant to achieve its full operating and commercial performance, the ownership and financing of Avonmouth was restructured in July 2015 with Aurium Capital Markets and Australia's Macquarie Bank acquiring ownership together with Syngas Products, the technology supplier.

According to the report: "Funds were made available for capital expenditure on a material improvement programme, the first phase of which was undertaken in late 2015. This targeted improvements in availability, and the capability of taking waste and other material from multiple sources, to reduce the reliance on NES as the sole supplier of RDF.

"While these works were largely successful, the facility suffered from operational difficulties from completion through to January 2016 as a result of a fire at the neighbouring MBT, which materially disrupted feedstock supply, and therefore the plant's ability to operate even close to full capacity".

There were material improvements in operational performance. However, these tended to be sporadic and short-lived. "While there was scope for optimism at various stages, availability continued to be a problem predominantly due to the fuel issues mentioned previously.

"As a result in June 2016 the Board decided that a more fundamental approach was required to resolve the continuing operational and financial issues being experienced by the plant. It was agreed to suspend activity in order to undertake a major redevelopment programme, designed to address operational problems, including the potential switch of fuel supply from RDF - a key requirement of the development being that the site can operate on a readily available consistent feedstock.

"The detailed implementation plans for the redevelopment are currently being finalised and it is anticipated these works will commence during early 2017 and that operations at the plant may re-commence during 2018".

One wonders how those Borders councillors who presided over the New Earth farce, and who will be seeking re-election a few short months from now, will explain away their role in a tragic saga of incompetence which has cost local taxpayers millions of pounds.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Investigation into failed fund to take months, liquidators say


New information has emerged concerning the disastrous contract between Scottish Borders Council and failed waste treatment firm New Earth Solutions Group (NES) as liquidators and their legal advisers continue a complicated investigation into the collapse of the fund selected to bankroll a £21 million project at Galashiels.

It has been revealed that the original deal which Borders councillors signed in April 2011 for the construction of a Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) facility to process the region's rubbish was effectively dead in the water only nine months later due to funding issues.

In January 2012, the managing director of NES told the local authority his company could no longer obtain funding for the construction of the planned MBT, and the two stage process involving completion of the MBT ahead of an Advanced Thermal Technology (ATT) system to convert waste material into energy was not deliverable.

According to sections of a previously redacted council report which have now been released following Freedom of Information requests, this serious setback in the development process would result in months of discussions between the parties in a bid to find a way forward.

Eventually, in October 2012, elected members sanctioned a so-called Deed of Variation in the contract with NES so that MBT and ATT projects could be combined and integrated.

The contract amendment was meant to allow the multi-million pound project at Easter Langlee to finally reach financial closure. But two-and-a-half years later the fatally flawed revised deal had to be abandoned with NES unable to provide satisfactory technology and worthless offshore investment fund New Earth Recycling & Renewables [Infrastructure] PLC (NERR) unable to come up with the cash.

The collapse of the 24-year contract left local taxpayers at least £2.4 million out of pocket, the council choosing merely to write off the losses and move on without a full investigation, and with no interventions from independent watchdogs like Audit Scotland..

However, large swathes of this crucial report to councillors remain hidden underneath black ink with four complete pages and a number of appendices completely censored. It is difficult to see how this veil of secrecy can remain intact for much longer now that all of the businesses associated with the Borders fiasco - NES, NERR and parent organisation Premier Group (Isle of Man) Ltd - are all completely bust with their investors and shareholders unlikely to get a penny back.

NERR succumbed in July with the appointment of Deloitte as liquidators. A newly published update for creditors says: "The joint liquidators, alongside their legal advisers in the Isle of Man and UK. are continuing their investigations into the failure of the Company.

"However, this involves obtaining information and documentation from a variety of sources and a review of a considerable volume of documentation. It is therefore too early in the process to advise whether there are claims which can be brought by the joint liquidators against third parties which, if successful, would enable a return to be made to creditors and shareholders."

Deloitte anticipate providing a further update on their investigation into the failure of NERR towards the end of March 2017.

