Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Fresh calls for "waste fiasco" inquiry


There have been renewed calls for some kind of official inquiry into the loss of £2.4 million of public money by Scottish Borders Council following publication of a damning 42-page report into the Easter Langlee waste treatment "affair".

An investigation which took more than two years to complete thanks to the council's refusal to release hundreds of documents linked to the abandoned contract has produced damning evidence and allegations that SBC mismanaged funds by failing to deliver a £23 million facility to deal with the region's 40,000 tonnes of household rubbish.

The catalogue of factual evidence which had to be dragged from the council with the assistance of the Scottish Information Commissioner has been handed to local politicians and media representatives in a bid to have the issue taken further.

Unfortunately Audit Scotland, the organisation normally tasked with such an investigation has shown no appetite to get involved.

And the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman [SPSO] - when supplied with a copy of the report together with a request for advice - recommended passing the document to....Audit Scotland. It would appear that Scotland's regulatory system for public authorities resembles a version of the Magic Roundabout.

But if the regulators see nothing amiss with the loss of £2.4 million together with many millions more which had been invested in New Earth Solutions and its offshore partner New Earth Recycling & Renewables (NERR) fund there has been some strong reaction from experts and others who have read the report.

One of the key findings from the investigation was that councillors in the Borders should have pulled the plug on NES and NERR long before February 2015 when the waste treatment project was finally abandoned for "technical and financial reasons".

An experienced and respected member of the waste management industry told us: "When you look at this in summary it is shocking. How they allowed so much to go on without hitting the stop button beggars belief. What is shocking to me is they had Shanks as a reserve bidder that they could have called when things started to go wrong so quickly". 

He claimed those in charge should have considered "a couple of options", namely:

  1. force NES to build the conventional Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) plant as per the contract and set aside the Advanced Thermal Treatment (ATT) facility to be built as phase 2 (as per the original contract.
  2. terminate the contract and award to Shanks. At least Borders would have had a treatment facility
The industry expert commented: "It is to be hoped there is a public enquiry of sorts and a number of people are brought to account. The handling of this was nothing short of shocking. I would also question some of the advisers as to why they did not impress on SBC the need to consider termination much earlier."

There seems little doubt that electyed members at SBC took a huge gamble in 2012 when they sanctioned the inclusion of Advanced Thermal Treatment (ATT) in the Easter Langlee project. This decision was taken even though councillors were aware the ATT technology had not even been through research and development trials.

An anti-ATT campaigner said: "There are important lessons to be learned [from the Borders investigation], not least for those councils where history is repeating itself and for other authorities who should be publicly ruling out gasification..

"This document has provided an invaluable service to the whole movement by giving us a rare glimpse behind the curtain of secrecy that usually hides what really goes on between waste companies and waste authorities. Councillors clearly need educating."

And a former councillor who was once in charge of important local government portfolios told us: 
"There is absolutely no doubt that this is an Audit Scotland matter right enough but it appears that they are happy to go along  with the work they commission from private accounting firms acting as external auditors.

"After all it is Audit Scotland that has set out the guidelines for elected member responsibilities for ensuring best value when it comes to spending the 'Public Pound'  due diligence etc."

One local taxpayer merely said he was 'sad and depressed at the sheer incompetence of councillors and officials at SBC' while a number of others claimed it was "criminal" that no-one had shouldered the blame or been held to account for the loss of such a vast sum of public cash.

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