Sunday, 27 August 2017

A strong case for the prosecution

DOUGLAS SHEPHERD examines the evidence in the Easter Langlee debacle

The completion of a two-and-a-half year investigation into the failed Scottish Borders waste treatment project has uncovered sufficient evidence to make a charge of gross maladministration stick against those in charge of the contract.

That is Not Just Sheep & Rugby's conclusion based on the contents of dozens of documents which had to be prised out of secret files at Scottish Borders Council via Freedom of Information requests and on the instructions of the Scottish Information Commissioner.

The refusal to accede to requests for information was maintained steadfastly on grounds of "commercial confidentiality" even after debt-ridden contractors New Earth Solutions [NES] collapsed into administration and its offshore funding partner New Earth Recycling & Renewables (NERR) fund was discovered to be insolvent. We maintain SBC indulged in a cover-up in a bid to protect themselves from scrutiny and embarrassment, not to mention responsibility.

It is impossible to mount a defence for SBC as the local authority has maintained a stony silence ever since they were forced to abandon their deeply flawed deal with NES in February 2015 at a cost of at least £2.4 million to council taxpayers.

Not a single elected member has offered a plausible explanation or offered an apology for the collapse of a £23 million construction project which left the Borders waste management strategy in complete disarray.

Now a second planning application has been lodged for the development of a £4 million waste transfer station [WST] on the former New Earth site where refuse collections can be centralised before being carted by road to a destination outwith the area for treatment. The first attempt by Borders council officials to secure permission was thwarted by er Borders councillors!

There is so much damning evidence now in the public domain that it is difficult to outline its impact within the confines of a single article. But here are the main revelations and questions which now hang over the SBC/NES contract:

*Apart from rubber stamping the original contract with NES in 2011 and nodding through a disastrous amendment to the deal in October 2012 there is no evidence of control or even involvement by elected councillors who were responsible for planned expenditure of £23 million at Easter Langlee. What was their actual role? The absence of written records suggests they left matters entirely in the hands of paid officials and extremely costly consultants.

* Had the contract not been varied the Borders should have had a conventional treatment plant capable of diverting 80% of waste from landfill up and running by 2013. Our region ended up with nothing with an end to landfill looming large.

*Councillors agreed in private in 2012 to include Advanced Thermal Treatment – a form of gas-engine incineration – in the project to convert refuse into electricity. Unfortunately the so-called NEAT technology had never been proven commercially at any location, and it never worked.

*NES told SBC at different stages of their relationship that funding for Easter Langlee would come from the firm’s offshore partners, then from one of eight named banks, and latterly from New York. Despite the string of promises and excuses, money for the plant was never in place.

*In late 2013 the NEAT research and development trials were going so badly that New Earth warned of a further two-year delay, taking completion to (hopefully) July 2017. Why did councillors not step in at that stage and order the contract to be abandoned forthwith instead of allowing the farce to continue for another 15 months at great public cost?

*At this point New Earth directors suggested abandoning the gas option and replacing it with a brand of steam technology. But to be viable the re-designed plant would require a 70,000 tonne capacity rather than the 40,000 tonne plant needed to deal with Borders waste. The answer would be to import garbage from other parts of the country.

*In a desperate bid to keep the project alive, NES proposed in 2014 that until the Galashiels centre was completed all of the rubbish from the Scottish Borders should be transported out of the region in fleets of lorries for treatment somewhere in North-east England. Ironically, that is the only environmentally unfriendly solution left to the council in 2017 as a direct result of catastrophic mismanagement of the contract.

*A large delegation of councillors and officials returned from a 'fact finding mission’ to south-west England in October 2014 and confirmed their waste treatment solution was on track and would be an asset to the Scottish Borders. But behind the scenes the project was on the verge of collapse, and four months later it had to be abandoned.

Despite all of these hard facts Scotland's public spending 'watchdog' Audit Scotland has stated repeatedly there was/is no need for an investigation into this mess of SBC's making. Apparently the council pulled the plug at the right time otherwise even more of our cash would have disappeared down a proverbial black hole.

Audit Scotland did concede the loss of £2.4 million was a "poor outcome" for the council. No it wasn't. It was a very poor outcome for taxpayers, but SBC simply wrote off the money and carried on as though nothing had happened.

We rest our case....

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