Monday, 21 December 2015

Thirteen little words tell a very worrying story!


Waste disposal contractors selected by Scottish Borders Council to deliver a £80 million contract over 24 years could not afford the capital for a modest insurance policy associated with the project, it has been revealed.

The shock disclosure - outlined in just thirteen words - has been made after the Council was told to release information previously classified as top secret following an unsuccessful attempt to block a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

This newly published information seems certain to represent an acute embarrassment for councillors and leading officers associated with the ill-fated Easter Langlee waste management plans which were abandoned in February 2015 at a cost of more than £2 million to the public purse. At the end of the day the contractor was unable to fund the project and technical issues associated with it could not be overcome.

The information which SBC was keen to suppress dates back to March 2012, shortly after the multi-million pound deal with waste management "specialists" New Earth Solutions (NES), of Verwood, Dorset, was signed.

Before an operating certificate could be secured from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency for the "state of the art" waste management centre to serve the Borders, NES was supposed to provide an insurance guarantee of up to £315,000 to cover the cost of potential environmental incidents at the plant or to pay for the removal of waste in the event of NES crashing out of business.

So it was both unusual and puzzling when it came to light that in fact SBC - not their contractors - had to step in and provide SEPA with the necessary 'Letter of Undertaking'.

When a FOI request was submitted to the council earlier this year the requester was told a report covering the topic was confidential and would not be released due to 'commercial sensitivity'.

Rosemary Agnew, the Scottish Information Commissioner, was asked to intervene, and during the course of her inquiries SBC did release parts of the secret document, written originally by their Director of Environment & Infrastructure.

But they insisted part of a sentence would continue to remain "off limits", claiming its publication would be likely to cause substantial harm to the legitimate economic interests of NES. The Commissioner threw out SBC's arguments for withholding the material and gave the local authority until January 15 to comply with her decision.

Three weeks after Ms Agnew's decision notice was issued SBC released copies of the thirteen missing words from the secret document.

The relevant paragraph with the previously redacted words in capital letters reads as follows: "NES cannot obtain £315k of insurance without incurring costs that would have to be passed back directly to the council, NOR CAN THEY AFFORD TO HOLD THE CAPITAL ASIDE TO COVER THIS REQUIREMENT.

"As the council are ultimately responsible for the facility, the authority is being sought to issue a letter of comfort/guarantee to SEPA to cover this requirement, without the need for a fixed bond".

The undertaking was required to ensure the permit was obtained, and SEPA would not issue a certificate without it. The confidential report states: “The bond requirement is a recent requirement by SEPA for private sector companies”.

If NES could not afford the insurance premium for a £315,000 guarantee in March 2012, how did SBC expect the company to finance even a fraction of the massive waste management project which was so vital to the environment of the Scottish Borders?

But despite this potentially explosive insight into NES's 'financial health' not a single councillor appears to have asked questions or demanded assurances that the firm could deliver the facility.

A former council insider commented: "The case for full disclosure is now more pressing than ever. It seems clear those responsible for this fiasco failed to ensure NES was even capable of paying an insurance premium. Alarm bells should have been ringing not long after the original contract was awarded. Yet SBC stuck with NES for three long and costly years before the balloon went up".

Friday, 18 December 2015

Incredible ups and downs in SBC staffing levels



The headcount of people on Scottish Borders Council's payroll fell by a staggering 700 in the space of three months during 2009 then rose by an equally dramatic 300 full-time equivalents in a single quarter in 2010.

Those are just two of the seismic shifts in the staffing levels which have come to light after radical adjustments and amendments to Borders local government employment data during lengthy consultations between SBC and the Scottish Government.

The revised information - the council had neglected to include casual workers and relief staff in their quarterly returns ever since national record keeping began more than a decade ago - was published on the SNP Government's website earlier this week.

The accuracy of the council's information was called into question earlier this year after three different totals for headcount (total number of full and part time workers) and so-called full time equivalents (FTE) were issued in the space of a few weeks. Headcount totals given out to Freedom of Information requesters and contained in reports to council varied from 5,700 to 6,421.

SBC was contacted for an explanation after the matter was drawn to the attention of the Government's statistics division in Edinburgh. It was then discovered that casual and relief staff had been left out of the calculations.

The council has now submitted "corrected" figures for both categories of statistics right back to the first quarter of 2009. And the local authority is now believed to be assessing what information could be made available for the period prior to that.

However, there would seem to be a number of bizarre statistics, even after the completion of the rejigged staffing levels. For example, the inclusion of casual staff from the first quarter of 2009 meant the headcount went up from 5,700 in the last quarter of 2008 to 6,100 to take account of the "missing" employees. That seems entirely logical.

But during the same period FTEs actually fell from 4,700 to 4,600. It means that while the headcount went up by more than 7% the FTE total fell by 2.1%. A real puzzler that for mathematicians to ponder over.

It is difficult to comprehend how the payroll total was slashed by 700 (6,200 to 5,500) between the second and third quarters of 2009, representing a drop of more than 11% in the headcount. In the same three months the number of FTEs went down by 500 (4,700 to 4,200) or 10.6%.

But then SBC appear to have recruited 300 extra FTEs between the fourth quarter of 2009 and the first three months of 2010. In the same period the headcount only increased by 100.

One observer of local government affairs asked: "How did the finance department manage to budget and allow for such incredulous fluctuations in the SBC wage bill?"

In an explanatory note accompanying the Government's latest official quarterly publication covering public sector employment, readers are told: "Prior to quarter one of 2009 SBC head counted and FTE figures do not include casual/relief employees who were paid in the reference period. This means that these figures under-estimate the headcount and FTE for Scottish Borders Council."

There was another major reduction in staffing levels during 2015. The headcount fell from 5,600 to 4,800 in the second quarter of the year after hundreds of care staff were transferred to SB Cares, an arms length company.

It would certainly seem from the masses of tables on the Scottish Government's website that the yo-yoing Borders figures may require further scrutiny.

Monday, 14 December 2015

New Earth fund's new potential victims


who discovers the suspended fund which was to have financed a multi-million pound waste treatment facility for the Scottish Borders is having a negative impact worldwide.

Almost a year after the disastrous contract between waste handling 'specialists' New Earth Solutions (NES) Group and Scottish Borders Council (SBC) collapsed, owing local council taxpayers more than £2 million, the sub-plots involving companies and funds linked to the ill-fated project are hitting investors and shareholders on a global scale.

It was the Isle of Man-controlled New Earth Recycling and Renewable (NERR) Fund which was to have provided the capital for the development of a "ground breaking" treatment centre at Easter Langlee on the outskirts of Galashiels.. So presumably SBC lead councillors and senior officials carried out rigorous checks before awarding the vital environmental deal to NES and their paymasters, Premier Group.

A few months after the original contract was agreed in 2011 for the tried and tested conventional facility which would have diverted 80% of Borders rubbish from landfill, Premier Group director Jamie Sutton told the renowned Wealth Advisor website the various funds under his company's control were managing £500 million of investments with NERR gaining £2.5 million per month and achieving double figure returns annually.

According to Mr Sutton: "With a decent track record, we are confident that new investments will continue to grow at least at this rate and higher if the economic recovery can gather pace. Investors in the fund are high net worth individuals investing directly or through international life companies and/or pension funds".

He added that investment risk was managed from the outset when the full cost-benefit case was prepared for consideration by the investment committee. Mr Sutton explained: "Corporate risk is monitored at board level, where the fund has director representation of the New Earth Solutions Group as well as in any SPV (Special Purpose Vehicle) set up to hold recycling facility assets".