Meanwhile, the recently released material from SBC shows why the 'Deed of Variation' report was classified as confidential in October 2012. The document contains the following passage: " STATUS OF REPORT - As the contract with Scottish Borders Council represents New Earth Solutions' first project in Scotland, it will strengthen market confidence in NES' ability to deliver projects throughout the United Kingdom.

"Commercial and reputational damage would be caused to NES if the technical or financial details of this report were made public. Due to the confidentiality clauses that are in place within the contract, Scottish Borders Council could be liable for any commercial or reputational damage caused to NES".

New Earth put forward a list of factors which had allegedly rendered a stand-alone MBT facility untenable. These included the unacceptable level of returns for funders without the prospect of ATT and the revenues it would generate.

NES requested that in order for the MBT facility to be constructed the existing version of the project agreement would have to be changed to provide funders with the required return on investment.

"The project team's initial evaluation of the NES proposals indicated that if all of the proposals were conceded by SBC for the term of the contract, it would add an estimated (figure redacted) to the current value of the contract.

"This would mean that the original estimated cost avoidance against the 'do nothing' scenario (i.e. continue to landfill waste for 24 years) would be wiped out. These proposals were therefore unacceptable to the council and NES were informed of this".

The report reveals that negotiations continued without NES being able to provide council officers with a satisfactory solution. Discussions culminated with a letter from NES in MAy 2012 stating that due to irreconcilable differences the MBT only solution would be dropped and a fully integrated MBT and ATT solution would be delivered from day one subject to the appropriate permits and permissions.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Spectacular collapse: now an inspector calls!


The dramatic financial collapse of a group of businesses linked to a multi-million pound waste management contract rubber stamped by Scottish Borders councillors has been followed by the appointment of liquidators to the off-shore parent company which is to be wound up.

Financial commentators have expressed shock and surprise following confirmation that directors of fund promoters and managers Premier Group (Isle of Man) Ltd have decided to call it a day only weeks after several of their investment entities crashed, leaving thousands of investors out of pocket.

Documents lodged with the Manx Companies Registry, copies of which have been acquired by Not Just Sheep & Rugby, show how the decision was taken to wind up Premier Group at a 45-minute meeting of the three shareholders, Jamie Sutton, John Bourbon and Michael Richardson. Messrs Bourbon and Richardson participated by telephone as Mr Sutton chaired the meeting.

According to an extract of minutes of the meeting a so-called extraordinary resolution, passed unanimously by the shareholders states: "as the company cannot, by reason of its proposed surrendering of regulatory licence and the reduced sources of income, continue in business, the Company be wound up voluntarily".

The day before the meeting directors Sutton and Richardson submitted a Declaration of Solvency to the Isle of Man regulatory authorities in which they did "solemnly and sincerely declare that we have made a full enquiry into the affairs of the Company and have formed the opinion that the company will be able to pay its debts in full within a period not exceeding 12 months".

The failed investment funds, which yielded Premier's bosses many millions of pounds in management fees over a number of years included the New Earth Recycling & Renewables [Infrastructure] Fund (NERR) and the Eco-Resources Fund which invested in bamboo plantations in Central America. Both Premier subsidiaries crashed spectacularly this year with liquidators appointed.

Scottish Borders Council had expected NERR to put up the £21 million for a waste treatment centre at Easter Langlee, Galashiels in a venture which finally collapsed in 2015 after four years without any progress whatsoever.

The council's dealings with NERR and the associated New Earth Solutions Group which was also under Premier Group control cost local taxpayers at least £2.4 million. Now SBC is planning to spend a further £4 million on a waste transfer station on the site of the failed project to handle the region's rubbish before it is hauled by road to a centre outwith the area for treatment.

It is believed New Earth Solutions, now in administration, lost an estimated £4 million as a direct result of the Borders venture.

Liquidators Deloitte are currently investigating the NERR collapse, but have indicated there will be no return for investors.

Not Just Sheep & Rugby can now report that dealings linked to the Eco-Resources Fund are to be the subject of a separate investigation by order of the Isle of Man High Court following an application from the Isle of Man Financial Services Authority (IOMFSA).

