There is virtually no mention of councillor involvement in the Easter Langlee project in any of the documents SBC has volunteered to give me or in the many more released on the orders of the Scottish Information Commissioner.
Minutes of meetings should provide a full picture of the role played by our elected members, but incredibly, during my inquiries I have been told on more than one occasion that events were not formally recorded. Therefore written documents containing information about the ill-fated scheme do not, in many cases, exist on the council’s ‘New Earth Solutions’ file. I would submit that such an admission of sloppy record keeping should be worthy of investigation on its own.
A classic example of this cavalier approach towards the (non) minuting of meetings came to light after I submitted a FOI request seeking information about the council’s large delegation of elected members and officers who made a “fact-finding” trip to NESG headquarters at Avonmouth in October 2014, just four months before the Easter Langlee shipwreck had to be abandoned.
No fewer than 18 of the most powerful members and officials of SBC made the trip (including an overnight stay) at a total cost to taxpayers of £3,939.35. In public statements following their return to the Borders they made it clear they were pleased with what they had seen and were convinced SBC was “on the right track”.
When I requested a list of the questions asked and answers given at a briefing session this is what I was told: “There was then a question and answer session with NES so that Councillors could get a detailed understanding of the delivery strategy, technology development, permit and funding. No information is held on record in respect of the questions or answers provided. Only the presentations are held – which are commercially confidential, a redacted copy is attached.”
I went on to ask for copies of reports generated before and after the visit. Here’s the reply from SBC: “Subsequent project reports, minutes and emails make reference to the visit but were not generated specifically as a consequence of the visit. Again the content of these documents contains commercially confidential information and cannot be released.”
This repeated failure to maintain written records which appears to have permeated much of the four-year liaison between SBC and NESG may be a convenient way of avoiding public scrutiny. But it also runs totally counter to the local authority’s own Information Governance Policy.
That document states unequivocally: “Scottish Borders Council is committed to creating, managing and keeping records that document its principal activities. Information must be processed and protected diligently, lawfully and ethically through good data security, accurate information and informed openness.”
One can only assume those high-minded principles ‘went out of the window’ in the case of the Easter Langlee shambles. Or perhaps the failed Easter Langlee project is not regarded as one of SBC’s “principal activities”.
In fact the visit to the Avonmouth facility may well have been a complete waste of time and money. The misfiring steam technology there was different from the system which was to have been deployed in Galashiels. The 18-strong team carrying out ‘due diligence’ should, according to some experts, have been 67 miles from Avonmouth - in Canford - where NEAT was on trial.
Councillor David Parker, the local authority’s leader, told the Border Telegraph in October 2014 (following the visit) the Avonmouth trip had been “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 newspaper.
“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.”
Contrast that upbeat declaration with DUFF & PHELPS ADMINISTRATORS’ REPORT on New Earth Solutions Group July 2016:
Paragraph 2.8 – “In October 2014 (the same month in which the Borders delegation was briefed by NESG) the Group carried approximately £159 million of debt, with £37 million due to the Banking Group (Co-op) and £102 million to New Earth Recycling & Renewables [Infrastructure] PLC (NERR) which was subordinated to the Banking Group’s debt. A further £20 million was also owed to Macquarie Bank with a request for further funding. Funding from NERR was suspended in 2014 and Co-op was requested to step in to provide financing.”
In other words the due diligence carried out by Councillor Parker and his colleagues managed to miss the fact that NESG was completely insolvent long before the contract was terminated. The cash-strapped company was, to all intents and purposes, incapable of delivering the Easter Langlee project a year if not more prior to February 2015. Did anyone examine the company’s books? What information were the expensive financial consultants [hired at a cost of £146,000] giving SBC about their contractor’s economic well-being (or lack of it)?
COMING NEXT - 2013’s NOTIFICATION OF A TWO-YEAR DELAY