In the Borders case the SPV was New Earth Solutions (Scottish Borders) Ltd, a company established in 2011 with just two £1 shares held by another New Earth business called NES Management Services LLP.

But barely two years after Mr Sutton's upbeat interview the NERR fund was suspended with all subscriptions into it ceasing from January 8th 2014 and all redemptions to investors and shareholders banned from November 7th 2013.

That remains the position to this day, and it seems clear NERR could not have funded the Easter Langlee plant. In a recent missive to those affected by the fund's suspension, Premier director Michael Richardson warned: "The Fund is currently considering a number of restructuring options with potentially different outcomes for the calculation of the net asset value. As a consequence, at this time, the directors are unable to provide any indicative value for investors."

As hundreds of investors in the UK, Europe and beyond find their money locked up in the suspended NERR fund, Not Just Sheep & Rugby has learned that a New Zealand company involved in the transfer of pensions from Great Britain has been forced to place its own temporary suspension of all member redemptions.

GBP International, based in Auckland, had invested most of its 3.18 million New Zealand dollars in NERR and its sister EcoEarth Resources fund which has also been suspended by Premier Group. Apparently Premier had been inundated with requests for withdrawals from that fund which specialises in the development of bamboo plantations in Central America.

Investment News NZ reported that the GBP scheme accounts revealed: "The trustee is uncertain when the scheme will be able to lift this suspension as it is reliant on the lifting of redemption suspensions on at least one of the underlying investments..."

Tony Chamberlain, GBP International's co-director, confirmed that the scheme prospectus had been withdrawn. He was not at liberty to give any further information.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

"Secrecy" agreements no guarantee of confidentiality


A six-year confidentiality agreement like the one signed by Scottish Borders Council and New Earth Solutions in March 2015 after their 24-year waste management contract collapsed in disarray does not mean parties can always rely on such agreements to withhold information from the public.

That is the significant conclusion reached by Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) Rosemary Agnew who, as we reported last week, has ruled that SBC must release a single line of "secret" text to a Freedom of Information requester.

The Commissioner's Decision Notice in this case reveals that the local authority and their contractor, who could not deliver a state-of-the-art waste management facility at Easter Langlee after running into insurmountable technical and financial issues, re-signed their confidentiality agreement a month after severing their business relationship. Under the terms of that agreement disclosure of commercially sensitive information was to have been forbidden until March 2021.

During her investigation into SBC's refusal to provide the requester with the information he asked for, SBC claimed their confidentiality clause applied to the requested information. Apparently the definition of confidential information in the agreement with NES is "any and all information of a confidential nature relating to the other party, either in writing, orally or in any other form."

At the same time the agreement sought to recognise the existence of the Freedom of Information and Environmental Information regulations (EIRs). However, as the Decision Notice goes on to explain, the council took the view that where an exemption applied, they should seek to preserve the integrity of the confidentiality agreement and act in accordance with that exemption.

But according to the SIC, she does not accept that the existence of a confidentiality agreement will, in itself, mean that all information captured by such a clause should be, or will be, automatically considered confidential.

As Ms Agnew rightly asserts: "To accept such a proposition would essentially give public authorities the ability to contract out of their obligations under the EIRs, regardless of whether the information is actually confidential".

Her report reveals that a separate clause in the SBC/NES contract recognises that, regardless of their agreement, there will be times when information must be disclosed by the council in order to allow it to comply with its statutory duties.

Yet SBC has sought to invoke the provisions of its 'secrecy' agreement on no fewer than four occasions when requests for information about the waste contract fiasco were submitted to the local authority. Three other linked investigations by the SIC are continuing with decisions expected at some point in the future.

In this first case concerning SBC's decision to stand as guarantor for a £315,000 bond on behalf of NES (Scottish Borders) Ltd, the contractors selected to build the Easter Langlee plant, Ms Agnew has firmly rejected the council's confidentiality arguments.

"The Commissioner has considered all of these arguments carefully but she is not persuaded that disclosure of the withheld information would cause, or be likely to cause, substantial harm to a legitimate economic interest", she concludes.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Lazy, inconsiderate patients cost Borders health service millions


Almost 30,000 Borders patients have missed first out-patient appointments at consultant-led clinics over the last 16 years.Their apparent thoughtlessness or sheer laziness could have cost the NHS more than £4.7 million and denied many others with medical complaints or genuine illnesses an appointment slot.

These shocking statistics for NHS Borders - the level of missed appointments is even higher in most other parts of Scotland - were disclosed in a Scottish parliamentary written answer this week. It has been estimated that every time someone fails turn up to see a consultant the NHS loses £160.

MSP Nanette Milne (Conservative, North-east Scotland) asked the Scottish Government how many patients had missed (a) GP and (b) hospital appointments in each year since 1999 broken down by  individual health boards.

She was told by SNP Health Minister Shona Robison the Scottish Government did not hold information on missed GP appointments. But the minister was able to provide the figures for the number of first out-patient appointments at consultant-led clinics where the patient did not attend (DNA) in each calendar year from 1999 to 2014.

A researcher from Not Just Sheep & Rugby collated the data for NHS Borders over the sixteen years covered by Ms Robison's answer. Here are the statistics:

Year        Total appointments               DNA                 Percentage DNA

1999              24,562                             1,457                        5.9
2000              24,391                             1,448                        5.9
2001              31,525                             2,275                        7.2
2002              33,483                             2,326                        6.9
2003              26,655                             1,819                        6.8
2004              27,614                             1,780                        6.4
2005              27,770                             1,528                        5.5
2006              29,184                             1,847                        6.3
2007              29,763                             1,757                        5.9
2008              30,892                             1,759                        5.7
2009              32,462                             1,999                        6.2
2010              32,186                             2,118                        6.6
2011              31,217                             1,728                        5.5
2012              33,548                             2,034                        6.1
2013              34,296                             1,917                        5.6
2014              33,740                             1,990                        5.9

The table above means that over the 16 years a total of 29,782 individuals with hospital appointments did not turn up after being referred to a consultant. If each missed appointment does cost the NHS an average of £160 then the amount wasted in financial terms would be equivalent to £4,765,120.

The DNA percentages for Scotland as a whole were 10.1% in 2013 and 10% in 2014. It meant 164,794 appointments were unfulfilled in 2013 and 163,990 last year. The monetary losses may have exceeded £26 million on each occasion.

There have been several initiatives in recent years to reduce the unacceptable numbers in the DNA column. But it seems little progress has been made, and a minority of patients still show no sign of making sure they turn up at hospital on their allotted day.

When the 'unavailable' figures for missed GP appointments are added into the equation, the loss of scarce NHS funding will be even more devastating, but largely unnecessary. 

Health services in Scotland are predominantly efficient and effective, but when things go wrong the Scottish Government and dedicated NHS professionals are panned - particularly by the  right-wing sections of the press and media. It's as though the situation is much better in England where, we are told, many health trusts are in fact in financial meltdown, and a vast number of A&E departments fail to meet their targets despite working flat out.

But on this occasion it is Scottish patients who are included in the DNA columns of these damning statistics who should be issued with a tongue lashing and told in no uncertain terms about the financial impact they have on the cash-strapped NHS. 

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

SBC loses first round in waste management fiasco "cover-up"

DOUG COLLIE on a significant defeat for council secrecy

Scottish Borders Council has been ordered to provide a freedom of information requester with 'confidential' information linked to its disastrous waste management contract with New Earth Solutions, a liaison which cost local council taxpayers millions of pounds.