Insolvency practitioner Paul Shimmin has been named as the inspector who will look into the affairs of the defendants (Eco-Resources Fund), and will submit reports to the Court. He has also been instructed to investigate the conduct of the fund's manager (Premier Group IOM Ltd), its administrator (Moore Fund Administration IOM) and its custodian Kleinwort Benson (Guernsey) Ltd.

The court order states: "The inspector shall deliver an interim report within one month of his appointment and thereafter further interim reports at monthly intervals to the Court with a copy to the claimant (IOMFSA)."

Mr Shimmin is also asked to report on any matter which comes to his attention during the course of the investigation which he considers ought to be presented to the Court. The claimant has liberty to add to or modify the scope of the investigation.

The last Eco-Resources Fund accounts to be published (covering 2014) show the managers collected fees of £90,906 from the loss-making entity. In their role as promoters Premier Group received £681,797 (up from £163,053 in 2013). The Fund also paid out a performance fee of £598,175 while sales and marketing costs of £1,843,371 (2013 £905,897) were levied.

The fee paid to Moore as administrators was £121,339 while custodian Kleinwort Benson picked up £30,091.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

"Due diligence" claim fails data test


Damning evidence that the Avonmouth Energy from Waste facility, inspected during a two-day "due diligence" visit by a Scottish Borders Council delegation, was performing badly before, during and after the jaunt appears to have been missed or ignored by eight councillors and a team of top officials.

Regular readers of Not Just Sheep & Rugby will be aware that the sixteen strong deputation who made the 700-mile round trip in October 2014 at a cost to taxpayers of £4,000, returned from the New Earth Solutions (NES) treatment plant near Bristol mightily impressed by what they had seen.

Council leader David Parker described the Avonmouth trip as “valuable and illuminating”.

“The integrated WTF is a really big deal for our council as it will transform the way we deal with our waste and help us comply with our zero waste obligations,” he told the Border Telegraph.
“It also involves a major investment, in partnership with NES, which requires councillors to carry out due diligence and, in that respect, the trip was necessary. I am satisfied after our visit that we are on the right track and confident that the WTF will be up and running before the 2019 contract deadline, hopefully by mid-2017.”

But just four months later the plans for a scaled down version of Avonmouth at Easter Langlee, Galashiels, at an estimated cost of £21 million, were scrapped in chaos because the technology did not work and the funding could not be secured. At this point SBC had squandered at least £2.4 million: so much for "due diligence".

Statistics available from energy watchdog Ofgem would have shown the eight Borders councillors - Parker, Edgar, Brown, Paterson and Davidson from the ruling group, and Ballantyne, Mountford and Scott from the Tory opposition - just how poorly Avonmouth was functioning when compared to other fuelled stations.

Throughout 2014 the NES facility never operated at more than 22 per cent of its capacity measured in so-called Megawatt Hours (MWH) and averaged a meagre 15.91% over the calendar year. At the same time the average capacity achieved by fuelled stations in the UK stood at 52.08%, up from 48.25% in 2013.

Here are the monthly capacity percentages for 2014 for the Avonmouth energy facility, operated by New Earth Energy (West) Operations Ltd at the time. The facility was later "sold" for no monetary consideration to Avonmouth Bio Power Energy Ltd, the business which continues to run the plant.

January 2014 9.46%; February 13.99%; March 17.62%; April 14.71%; May 9.11%; June 16.066%; July 21.26%; August 18.69%; September 13.35%; October 20.57%; November 20.41%; December 15.72%.

According to the published data Avonmouth, which was commissioned in April 2013, registered an average production capacity of 11.89% between October 2015 and June of this year. In February 2015 - the month in which SBC and NES tore up their "revolutionary" contract the percentage was an equally unimpressive 18.78; it had slumped to 13.55% in August 2015 with the percentage recorded at an all time low of 4.36% in June 2016.

Did the council delegation ask for or seek to obtain these depressing statistics? After all Avonmouth was regarded as the cutting edge waste treatment centre which would propel SBC to the top of Scotland's recycling/energy from waste league tables.

