Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Investors call for inquiry into failed offshore funds

EWAN LAMB reports

Investors and shareholders caught up in the multi-million pound collapse of the Manx-based Premier Group and its associated funds are calling on the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic to mount a full scale investigation into the activities of the organisation's directors.

A number of inquiries by administrators and liquidators are already underway, including a probe into the affairs of the bankrupt New Earth Recycling & Renewables [Infrastructure] Fund or NERR which was hand picked by Scottish Borders Council to finance a £21 million waste treatment plant at Galashiels.

The NERR fund, managed, controlled and promoted by Premier Group, suffered a spectacular liquidation last year, leaving 3,250 investors in limbo. Insolvency experts have already warned there is unlikely to be any dividend for shareholders as they pick over the mess left by the 'death' of the Premier empire.

Not Just Sheep & Rugby investigations have uncovered several disturbing aspects of the fiasco which resulted in the cancellation of the Borders project and left local taxpayers at least £2.4 million out of pocket. Our efforts to get at the truth continue, but there is still no sign of any kind of official inquiry into the role played by elected councillors and local government officers with the financial losses written off in cavalier fashion.

Now SBC is having to embark on an alternative waste management solution involving the construction of a £6 million waste transfer station on the site of the planned New Earth Solutions (NES) scheme at Easter Langlee. Up to 50,000 tonnes of domestic rubbish will have to be hauled out of the region by road each year to be processed at sites in other parts of Scotland or beyond.

Today, for the first time, the Premier Group's demise and its ramifications have received extensive coverage in the Isle of Man media.

According to Isle of Man Today, a website which carries articles published in the Isle of Man Examiner, the losses sustained by investors in the various funds runs into tens of millions of dollars.

Beneath a headline which reads: SAVERS LOSE MILLIONS AS INVESTMENT FUNDS CRASH IOM Today details the various disasters which have hit Premier Group and its associated entities.

The article states: " Premier Group (Isle of Man) Ltd, based at Ridgeway Street, Douglas, was established in 2007 and latterly focused on renewable and green investments including recycling plants in the UK.

"But as far back as 2010 investors had been raising concerns about the fund group it succeeded, also named Premier Group IoM, which was launched in 2001 and had seen funds that it promoted grow to £500 m but closed to new investments in 2005.

"The Premier Shareholders Group accused the Manx government of failing to protect investors after a fund marketed as ‘low risk’ was subjected to a market value adjuster. That 2001 company was not regulated by the island’s Financial Services Authority (FSA)."

This early history of the Group is of particular relevance to SBC's involvement with the New Earth regime, a liaison which was not forged until 2011. So were Borders councillors made aware of these concerns before signing the paperwork on a £80 million contract which was subsequently ripped up and binned?

The IOM Today article continues: "NERR and its two feeder funds, had a valuation of $292.22 m and a total of 3,249 investors, the majority of whom are unlikely to get much of their money back.

"The higher risk nature of the funds was explained in the funds’ offering documents. ‘Substantial recovery of value from those investments may be unlikely,’ says the FSA. The FSA filed a claim to wind up the three funds after two other linked companies, New Earth Solutions Group and New Earth Solutions Facilities Management, in which NERR was the majority shareholder, were put into administration in the UK." 

An investor in one of the Premier funds declared: " the proper authorities need to investigate this fiasco both in the UK and the USA. Sadly this mess will be quite difficult to clear up given the overly complex structure of these businesses and funds. People investing in what they thought would be profitable, eco-friendly and socially responsible ventures are being swindled".

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

A four-penny one for NES creditors


Unsecured creditors of New Earth Solutions Group, the waste management company chosen by Borders councillors for a £65 million development at Galashiels, have been told they could end up with as little as 4p in the £ following the dramatic collapse of the business.

And a new report from joint administrators reveals that NES did not have sufficient cash to maintain and upgrade its existing equipment, so had the Easter Langlee treatment plant been delivered, the Group may have been unable to afford to operate it.

Scottish Borders Council has claimed on more than one occasion that it carried out proper checks on NES before and after awarding the contract which cost local taxpayers at least £2.5 million prior to the entire house of cards crashing down in disarray. No-one within the local authority has been held to account, and the losses were blithely written off without explanation or apology.

The gradual disclosure of the flawed decisions taken by elected members suggests their attempts at so-called due diligence fell way short of the required standard. Had losses of this magnitude been chalked up in the private sector then undoubtedly heads would have rolled.

The 32-page progress report on the administration of NES Group from insolvency specialists Duff & Phelps heralds extremely bad news for the scores of unsecured creditors who were owed an estimated £9.169 million. A maximum of only £600,000 is available to meet their claims.