In a newly published decision notice, the Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew has rejected the local authority's claims that the release of allegedly commercially sensitive information to a Freedom of Information (FOI) requester would seriously compromise NES's business interests. The company was unable to develop a multi-million pound waste treatment plant at Galashiels on both technical and financial grounds, a failure requiring the deal to be torn up.

Ms Agnew's written report reveals that SBC was so determined to keep information under wraps that they did not even provide the withheld documentation to the Commissioner when her office requested it as part of the investigation into the requester's complaint.

Instead the council referred Ms Agnew to concerns it had previously raised with regard to the information in question being subject to a confidentiality clause in its flawed and now abandoned contract with NES. Eventually they did accede to the Commissioner's legitimate request.

An experienced expert in FOI process and regulation told Not Just Sheep & Rugby: "How ludicrous is that? Has this local authority never been through a FOI investigation before?"

The request for disclosure - one of four concerning various issues surrounding the doomed contract - asked why SBC had found it necessary to stand as guarantor for its contractor New Earth Solutions (Scottish Borders) Ltd for up to £315,000 when the firm applied to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) for an operating certificate. The request was refused twice before an application was lodged with SIC for a decision.

In its submissions to Ms Agnew, The council argued that the disclosure of the withheld information would be likely to cause substantial harm to the legitimate economic interests of NES. The council noted that competitors of NES could utilise this intelligence to NES’s disadvantage.

SBC also suggested that disclosure of the withheld information could have an influence on any future
business partners of NES. In either case, the Council argued that the footing of NES in a
commercial setting was likely to be weakened by disclosure of the withheld information into the
public domain.

During the course of the SIC investigation, SBC agreed to release parts of a confidential report prepared for councillors in 2012 when they agreed to approve the SEPA bond on behalf of NES.

But in dismissing the council's claims, the commissioner said she had considered all of the arguments carefully, but was not persuaded that disclosure of the withheld information would cause, or be likely to cause, substantial harm to NES.

Ms Agnew's report explains how the council had refused to disclose part of a sentence (amounting to one line of text) from the committee report , arguing that disclosure would prejudice substantially NES’s legitimate economic interests.

The council commented that the sentence contained information giving a clear indication of the financial health of NES.

But the decision report states:"The Commissioner notes that the information dates from March 2012, some three years before the request for information. It is therefore difficult to see how
disclosure of the information, three years on, could cause substantial prejudice to NES’s
legitimate interests.

"Since March 2012, NES has submitted two sets of annual accounts to Companies House which clearly contain information on its “financial health”. These annual accounts are publicly available. Given this, the Commissioner finds it difficult to accept that the withheld information would in any way dissuade future business partners from working with NES. Neither is she persuaded that disclosure of this information would enable competitors to take advantage of NES, given its age and the lack of detail."

SBC has until January 15 to provide the requester with the redacted single sentence. Separate investigations into the three allied FOI requests - all of them refused or partially refused by the council - are ongoing with decisions expected some time in the future.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Another DNA controversy facing Borders-based partnership


A Welsh television channel has commissioned an independent consultant to examine complaints about a series of programmes which rely heavily on work and research on DNA by Melrose company The Moffat Partnership fronted by broadcaster and author Alistair Moffat.

It is claimed DNA Cymru, currently being broadcast by S4C - the Welsh language channel - has misled viewers by attempting to define what it is to be Welsh without adequate scientific evidence. Critics have also alleged that public money has been used to promote Mr Moffat's company which charges up to £190 for an individual DNA test.

This new controversy, which has received detailed coverage in the Welsh language publication Golwg, comes hard on the heels of strong criticism of Mr Moffat's recent five-part series about Scotland's DNA, published by The Scotsman, from academics at University College London.

As we reported earlier this month, genetics experts at UCL were so concerned by the activities of Mr Moffat and his team that they set up a special website several years ago "to set the record straight". According to Professor Mark Thomas, one of the group responsible for developing the site, many of the claims made by The Moffat Partnership are not soundly based in fact, and are nothing more than "invented stories".

Several well known Welsh celebrities feature in the current S4C series, and their DNA samples are said to connect them to people who lived more than a thousand years ago.

The Golwg article tells how Welsh singer and politician Dafydd Iwan's DNA test strongly suggested he was a descendant of Welsh speaking kings who at one time controlled lands in England before retreating west in the Fifth Century when the Saxons arrived.

But Professor Thomas explained there was no basis to the claim that genetic ancestry could be traced directly back to the Fifth Century. Dafydd Iwan was certainly related to warriors from the Fifth Century, conceded the professor, but so was everyone else in Europe.

A spokesman for S4C told Golwg their complaints committee, which includes members of the S4C Authority, had commissioned independent advice about the complaints regarding DNA Cymru. Work on the report was continuing, and the committee would consider its contents in the coming weeks.

Supporters of the series have defended the information used in making the programmes as 'dependable and scientific', and say the test results could be used to identify genetic patterns in present day populations.

However, Professor Thomas has dismissed some of the claims made in the series as "mad", adding that there were no experts, apart from those employed by The Moffat Partnership, who agreed with that company's theories.

"Absolutely nothing they have said has been published in a scientific journal, which is the minimum needed for scientific credibility for this kind of thing", said Professor Thomas.

The challenges and criticisms levelled at Mr Moffat's company by the geneticists at UCL, including a full English translation of the Golwg feature can be found by following this internet link:

Debbie Kennett, a genetic genealogist who updates the website, has written a critique of the S4C programmes on her blog here:

Commenting on the first programme in the series, which was broadcast earlier this year on St David's Day, Ms Kennett writes: "It contained very little in the way of real science and was little more than a promotional tool for the commercial genetic ancestry business CymruDNAWales, one of the trading names of the Moffat Partnership, a company founded by Alistair Moffat. The editorial integrity of S4C was also brought into question when it transpired that Ian Jones, the CEO of S4C was an old friend of Alistair Moffat's".

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Council-speak gibberish cannot hide the truth!


Executive members at Scottish Borders Council will, no doubt, be poring over a Corporate Transformation progress report in the lead up to their meeting next Tuesday when the future of local government service priorities will be under the spotlight.

The problem is that some if not the majority of the elected members may find it difficult to fathom the true meaning of some of the obscure phraseology used by the authors of a document which would have officials of the Plain English Society scratching their heads in sheer disbelief.

The eleven-page main report and four accompanying appendices are all liberally sprinkled with language not normally used in day to day conversation while the documents also display red amber and green symbols to mark the status of each of SBC's 17 "pieces of work" within the Corporate Transformation Programme.

For instance, local electors should be aware that "a CPP Strategic Transport Board was established in May 2014 and has developed and overseen a significant transport change programme. Projects implemented include a Joint Transport Procurement Framework". Eh?

Meanwhile another section of the report tells us under the heading Co-Production : "A short-life working group has been established to progress this work stream with representatives from key
departments across the Council and key partner agencies. An agreed definition of the term co-production has been produced and work is now underway to develop a toolkit/workbook to assist staff to implement the approach and any training requirements will also be identified. It is anticipated the work will be completed by Spring 2016."

No, not even the combined brain power of every member of staff at Not Just Sheep and Rugby could make head nor tail of that one. But you could not make up a quote like the one above.

As regular readers of this humble publication will know, we have been keen to shed our own spotlight on the council's less than glowing record in the field of waste management. Yet another strategy detailing how SBC plans to deliver this most basic but essential of all its services is being worked on as local landfill percentages rise and recycling rates plummet.