As we reported recently, sections of confidential documents obtained via a Freedom of Information investigation conducted by the Scottish Information Commissioner, revealed the conclusions of in-house 'post mortems' conducted into the SBC/NES fiasco.

Apparently the delegation toured the wrong NES facility, and should have gone to NES Canford, more than 100 miles from Avonmouth. The report covering "lessons learned" tells us: "The visit was to demonstrate how a site worked. However Avonmouth did not show this in balance; instead it was being over positive".

It may be difficult to understand how the Ofgen data for Avonmouth could ever be construed as "over positive". And the figures certainly seem to provide conclusive proof that members of the SBC delegation failed in their "due diligence" mission.

Monday, 5 December 2016

At a loss to explain collapsing funds


The offshore fund managers who were supposed to come up with the cash for a £21 million waste treatment centre to serve the Scottish Borders have announced that for the fourth time in less than six months one of their collection of investment companies is to be wound up and liquidated.

Premier Group (Isle of Man) Ltd.'s website carries the upbeat banner headline "intelligent and innovative investment ideas". Perhaps those words convinced Scottish Borders Council that one of the financial casualties in Premier's stable - New Earth Recycling & Renewables [Infrastructure] PLC or NERR - could fund the all singing, all dancing treatment facility planned for Easter Langlee, Galashiels.

Investigative work by Not Just Sheep & Rugby staff has shown NERR never had the resources to bankroll the project which was terminated jointly by the Council and contractors New Earth Solutions Group (NESG) in February 2015.

And NERR finally succumbed to financial meltdown in July of this year when joint liquidators were appointed to oversee an organisation with debts/liabilities of at least £113 million. Warnings have already been issued that investors will get nothing back once the mess is sorted out and liquidators Deloitte are paid for their work.

But new information obtained via Freedom of Information shows it had been stated as early as 2013 that the funding from NERR for Easter Langlee was no longer available meaning the ill-fated venture had no funder of last resort from that time.

However, it is claimed it was not in the Council's best interests to pull out of the contract within the first year "as this would have financially cost the authority millions of pounds". Involvement with the now bankrupt NESG did cost Borders council taxpayers £2.4 million while failure to deliver the Galashiels facility is said to have cost New Earth twice that figure. It is unlikely the public will ever know the true scale of either side's losses.

The 'death' of Premier's worthless NERR fund, which brought in generous fees for the company's top brass, has been quickly followed by the collapse of three other funds. Yet as of today this 'bust' threesome is still being promoted on that Premier Group website as opportunities to invest cash.

An Extraordinary General Meeting [EGM] of the so-called Premier Diversified Property Fund was arranged for September 26th to pass a motion to wind up the company voluntarily and to appoint a liquidator. The last published accounts for this particular operation showed losses of £13.6 million for the sterling sub-fund, E2.295 million for the Euro sub-fund and $1.231 million for the dollar sub-fund.

There was a similar fate awaiting the Premier Portfolio Fund PLC. An EGM was fixed for October 19th to wind the company up voluntarily with the appointment of a liquidator. The fund experienced a loss of £8.5 million in the year to June 2013 with a further loss of £531,000 in the twelve months to October 2014.

The latest financial casualty under the Premier umbrella is the Premier Eco Resources Fund in which shareholders were invited to take a stake in bamboo forests in faraway central America and South Africa.

Following desperate moves to save this outfit a notice has been published with details of an EGM on December 19th to consider a proposal to voluntarily wind up the fund "as the company cannot by reason of its liabilities continue in business". As of December 2014 the Eco Resources company had liabilities totalling £51.3 million, up from £36.9 million the previous year.

Investors have been told that an inspector is to be appointed by the Isle of Man authorities in a bid to investigate the circumstances surrounding the collapse of this Premier entity. Reports may also flow from the liquidation of the NERR fund while administrators continue to work at NESG.

We ask yet again: What was the nature of enquiries made by Scottish Borders Council before deciding in 2010/11 to sign a contract with NESG, and become linked to its offshore funding partner NERR and the controlling Premier Group?