In a section explaining why it was decided not to trade the business, the document states: "The Group generated insufficient cash to service its secured debt and was in default in respect of its lending facilities.

"The Group generated insufficient cash to invest in the desired level of Capital Expenditure required to maintain and upgrade the equipment held by the company and therefore the quality of its assets were deteriorating. No new borrowing was available due to the insolvent position of the Group balance sheet and the current lender's inability to invest due to its precarious financial position".

That 'current lender' just happened to be Manx-based New Earth Recycling & Renewables [Infrastructure] PLC - known as NERR - which had been nominated as funders for the Galashiels project after more due diligence by the local authority. NERR managed to string SBC along for three costly years without ever coming up with any cash.

NERR is now in the process of being liquidated on the Isle of Man with a forecast that investors and shareholders will get nothing back.

The report says NES Group also owed the Co-op Bank £41.8 million and NERR in excess of £39 million when administrators Duff & Phelps were appointed last June. Again, SBC appears to have been unaware that NES was teetering on the edge of insolvency while their vital waste management contract was still 'live', but going nowhere.

Administrators estimate outstanding creditors are likely to receive a dividend of "approximately 4p to 8p in the £".

The report adds: "The Joint Administrators have filed a report with DBEIS (Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy) concerning the conduct of all directors of the Group that served in the three year period prior to the administrator's appointment. The content of this report is confidential".

NES Group is expected to be dissolved once the administration is completed within the next six months.

FOOTNOTE - New Earth Solutions (Scottish Borders) Ltd., the NES subsidiary specially set up to deliver the Easter Langlee treatment facility is also expected to be consigned to the dustbin of industrial history within a matter of weeks.

Papers filed at the Register of Companies show all directors of the company have resigned, accounts which should have been lodged with the authorities by October 29th last year have never been submitted.

The Registrar has issued a warning notice indicating the company will be compulsorily struck off the Register. Perhaps a fitting end for such a disastrous liaison between council and contractor which has cost the Borders dear, both financially and environmentally, and has heaped opprobrium on the region's elected representatives.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Express delivery threatens A68 'recovery'

research by guest writers MINNIE COOPER and AUSTIN CAMBRIDGE

Traffic volumes on the beautiful A68/A696 route between Jedburgh and Ponteland increased in 2015 despite the best efforts of England's transport authorities to sideline the road and condemn it to country lane status.

Vehicle numbers had been falling spectacularly for a decade following the ludicrous decision to de-trunk the Northumberland section of the A68 and hand over its maintenance needs to the county council, and to create a so-called strategic national corridor via the A1 from Newcastle to Edinburgh.

There was an angry reaction from the Jedburgh business community and promises of action by local politicians following Not Just Sheep & Rugby's expose of the statistics in March 2016. It showed car numbers had slumped by a massive 35% between 2004 and 2015 while total traffic was down by 28.7% in the same period. The deliberate downgrading of the A68 was having a devastating impact on the local economy.

The numbers of cars crossing one of the census points just south of Jedburgh on an average day declined from 4162 to 2701, and the count for all forms of transport dropped from 5103 to 3635.. At the same time the A1 counter at Berwick-on-Tweed experienced a 65% increase in car numbers from 5258 to 8775 with total traffic up from 7505 to 11,805.

Department of Transport data for 2015 shows there was a modest increase in A68/A696 traffic in 2015 at all census points although there was an even bigger rise on A1.

The Jedburgh counter, quoted above, registered an annual average daily flow (AADF) of 3722 vehicles (+87 on the 2014 figure of 3635) and car numbers increased by an average of 42 to 2743 (2701). HGV numbers rose by 10 per day from 244 to 254.

We also looked at figures for the counter north of Jedburgh covering the stretch of the A68 from the town to the Bonjedward junction with the A698. Statistics here were obviously boosted by local traffic travelling to Kelso, Galashiels and other Borders towns for work, shopping trips, or leisure pursuits.

Here the all vehicle count went up from 7978 to 8328 (+50), car numbers increased by 92 on an AADF basis.

In a bid to secure a truly accurate picture of trends we obtained figures for two other census points at Carter Bar on the England-Scotland border and for the A696 south of Otterburn. The Carter Bar figures for all traffic increased from 2911 in 2014 to 2971 in 2015, but were still well below the 3263 AADF statistics logged in 2005. Car numbers rose from 2260 to 2295.

On the A696 all vehicle numbers showed a healthy increase from 3503 to 3590, not far short of the 2005 number (4075). Car traffic was up from 2560 to 2600. And significantly, HGVs using the route were up from 247 to 259 per day despite advice from the London transport authorities that the A696/A68 is not really suitable for lorries and other large vehicles.