We tracked down the brief references to waste management in an appendix which reveals that consultants have been commissioned yet again to advise on the way forward. This, after more than a million pounds was squandered on so-called "experts" during the New Earth Solutions fiasco. One law firm managed to trouser no less than £650,000 for (ahem) top class legal advice before the entire contract with NES had to be abandoned on financial and technical grounds.

The document which will be presented to councillors next week tells how Zero Waste Scotland had "facilitated" a workshop in October "to agree the priorities against which the outputs of the Options Appraisal will be assessed". No, we cannot work that one out either. But there's more of the same: "From this various collection scenarios have been agreed for modelling".Well that's a relief.

The report on waste management is even split into sections headed Milestones Achieved and Milestones To Be Achieved. One of the yet to be achieved milestones is the procurement of another consultant to undertake a strategic environmental assessment for the umpteenth waste management plan. Another gravy train, no doubt.

A previous edition of the blueprint, compiled in 2013, predicted SBC would achieve the council's projected Landfill Allowance Scheme (LAS) allocation up to 2020/21. It went on: "As a result the council is unlikely to face any financial penalties should the Scottish Government decide to reinstate the LAS."

The forecast was for a landfill rate of just 14.7% in 2015/16, "which is well on the way to achieving the Scottish Government's target of only 5% to landfill by 2025."

But now the 2013 version has been shredded, its predictions already in tatters. The Borders LAS figure for 2014/15 was 16,876 tonnes, falling to 16,098 tonnes in 2015/16. However, in reality SBC landfilled 30,666 tonnes in 2014 or 61.4% of the total rubbish collected. Fines for exceeding the limit would have been extremely expensive had they been in force.

Instead of baffling council taxpayers (and councillors) with liberal helpings of gobbledygook, surely it is time to finalise a waste management plan which everyone can understand. The rest of the Corporate Transformation Programme (whatever that is) is also in need of translation into a much simpler form of words. 

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Compromise in Borders housing land dispute


Scottish Government planning officers have rejected the claims of house builders who wanted an additional 3,750 development plots allocated in the Scottish Borders on top of the existing 9,000 units available for the construction of new homes.

Instead a detailed examination of Scottish Borders Council's Local Development Plan has concluded there is a probable shortfall of 916 plots, and the local authority has been ordered to identify additional sites within 12 months.

The decision by so-called planning Reporters, contained in a massive 1138-page report on the local plan, appears to end the long-running counter claims by builders and Borders local government officers over the crucial issue of meeting the housing land requirement.

The year-long examination of hundreds of policies included in the SBC document involved detailed analysis of dozens of submissions from various parties with a particular interest in housing, transport, wind farms and other development topics.

But it was undoubtedly the housing land dispute which occupied much of the Reporters' time after Homes for Scotland (HFS), the national organisation representing the house building industry claimed there was insufficient land allocated in the Borders to realistically meet future demand.

HFS challenged the statistics put forward by the council on housing completions, and considered the housing land shortfall was likely to be in the range of 3,250 to 3,750 units.

That argument was backed by a number of builders including the locally based J S Crawford, of Melrose. They claimed the council's proposals took no account of market demand factors or of the land requirements for affordable housing.

However, in a forthright defence of its position, SBC said the plan provided a generous and effective five year supply of land within each of the region's market areas to meet demand.

According to the council: "The industry is unable to present robust and persuasive evidence to support the position beyond their own sites, and have chosen to disengage. We remain open to meeting with house building colleagues for a constructive discussion about house building in the Borders.

"In relation to comments that there will be a shortfall of over 3,000 units this is considered untenable and contrary to proper planning. The total demand and need for the Borders is 12,537, and with an average completion rate of 450 units per annum this would provide over 28 years supply."

The three-man team of Reporters - Richard Dent, Scott Ferrie and Dilwyn Thomas - say in their report it would not be appropriate to recommend that "a further allowance of generosity be added to the housing land requirement" which was what HFS was asking for.

Instead the conclusion is a shortfall of 916 housing units. The report continues: "It would be more appropriate to require the council to prepare and adopt supplementary guidance aimed at redressing the shortfall in meeting the requirement.

"This would provide the council with an opportunity to undertake a detailed assessment of the environmental and other impacts of identifying additional housing sites, and would allow public consultation to be undertaken in that regard."

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

"Revolutionary" energy-from-waste plant lost £37 million in a year


The latest financial performance of the 'pioneering' energy from waste plant seen as the template for an identical facility at Easter Langlee on the outskirts of Galashiels may prove to be extremely embarrassing for senior elected members and leading officers at Scottish Borders Council.

A set of seemingly devastating accounts, newly published by the owners of the thermal treatment plant at Avonmouth, near Bristol, shows a staggering operational loss of more than £37.8 million in 2014/15 compared to a deficit of £645,000 in the previous accounting period. The plant now has financial liabilities totalling £59.2 million, up from £51.5 million in 2014.

The multi-million pound losses - largely due to defective technology which has still not been rectified - were being clocked up before, during and after a sizable delegation from the Borders local authority toured the Avonmouth site last October and returned highly impressed by what they saw.

However, SBC has rejected Freedom of Information requests for details of the visit and for copies of documents and minutes of meetings related to the two-day trip, claiming the information is exempt because it is classed as "commercially sensitive". It now seems clear the journey south to carry out "due diligence" completely failed to detect a raft of technical shortcomings and heavy financial losses being experienced at Avonmouth.

As far back as 2012, Borders councillors unanimously approved proposals for an Avonmouth-style  Energy From Waste (ERF) facility to handle up to 60,000 tonnes of local household waste each year even though the technological processes being experimented with were not ready to be marketed.

And in February this year more than £2 million of council taxpayers' money had to be written off (without any detailed explanation) when the council suddenly abandoned the disastrous contract with waste management company New Earth Solutions (NES). Many calls for an investigation and full disclosure have gone unheeded.

Since the contract's termination NES has offloaded the poorly performing plant in south-west England to a consortium led by an Australian bank, Avonmouth's main financial backer with a £20 million stake in the ERF. The deal, concluded in July, did not involve any money changing hands.

The newly published accounts confirms that the technology which SBC signed up for three years ago is still not fully developed.

The report says: "It is the opinion of the Directors that the plant remains within an extended commissioning and developmental stage, being a revolutionary design for generating energy from waste material.

"A sustained programme of capital expenditure has been developed which is targeted at eliminating weaknesses in the current operational performance, improving plant availability that will deliver a substantially improved financial performance from the end of 2015".

That statement provides further damning evidence that SBC failed to take adequate precautions in 2012 before deciding to gamble on a similar solution for the Borders' considerable waste disposal issues. There is an overwhelming public interest argument for all documents and correspondence surrounding that multi-million pound gamble to be released for public consumption.

New Earth Energy (West) Operations Ltd, the former operators of the Avonmouth plant, have been replaced by a new company called Avonmouth Bio Power Energy Ltd complete with an entirely new board, including representatives from the Australian Bank.

The recently installed directors explain that until recently the vast majority of UK generated Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) has been exported, generally to the EU. Their report continues: "However, this practice is coming under increasing scrutiny where the costs and environmental impact of transporting waste combined with the risks associated with storage and transport mean there is increasing focus on retaining RDF for the domestic market".

So how does that declaration fit with New Earth Solutions' message to shareholders and investors only last month?

According to directors of the Premier New Earth fund which was supposed to but could not come up with the money for the Borders project: "Changes to the European RDF export market suggest that a major opportunity was developing in those markets which would enable New Earth to refocus as a waste only, major RDF exporter.

