Bombshell report reveals fresh concerns over aborted waste project that cost council taxpayers £2.4m
by Martin Hannan
Scottish Borders Council refused to answer questions from retired journalist Bill Chisholm, but was rebuked by the Information Commissioner
A BOMBSHELL report about the loss of more than £2.4 million of public money by Scottish Borders Council casts doubt on the official investigation into that loss.
Distinguished journalist Bill Chisholm, who was awarded the MBE for services to journalism when he retired some years ago, spent 30 months investigating the scandal. The Easter Langlee waste transfer system was never built but still cost the public purse more than £2.4m.
Despite Scottish Borders Council (SBC) constantly refusing to answer his questions, Chisholm – now 72 and describing himself as a concerned council tax payer – persevered and the Scottish Information Commissioner ruled in his favour seven times so that he was able to access the information, which he claims shows mismanagement and a misuse of public funds.
But Audit Scotland’s investigation has cleared the council and it says its file on the matter is now closed.
The saga began in 2011 when the council awarded a 24-year waste management contract, valued at between £65m and £80m, to an English firm, New Earth Solutions Group (NESG), which would include the development and construction of a “cutting-edge” waste treatment facility at Easter Langlee near Galashiels at an estimated cost of up to £23m.
Chisholm’s 43-page report alleges the technology to be used at Easter Langlee by Dorset-based NESG, backed by Isle of Man-based New Earth Recycling & Renewables [Infrastructure] PLC (NERR), was not fully tried and tested.
He reports: “In an interview published in the Journal of the Chartered Institute of Waste Management in October 2015 … Richard Brooke, the commercial director of NESG, said ‘The development in Scotland that would have been New Earth’s sixth facility did not come to fruition for a variety of reasons … the specific energy technology to be built and operated was not ready to bring on-line on a commercial scale.’”
The contractors were given more time and 18 SBC councillors and officers visited NESG’s premises in October 2014 – a trip that cost council taxpayers almost £4,000.
NESG then failed to deliver on Easter Langlee. Less than four months later on 19 February, 2015, the contract was terminated.
Both NESG and NERR went bust and SBC had to write off more than £2.4m. The council has since tried to establish its own new £4.8m waste transfer system at Easter Langlee, but after planning problems work has still not begun and the council continues to face penalties for its failure to treat its waste.
Chisholm asked a series of questions about the technology and funding but received insufficient answers.
The Information Commissioner then overruled SBC in very strong terms, saying: “In the Commissioner’s view, disclosure of the withheld information would serve the public interest in informing the public about the actions and decisions taken by the council, the basis for those actions and decisions, and the reasons why the project failed. The project had involved many years of work, and substantial sums of public money.”
Chisholm was finally told by SBC that the costs involved during the lifetime of the contract totalled £1.968 million – excluding 20 per cent VAT – with much of the money having gone to highly paid consultants.
After external auditors KPMG passed the council’s accounts, public spending watchdog Audit Scotland took over as auditors and concluded the council acted correctly. Both SBC and Audit Scotland have refused to re-open any inquiry into the failed project.
Chisholm told The National: “I would suggest Audit Scotland has made a misjudgment [in connection] with the Borders’ £65m waste management contract
“A significant number of people who have read the report, including an eminent procurement expert, have expressed the view that there are many issues I have uncovered which would justify an investigation.
“Examples include the question of whether the council might have breached EU procurement rules, not to mention the complete loss of at least £2.4m of taxpayers’ money.”
Chisholm added: “Audit Scotland may have closed the file on Project Easter Langlee: I have not.”
A Scottish Borders Council spokesperson said yesterday: “Mr Chisholm has not yet presented Scottish Borders Council formally with a copy of his report, however it is worth noting that both KPMG and Audit Scotland have examined the matter and are both satisfied with the steps taken by the council in relation to the contract with New Earth Solutions.”
An Audit Scotland spokesman said: “In our response to Mr Chisholm we explained that our opinion is that the council came to a reasonable judgment in terminating the contract when it did. We are also satisfied that audit work previously completed by the external auditor showed that the council followed a reasonable process in the procurement of the waste management contract.”