Turning to the A1 we examined the data for a different counter point in the Berwick vicinity this time. Here vehicle traffic was up by an average of 112 per day from 8042 in 2014 to 8513 in 2015. HGV numbers rose by 50 from 1186 to 1236.

Further north at the Cockburnspath census point close to the Borders regional boundary with East Lothian the all-traffic numbers shot up by 309 per day from 7417 to 7726 with HGVs up by 49 from 1,140 to 1,189.

Finally, the A68 north of Lauder saw vehicle numbers rise from 6,636 to 6,923 (2005 figure was 8,922). HGV numbers were up from 526 to 555 (2005 - 840).

So has the A68 from Jedburgh southwards turned the corner, so to speak? The latest statistics were being clocked up before the political outcry in 2016, and there has been little sign of action since. A suggestion for a Friends of the A68 with cross-border collaboration appears to have been kicked into the long grass while an improvement plan for the Scottish section of the route is supposed to be published by the end of this year.

Perhaps MPs, MSPs and councillors in the Scottish Borders would show more urgency by making themselves aware of the negative ramifications likely to flow from another development which could have a devastating impact on the A68's future use.

A section of Northumberland County Council's current Infrastructure Plan entitled 'Improving Northumberland's roads network' does not appear to contain any mention of major investment for the A696/A68. At the same time Highways England has allocated a £290 million package to upgrade the A1 in Northumberland still further.

It will facilitate additional stretches of dual carriageway, attracting an estimated additional £376 million to the local economy.

According to the literature accompanying the financial support for the Great North Road: "The long-term vision is to upgrade the full A1 route through Northumberland to Expressway Standard". This would transform the route into a mini-motorway modelled on European-style expressways.

Time, perhaps, for the Jedburgh area's representatives to get their skates on or at least move up through the gears!

Monday, 9 January 2017

Was council duped by New Earth?


Councillors in the Scottish Borders faced demands for an extra £27 million less than a year after handing an £80 million waste management contract to Dorset 'specialists' New Earth Solutions, according to previously confidential material released via Freedom of Information (FOI).

The company told their local government clients in early 2012 that NES could no longer obtain funding for the construction of a stand alone Mechanical Biological Treatment [MBT] facility at Easter Langlee, Galashiels without the inclusion of the company's untried, useless Advanced Thermal Treatment (ATT) technology - a process supposed to produce energy from waste - in the deal.

Despite the fact that consortiums of banks were funding conventional MBT projects in the UK at the time, and even though this method of waste treatment received a ringing endorsement from management professions, Borders elected members sanctioned a disastrous change to the NES contract which would result in the collapse of the entire project.

A number of sections of a confidential report submitted to SBC in October 2012 have been freed from the censor's redactions, revealing yet more disturbing aspects of the costly liaison between the council and NES which cost council and contractor at least £6 million.

The contract for the MBT plant at Galashiels had been signed amid a glowing blaze of publicity in March/April 2011.

New Earth said the state-of-the-art MBT process to be used at the site would divert waste from landfill in line with the Scottish Governments Zero Waste policy and also help Scottish Borders to increase its recycling rates by recovering metals and plastics.

Stakeholders in the project were assured New Earth planned to have the facility up-and-running within 18 months, claiming the company had a proven capability in developing major new waste treatment infrastructure projects quickly. It was one of the most hollow promises in waste management history, and the funding for the venture was never in place. The contract was torn up in February 2015.

The FOI revelations show NES requested a special meeting with SBC representatives on January 12 2012. The firm's managing director confirmed that NES could no longer get financial backing for the MBT facility, and the two stage process of building the ATT plant several years down the line was not deliverable for several reasons.

Among the factors cited were: "The environment for delivering ATT of waste in Scotland was not conducive to achieving funding confidence as there was a risk of SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency) removing the permit after seven years" and "the unacceptable level of returns for funders without the prospect of ATT technology and the revenues it would generate".

The secret report to councillors goes on to state: "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 terms of the contract, it would add an estimated £27 million to the current value of the contract.

"This would mean that the original estimated cost avoidance against the 'do nothing' scenario (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".

We are told the project team set up "a structured set of meetings" with NES to fully investigate the issues associated with delivering a MBT solution only.

However, research by Not Just Sheep & Rugby would suggest NES were on extremely shaky ground in arguing that stand alone MBT was incapable of attracting bank funding. So should they have been forced to stick to the original terms of the contract and suffer any consequences?