"The combination of high recycling rates and significant waste to energy capacity in Northern Europe has led to a structural shortage of RDF supply, which in turn has led to a significant demand for RDF from the UK in the last three years".

And these were the organisations selected by SBC to run the region's crucial waste management services for 22 years. It seems the move to cancel the contract only four years in is one of the very few decisions the council got right throughout the entire six year saga.

Surely the Borders public has a right to know how and why their money was squandered on a catastrophic liaison with firms which could not deliver financially or technically.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Borders economy heading for oblivion?


A devastating set of statistics which charts a dramatic loss of manufacturing jobs in the Scottish Borders has failed to alert local politicians and community leaders to the worsening plight of the local economy.

While the Highlands and Islands continues to bask in special levels of investment and effort, the south of Scotland is virtually left to its own devices with little sign of pressure from inside the region to secure a much better deal for the Borders.

The Scottish Annual Business Statistics for 2013 were published in a 250-page document in August of this year. The tables for each of the country's 32 local government areas cover key topics such as annual turnover of local companies, costs associated with wages and salaries, and the employment levels in each business sector.

The data allows comparisons to be made between 2008 and 2013, and in many instances the Borders fares badly despite claims by the Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise and the local authority that every effort is being made to expand the region's economic base and to create and attract well paid jobs in a bid to halt the long-term drift of talented young people out of the area in search of career opportunities.

In 2008 the Scottish Borders region had 4,397 business "units", a figure which had fallen to 4,227 in 2013. In the same six year period total employment dropped from 31,700 to 29,200. It appears the economy has shrunk rather than expanded.

The situation in the local manufacturing sector should have alarm bells ringing. Back in 1997/98 around 9,000 Borderers were making things. But by 2008 the total was down to 6,000 and a further 1,000 manufacturing posts - one sixth of the total - were shed in the space of those six years to 2013. The 5,000-strong manufacturing workforce has probably dwindled even further by now.

The yearly turnover of the 270 manufacturing units - down from 303 in 2008 - of £574.2 million is exactly the same as it was back in 2008. The 2012 figure was £608.3 million. Gross wages and salaries in manufacturing slumped from £111 million in 2008 to £106.1 million in 2013, reducing the spending power of those working in manufacturing.

Older residents of the Borders communities will recall that not so long ago the entire region relied to a significant degree on textiles for its economic well-being. But this traditional regional trade, which earned Hawick, Selkirk, Peebles and towns in between a global reputation for quality clothing and knitwear, has taken a fearful pounding in recent decades.

According to figures compiled in 1981 there were 7,800 jobs in textiles Borders wide, and even less than 20 years ago almost 50% of manufacturing posts (4,400) lay in the textile and apparel factories.

A report commissioned by Scottish Enterprise Borders in the year 2000 predicted the textile sector employment levels would drop to just 2,700 by 2010. But the latest set of statistics show the total was down to just 2,200 in 2010 with a further 500 posts gone by 2013 when the total stood at 1,700.

Twenty textile producing businesses were lost between 2008 and 2013 during which time turnover in the sector declined from £161 million to £156.2 million. Gross wages and salaries slipped from £34.6 million to £30.9 million.

It seems incredible that even in the face of all of this damning evidence little is being done to bring truly major investment to the ailing region.

One economics expert told us: "There does not appear to be anyone with any clout who can argue the Borders case in the corridors of power. Despite numerous studies commissioned over the years by various agencies nothing of any significance has been achieved.

"It seems clear the loss of the local enterprise company in 2008 has had a very negative impact. And the fact that no-one seized on these gloomy figures when they were published appears to show an air of complacency".

The information has come to light less than six months after the publication of Our Borderlands Our Future by the House of Commons Scottish Select Committee which made a number of recommendations to tackle the economic issues faced by the Borders and Dumfries & Galloway.

Sadly there are no signs of the report being acted upon. Meanwhile countless millions of pounds in economic aid continue to be directed into Scotland's northerly outposts while at the other end of the country the Borders economy lies on a proverbial trolley in desperate need of special treatment.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Office closure another nail in coffin for Borders Press


The reported decision to close the Hawick News premises at the end of 2015 and run the paper from Selkirk -  eleven miles away - will leave the largest town in the Scottish Borders (population 14,000) without a newspaper office for the first time in almost 200 years. For many involved in the ‘trade’ the move by Johnston Press is beyond belief.

But a closer examination of developments over a relatively short time span of around fifteen years shows the alarming contraction in the number of newspaper offices across the region. The steady cull of skilled and experienced journalists since local titles became part of the vast Johnston empire should also be a matter of considerable regret and concern with the depleted staff struggling to cope with their ever-increasing workloads.

The largest newspaper business in the Borders with four weekly papers in its stable does not even have a single staff photographer based in a region with a population of well over 100,000 people. Yet the highly acclaimed pictures by staff ‘snappers’ was, until relatively recently, one of the trademarks which set the Southern Reporter above the rest of the Borders press pack.

Johnston Press has already closed offices in Galashiels, Kelso, Jedburgh and Duns since it paid almost £8 million for the Tweeddale Press Group in 1999. That deal was preceded by the acquisition of the Hawick News by Northern Press – later swallowed up too by Johnston – in 1998 for £875,000.

The relentless march of technological progress since the turn of the Twenty-first century is undoubtedly a major factor in the downward spiral of circulation figures and quality of content since the long-established titles ceased to be in family ownership. But surely much more could have been done to stem the incessant decline.

Management at Johnston Press certainly realised the technological advances being made at the time of those takeovers would have an impact on their print titles.

In March 2000, chief executive Tim Bowdler told shareholders in the company’s annual report and accounts: “Whilst we remain totally convinced that local newspapers have a bright future, we also expect new media to become an essential and significant contributor to our overall publishing business”.

But the endless decades of close ties between Borders communities and their local newspaper offices were soon to be swept away. Those valued LOCAL connections may have been severed forever.

Many previously loyal readers appear to have stopped taking their weekly dose of printed news, preferring instead to read about events and happenings in their town via the internet or on social media. And little seems to have been done to prevent them from drifting off into cyberspace.

Between the years 2000 and 2012 the official circulation figures for the Southern Reporter plummeted from 16,851 to 13,069, including a nine per cent fall in the space of twelve months. Over the same period sales of the Berwickshire News dropped from 5,359 to 4,264 while the Hawick News circulation nosedived from 7,134 to 4,751.

Unfortunately Johnston Press has ceased to be a member of ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation) which means sales figures for their weekly papers are no longer publicly available. However, the chances are the decline has continued.

When told of the Hawick News office closure one highly respected and experienced former journalist commented: “I suspect the only reason lots of folk still buy the ‘News’ is because of the presence of the office in the town. This sounds like a perfect opening for some enterprising individual to start a wee paper with the words ‘written, edited and printed in Hawick’ beneath the masthead.  It could also get back to basics by covering flower show results and that kind of thing.”

He added: “Johnston Press seems to have paid over the odds for those titles, and now they’ve sold off all the tangible assets like the offices and printing plants. As far as I can see the only thing they have left are the titles, the vastly reduced circulation and the advertising revenue, all of which have almost certainly fallen in value under their so-called stewardship.”

And another ex-reporter who spent more than 40 years in the newspaper industry remarked: “I was amazed to hear that the Hawick News is to close its office in Hawick and will be run by remote control from Selkirk. It seems a ludicrous decision to me. I can see the day coming when it will be merged with the Southern Reporter and there will be one paper for the Borders which would not be ‘local’ at all.”

Many of the decisions taken by Johnston management in recent times, including the move to shut the Hawick News office, means Tim Bowdler's 2000 assurance that his company's local papers had a bright future now has a distinctly hollow ring. 

Monday, 26 October 2015

ScotlandsDNA - Would you Adam and Eve It?


An intermittent and sometimes acrimonious dispute involving Borders author, historian and businessman Alistair Moffat and genetics experts who challenge many of his claims concerning DNA discoveries has erupted again after a series of features by Mr Moffat launched in The Scotsman newspaper.

A team of researchers at University College London [UCL], whose members have been highly critical of publicity given to Mr Moffat and his internet businesses including BritainsDNA and ScotlandsDNA, developed a special website in a bid to "set the record straight".

The geneticists say they decided on this course of action because "the exaggerated claims made by BritainsDNA misled the public about what is possible from genetic testing. Some of their stories were ludicrous, which undermines the efforts of scientists who are more careful about the degree of uncertainty associated with their findings".

Mr Moffat claims researchers working on his "project" - BritainsDNA charges individuals up to £250 for a DNA test - have traced chromosome sub-types back to the time of Adam and Eve. In Friday's Scotsman he told readers: "We have completed the first stage of an epic piece of research, nothing less than the beginnings of a family tree of all men on Earth."

He explains that men have two small pieces of DNA that are very informative about ancestry. He had discovered that his mother's DNA 'marker' had originated a long way from her birthplace in Hawick. It arose in the Indus Valley of Pakistan about 30,000 years ago. But his Y chromosome marker from his father was much younger, originating in Scandinavia about 2,000 years ago. "Viking raider meets the civilisation of Mohenjo-Daro!".

But Mark Thomas, Professor of Evolutionary Genetics at UCL told Not Just Sheep & Rugby "How could a so-called historian say 'Viking raider meets the civilisation of Mohenjo-Daro!' Did they have a time machine?"

Professor Thomas and a number of his fellow academics have "rubbished" claims made by Mr Moffat on a number of occasions since 2012 when the local historian was interviewed on BBC radio by veteran broadcaster James Naughtie. The geneticists who took issue with BritainsDNA say they were threatened with legal action at one point.

Mr Moffat and Mr Naughtie are fellow trustees of The Great Tapestry of Scotland, which is about to find a permanent home in a custom-built £6 million museum at Tweedbank, near Galashiels despite widespread public opposition.

The UCL website maintains that the 'for-profit' status of BritainsDNA was never revealed by the press and the BBC, who only described it as "research" or a "project", thus disguising its commercial nature. Crucially none of the "research" appeared to have gone through the scientific process of peer review. They wanted to make editors more aware of the dangers of covert advertising masquerading as science of public interest.

In a detailed critique of Friday's Scotsman feature, Professor Thomas told us: "Apart from the obvious attempt to wrap his business in sentimental nationalism, alarm bells first rang with 'our scientists can tell where and when in history these [DNA] markers arose, and often when approximately they arrived in Scotland'.

"They can estimate when they arose with some precision [and less accuracy], but where they arose and when they arrived in Scotland is much more problematic".

In a reference to ScotlandDNA's "epic piece of research" outlined by Mr Moffat in the article, the professor commented: "Is he claiming that Scotlands DNA has played an important part in building the Y chromosome tree of humans? Scientists have been publishing Y chromosome trees since the 1990s, and the latest and most detailed paper includes no contribution from Scotlands DNA 'scientists'".

Since ScotlandsDNA was launched in partnership with The Scotsman in late 2011, almost 8,000 Scots have taken DNA tests.

Friday's article - the first in a series of five - described how, on a huge layout, Mr Moffat's team had shown how 573 Y chromosome types descend from Adam and relate to each other. Work is continuing with new findings to double that number 'in the autumn of 2015'. These will include many newly discovered sub-types in Scotland.

According to Mr Moffat: "Our burgeoning customer database has allowed us to define many new and rarer branches of the Tree that have not yet been reported. What the Great Tree of Mankind shows, for the first time, is how distantly or how closely related large groups of men are. It depends on where their branch is".

However, Professor Thomas said: "Is Moffat implying that their 'research' gives us this 'first-time' window on the past? If he is I know a lot of real scientists who would find this claim outrageous".

Monday, 19 October 2015

Spectacular U-turn for "next generation" technology

DOUGLAS SHEPHERD on how a 'winning' form of waste treatment fell out of favour almost overnight

Detailed work by Not Just Sheep & Rugby researchers has shown how bold claims about the technology which was to have revolutionised waste management for Scottish Borders Council (SBC) turned sour in a matter of weeks with Tory Government policy now blamed by its providers for making it an unattractive proposition.

A report written as recently as January of this year by directors of the NEAT Technology Group of companies boasted that they were at the forefront of advanced thermal waste-to-energy technology delivery. And, they claimed, the UK Government had implemented a range of support regimes to encourage new renewable energy facilities. SBC obviously believed them.

But when the continuing problems at the company's flagship Avonmouth Energy Recovery Facility (ERF) threatened to drain the lifeblood from the New Earth Renewables & Recycling Fund (NERR), which bankrolled Avonmouth's development, the script was swiftly re-written.

In a letter to stakeholders a few days ago, NERR's Michael Richardson declared: "In relation to the energy business, it was identified as early as autumn 2014 that major risks were posed by the increasingly bitter arguments within the UK Coalition Government at the time over the various support measures for renewable energy".

So it would appear some of the various businesses lined up to provide the Borders with an ERF for around £10 million were expressing doubts about the risks facing NEAT technology, and at the same time others were stating in their annual report: "Advanced thermal treatment of residual and commercial waste is considered to be the next generation of thermal treatment and can be applied to a variety of fuels."

That same report predicted £150 million of capital expenditure would be required to fund a second 13 MW ERF at Avonmouth, a 10 MW ERF at Canford, Dorset and a 4.5 MW ERF at Galashiels designed by NEAT. The development programme would generate in excess of £900 million in revenue over the next five years.

Shareholders and investors were told: "NEAT acts as New Earth Solutions Group's advanced thermal and technology provider and in due course will provide the same service to other third party customers. Strong and compelling market dynamics exist in the waste to energy sector, The UK represents a significant growth opportunity with substantial volumes of available refuse derived fuel (RDF) and a lack of thermal waste processing capacity".

An article published in the waste management trade press in 2013 said that before the ERF at Avonmouth was commissioned all of the RDF produced at the group's neighbouring conventional waste plant was exported to the continent, "which the company claims did little for the UK's balance of payments".

Contrast that with Mr Richardson's recent statement which outlined the continuing progress of NES' waste business in producing and exporting RDF to an increasing number of European customers at reasonably competitive disposal costs.

He added: "These off-take arrangements were proving to be more reliable and cost effective than sending RDF to the Avonmouth ERF, as it had struggled to maintain a consistent level of performance".

As reported here last week, the Isle of Man-based parent company of the various NES firms has now offloaded the entire energy sector to a bank in a deal which saw no cash change hands. The NEAT Technology companies, like those who operated the Avonmouth ERF, now have new names and new directors.

The technological problems and the cost of sorting them out have not been made public. But it will be interesting to see whether the flawed form of pyrolysis and gasification at Avonmouth, which so impressed Borders councillors and paid officials, can be made commercially viable in the future.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

All sides close ranks in energy from waste scandal


The various parties involved in the spectacular failure of a so-called *disruptive technology which was supposed to revolutionise waste management across the United Kingdom have erected a complete wall of silence designed to protect them from criticism and embarrassment.