Around the same time it was announced the Green Investment Bank had provided £30.4 million of senior debt for a MBT only facility near Wakefield, West Yorkshire in a contract between Shanks - rejected as bidders for the Borders project - and Wakefield Council. A syndicate of other private banks from Europe and Japan, together with Barclays brought total funding for the Yorkshire venture to £121.7 million.

Perhaps many banks were less inclined to get involved with NES because of its already heavy indebtedness, and because it was not one of the so-called "big six" UK waste management businesses. The NES Group is now in administration with investors losing many millions of pounds. 

It has been suggested the demand for an extra £27 million from NES should have been followed by the immediate termination of the Borders contract in January 2012. Instead, councillors were persuaded to opt for a Deed of Variation to incorporate ATT into the scheme, resulting in an administrative and financial mess which cost taxpayers dearly.

Maybe they did not read a policy position statement on MBT issued by the Chartered Institute of Waste and Environmental Management [CIWEM].

The institute declared: "The number of MBT plants in the UK is increasing with 19 permitted by the end of 2010 with a combined capacity of 2.7 million tonnes. Further developments are under way in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to deliver additional capacity over the next four years. MBT should be seen as a means of improving waste hierarchy performance".

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

From £12m to £12,000 inside a year


The death throes of the Premier Group (Isle of Man) Ltd and its associates and subsidiaries, including the company chosen to fund a £21 million waste treatment facility for the Scottish Borders, brought to light more alarming financial information over the Christmas holidays.

The main Yuletide focus has been on Premier's Eco Resources Fund [ERF], which managed to lose millions of pounds of investors' cash in a bamboo plantation venture in Central America. It was revealed around Christmas Eve that the fund had only £12,545.73 left in the kitty, having been valued at £12.9 million on the Channel Islands Stock Exchange in November 2015.

As Not Just Sheep & Rugby has reported in the past, the Eco Resources Fund together with the (also bankrupt) New Earth Recycling & Renewables [Infrastructure] Fund, known as NERR, were the geese which laid golden eggs for parent Premier Group over a number of years.

Various investment funds managed and promoted by Premier yielded an estimated £12 million in fees in 2014 and £10.7 million the previous year.

Premier Group itself went into liquidation on November 30th. Since then the Eco Resources Fund has received a demand from Premier's Joint Liquidator for fees that are due amounting to £2,388,781.11. Correspondence circulated to investors and shareholders says the Fund is not in a position to settle the amount due.

Just before Christmas consideration was given to an extraordinary resolution for members to consider whether the ERF should be wound up. The move was rejected by more than 84% of the stockholders.
The circular from the Fund explains: "The directors have concluded that the overwhelming vote against the resolution is a clear indication of a vote of no confidence in them. This leaves the directors in an untenable position and they have therefore each tendered their resignations from the board with immediate effect."

But prior to resigning the directors were made aware that three individuals - among them John Bourbon, a director of Premier Group (IOM) - had expressed an interest in replacing the existing directors to convene a new fund board despite being aware of ERF's financial affairs together with the demand for more than £2.3 million from Premier.

Now a further meeting has been called on the Isle of Man on January 16th to decide whether Mr Bourbon together with Richard Robinson and Troy Wiseman should be appointed as directors.

A background report shows the £12,545 left in the fund is more than offset by the money owed to creditors totalling £2.731 million. It seems obvious the ERF, like the NERR fund, is now totally worthless; extremely bad news for ERF's 188 shareholders. The 3,253 investors who placed their trust in NERR - along with the elected members of Scottish Borders Council - also have only a snowball in hell's chance of a return.

The tangled financial web resulted in the fund owning 100% of the issued share capital of ERF Ltd. In turn ERF Ltd owns 2,000 shares of Eco Planet Bamboo (Isle of Man) Ltd. [EBIOM] and is owed $51 million by EBIOM.

EBIOM in turn owns two Delaware registered bamboo plantation owning companies. The financial position of EBIOM and the Delaware companies is not known at this time, ERF shareholders and creditors are told. Follow that trail if you can.

Yet while separate detailed investigations are proceeding into the affairs of Premier Group, ERF, NERR, and by the administrators of the council's contractors New Earth Solutions Group, an inquiry into the loss of at least £2.4 million thanks to the incompetent and negligent actions of the Borders local authority has never even been mentioned.

It brings the yawning gap between the regulation of private entities and public authorities into sharp focus. SBC, now wrestling with a £9 million 'funding gap', was able to write off its losses in the New Earth fiasco without so much as a by your leave and move on as though nothing was amiss. Cash strapped Borders council taxpayers who face an increase in demands from their local authority from this April are left to pick up the tab.