Earlier this week we told how New Earth Recycling & Renewables (NERR) based on the Isle of Man had offloaded their technically flawed £60 million Avonmouth Energy Recovery Facility (ERF) to an Australian bank without any cash changing hands.

An identical facility had been planned for Easter Langlee, on the outskirts of Galashiels to convert tens of thousands of tonnes of household refuse into heat and power. But the deal was only scrapped after Scottish Borders Council discovered the form of pyrolysis being used at Avonmouth was 'not fit for purpose'. They learned their lesson the hard way after squandering well over £2 million of council taxpayers' money on the useless venture.

But no-one seems prepared to explain exactly what is wrong with the product known as NEAT technology which has been under-performing at New Earth Solutions plant near Bristol ever since its completion in 2013. The ERF is now in the ownership of Australia's Macquarie Bank - the Avonmouth project's major lender - and a company called Aurium Capital Finance. A string of New Earth businesses previously linked to Avonmouth ERF have all been renamed and have completely new sets of directors.

NERR admitted it had been forced to separate the energy and waste businesses within the New Earth Solutions Group because it could not afford to finance additional capital expenditure at the ERF. But even substantial extra investment would not guarantee success, according to the Manx-based parent company.

When asked to outline the technological problems at Avonmouth which are likely to have resulted in the collapse of the Borders contract, NERR's controllers Premier Group replied: "The information that has been released regarding the Avonmouth ERF issues is as much detail as the directors wish to divulge publicly. They will not be providing detailed breakdowns of the technical issues encountered, nor the capital identified as being necessary to improve performance.

"It is also worth noting that the facility is no longer owned by the New Earth group of companies as the demerger and sale have now concluded. In terms of the Scottish Borders project, it would be more appropriate to request additional information from the management of New Earth rather than the directors of the fund".

Unfortunately, NES has been contacted several times, and have suggested contacting Scottish Borders Council for information. They maintain they have nothing to add to a joint statement issued by NES and SBC when the catastrophic deal was torn up in February of this year.

Meanwhile, readers of today's Border Telegraph, will know that yet another attempt to have confidential documentation held by SBC brought into the public domain has failed.

Councillor Gavin Logan asked for the release of a crucial report dated October 2012 which persuaded elected members to sanction a contract variation with NES to include the untried and untested NEAT technology in an Advanced Thermal Conversion facility at Galashiels.

We understand this facet of the £80 million contract would have cost up to £10 million, and that reservations about the technology were being expressed at the time the variation was approved.

But council leader David Parker told Councillor Logan last week that the contents of the crucial document were covered by a confidentiality agreement by which SBC were bound.

Macquarie Bank was also contacted and asked what was wrong with the Avonmouth operating systems. The bank said they were not in a position to respond on behalf of NERR, and had no involvement in the Scottish Borders project.

Aurium Capital simply did not bother to reply when asked about the shortcomings of their brand new acquisition and whether more Avonmouth-type ERFs were planned for other parts of the country.

*disruptive technology - an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network displacing an earlier technology.

Monday, 12 October 2015

£60 million Avonmouth energy plant changes hands for no cash


The offshore owners of the energy business which Borders councillors believed would earn them the title of leading waste management authority in Scotland has admitted their £60 million pilot plant has been a costly and disappointing failure for shareholders and investors.

A catalogue of devastating information which forced New Earth Recycling & Renewables (NERR) to dispose of its energy recovery facility (ERF) at Avonmouth, near Bristol without any cash consideration has been posted on the group's website.

The shocking revelations seems bound to pile even more pressure on Scottish Borders Council to explain in detail why it was prepared to gamble and lose £2 million in a bid to provide its residents with a similar form of so-called pyrolysis to convert household rubbish into heat and power.

A visit to the Avonmouth plant by a delegation from SBC a year ago concluded the technology being used there was right for the Borders. But by February 2015 the contract with New Earth Solutions (NES) was dead and buried, and the local waste management strategy lay in tatters.

Premier Group Isle of Man, the parent company of NERR, has revealed it had been trying to offload the Avonmouth energy business for months because the facility was performing so poorly.

The company say: "A performance improvement plan was undertaken earlier this year in an attempt to boost the Avonmouth ERF's performance, which included the appointment of external specialist consultants who conducted a full review of all aspects of its operations.

"One of their key recommendations was the need for substantial further remedial capital expenditure, which carried no guarantee of success that the plant would reach a sustainable level of financial performance."

This part of the statement is particularly significant as SBC had signed up for an Avonmouth-type of ERF as far back as October 2012 when the technology was in its very infancy. So what persuaded the council to commit so early?

And the latest communication from the New Earth owners adds: "These capital expenditure requirements were greater than New Earth or the Fund could finance or were willing to commit given the experience to date with the Avonmouth ERF."

Because of the poor financial performance and the level of additional investment required, and the continuing technology and operating risks, it was not possible to find an external buyer, reveals the statement. So it was decided to "sell" the energy business to Australian bank Macquarie, the project's senior lender, and an institutional investor, who were between them prepared to refinance the business.

"The deal stemmed the continuing financial drain on the resources of New Earth and the Fund in continuing to support the energy business. However, there was no material cash consideration for the transaction." It would appear the plant on which SBC once pinned their entire waste management strategy has turned out to be worthless. Even the consideration paid for the shares "was only nominal".

A letter to stakeholders from NERR director Michael Richardson concludes: "Ultimately, the development of the energy business at a cost of nearly £60 million with its ambition to provide an integrated waste and energy solution for the UK market has not worked and has been a very costly and disappointing exercise for the Fund, its shareholders and New Earth."

One waste management insider commented: "It should not have taken too much for SBC to realise this wasn't going to work. This should have been obvious by the end of 2011, especially given the advisors they had on board. This goes back to the decision to insist on this technology instead of the MBT (Mechanical Biological Treatment) only. I hope they do hold people accountable for the decision. It is becoming more indefensible".

Friday, 9 October 2015

Jettisoned! The Bristol waste plant which wowed Borders councillors


The unresolved mystery surrounding the decision by Borders councillors to sign a £86 million contract with a company whose energy from waste technology was not commercially viable has taken a new twist with confirmation that the only plant using the unproven form of conversion has been sold off by its owners to stem their growing financial losses.

Earlier this year Scottish Borders Council abandoned their "ground-breaking" deal with New Earth Solutions (NES), including the proposal to construct a waste treatment plant at Easter Langlee, Galashiels which was designed to divert 80% of household refuse from expensive and environmentally damaging landfill.

The willingness of SBC to act as guinea pigs for the "pioneering" NEAT technology resulted in the loss of millions of pounds of public money which was written off without any detailed explanation after the local authority severed its links with NES. Taxpayers were merely told there had been technological and funding issues which could not be overcome.

According to correspondence seen by Not Just Sheep & Rugby senior officers at SBC recommended termination of the contract because while the technology intended for use at Easter Langlee had been developed, tested and evaluated by NES, it had not proved to be commercially viable or to work effectively. It was also claimed that NES had been unable to attract a financial backer for the Borders project after councillors decided to amend the deal to incorporate the unproven conversion methods.

As reported here previously, a 16-member delegation from SBC which visited the NES waste treatment complex at Avonmouth, Bristol in October 2014 were totally convinced that the technology's performance and potential would make the Borders the leading waste disposal authority in Scotland.

We now understand that the directors of the Isle of Man based Premier Group, which controls the various NES entities, have concluded the de-merger and sale of the stand-alone energy business at Avonmouth on which the Borders plant was to have been modelled.

Shareholders and investors will be given detailed information concerning the sale "imminently", but Premier Group has already warned the sale to an Australian bank and an as yet unnamed institution will result in a loss for those involved.

In a recent communication, Premier stated:"In April, New Earth engaged an external engineering consultancy to carry out a further technical and financial review on the future potential for the ERF plant [Avonmouth]. Unfortunately, the level of performance has consistently fallen well short of targeted levels. The programme of works communicated in March, whilst undertaken, has proven to be unsuccessful. Operational, manpower, maintenance and repair costs have consistently proved to be much higher than originally planned.

"The consequence of this review is that further essential and significant capital expenditure has been identified in order to potentially improve the plant’s performance. Based on history, this programme will still carry substantial technical risk. In addition, the continued underperformance of ERF still requires further working capital to support operational losses until capital modifications are made over the next 18 months."

Premier's New Earth infrastructure fund was named by SBC as the financial backer for the original Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) plant at Galashiels, a project which would have been up and running in 2012 had councillors not insisted in meddling with the arrangements in a bid to be 'pioneers'.

As a result, SBC has faced landfill tax costs of £2.32 million in 2011/12, £2.65 million in 2012/13, £2.95 million in 2013/14, and "approximately" £2.5 million in 2014/15, according to a response to a question posed at this week's council meeting. The MBT could have cut those sums by up to 80%. In cash terms...well you do-the-math!

Monday, 5 October 2015

How to spin real failure into virtual success

DOUGLAS SHEPHERD reflects on the tractor factory-style propaganda being used to sell a Scottish Corporate Plan

Those of us old enough to have witnessed the dark arts of the USSR propaganda machinery powered by that country's official news agency Tass, or who used to listen in amazement to chairman Mao's Chinese spin doctors will, I suspect, recall how productivity at Siberian tractor plants or Peking's state-owned textile mills was always better or higher than the year before.

I have to confess that only last week my mind flitted back to those heady days of fifty or sixty years ago after a communique from the propaganda section at Scottish Borders Council appeared on the local authority's website - how Kruschev and Mao would have loved the opportunity to promote their brands of Communism via the internet.

The old CCCP and the People's Republic of China produced regular five-year economic plans which were guaranteed to meet their targets even before the ink was dry on those ambitious state documents. And the vast majority of the populace believed their leaders had achieved great things no matter the levels of poverty and hunger being inflicted on the masses.

Here in the Scottish Borders we are currently prospering under the council's  uplifting Corporate Plan (2013-2018). Members of the Politburo (sorry, Star Chamber) at Newtown St Boswells are being told this week: "We have made significant progress against our eight priorities in the last two years", and "Progress against our eight priorities has been made while we have undergone a radical transformation of the organisation." See, just like those tractor factories mentioned above.

So, on the face of it, all eight issues at or near the top of SBC's wish list have been improved over the last two years, thanks to the efforts of er...the council.

We won't bother you with the full list, but here at Not Just Sheep & Rugby we were particularly interested in what the 'updated version' of the Corporate Plan had to say about Priority 5 - Maintaining and improving our high quality environment.

Here's a relevant extract from the document: "The annual percentage of household waste landfilled has increased by 5% compared to the same quarter the previous year, in line with projections associated with the removal of the garden waste service".

And that's sold to the public by the propagandists as part of the progression! Unfortunately some of the long suffering Borders peasants might regard it as a failure. Our so-called high quality environment may not have been helped either by the council achieving a 20% increase in methane emissions from the Easter Langlee tip last year. No mention of that in the upbeat Corporate Plan.

Mind you, we are told it is important to note the council has "saved" £450,000 per annum by removing the green bin uplifts. So does that include the increased landfill tax on the extra 1,970 tonnes of rubbish buried at Easter Langlee in 2014?

In a reference to 'priorities for the future' the master plan states: "Revisit our waste strategy to create efficiency savings, reduce expenditure and provide additional income through the implementation of a revised strategy that is financially and environmentally sustainable."

The maintenance  and improvement of our high quality environment will soon include endless fleets of diesel-guzzling lorries lugging all of the Borders' household waste through our green and pleasant land to a treatment plant far far away. But no doubt that too will be dressed up as a resounding success. The retired scribes from the Siberian tractor factory must be looking at the Borders in wondrous admiration and respect.

Friday, 2 October 2015

'Do nothing' option is a gas!


Scottish Borders Council's abject failure in its various attempts and so-called initiatives to cut down the volume of household waste going to landfill is producing a horrific environmental legacy for present and future generations.

Not Just Sheep & Rugby can reveal that emissions of harmful methane gas from the council's landfill site at Easter Langlee on the outskirts of Galashiels increased by a staggering 20% in 2014, exceeding the reportable threshold 36-fold.

Meanwhile the amount of domestic rubbish buried at Langlee (30,666 tonnes) represented the highest total for several years, exceeding the Scottish Government's landfill allowance of 17,654 tonnes by no less than 73.7%.

The Borders statistics, available on the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) website, look even worse when comparisons are made with what is happening nationally. Total methane emissions at 122 sites across the country fell by 9.3% while the national landfill tonnage dropped for the fourth year in a row.

SBC councillors were warned in 2008 that the so-called "do nothing" option on this vital issue was, in fact, not an option, and was unacceptable both from a legislative and environmental viewpoint. But nothing is precisely what they have done since 2002 when the matter was first flagged up.

Now their inaction and incompetence can be directly linked to the 361,000 kg of methane given off by the rotting rubbish at Easter Langlee during 2014. The emissions are up from 300,000 kg in 2013 and represent the highest volume of the leaking gas since at least 2009.

Methane is 21 times more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. But there are other toxic substances being emitted, adding to the cocktail of chemicals coming out of the ground.

For example, the reporting threshold for CFCs and HCFCs  is just 1 kg per annum. Easter Langlee gave off 31.1 kg of CFCs and 23.9 kg of HCFCs last year.

The elected members at SBC were told yet again in 2011 in a document marked "Confidential - Not for Publication": "Overall, the Council cannot legislatively or financially afford to continue to direct the majority of the waste to landfill".

But since then the percentage of household refuse finding its way underground at Easter Langlee has spiralled from 53.3% to of the highest landfill figures in Scotland. And the council, rather than tackling the issue resolutely, took waste management off in the opposite direction by banning garden refuse collections.

Between 2011 and 2014 SBC exceeded its landfill allowance by 35,449 tonnes. Had the system of fines for exceeding allowances not been suspended by the Scottish Government the council would have been liable for financial penalties of £5,317,350. But such a threat does not appear to have been a matter of concern for those in charge of waste management.

An experienced executive who works in the industry told us: "The figures speak for themselves; it is disgraceful how people have managed to retain their positions in light of this. Clearly they do not take responsibility for their environmental responsibilities. They are also in breach of the EU regulations. I simply do not understand why the culprits have not been made to account for their apparent incompetence."

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Top of the heap to bottom of the pile!


Just four years ago, a confidential report written by leading officials at Scottish Borders Council included a bold prediction that they were set to become the leading waste management authority in Scotland.

But this week, following the release of waste data for 2014 SBC finds itself at or near the foot of the waste recycling league table and almost top of the list for the amount of rubbish it sends to landfill.

The council's woeful record in the field of waste management, despite squandering countless millions of pounds on useless schemes and projects since 2002, has been aggravated by desperately bad decisions by councillors in recent times.

It is now clear the suspension of separate garden waste kerbside collections in 2014 has punctured the Borders' already pathetically thin green credentials. And the negative impact following the failure to develop and complete a waste management facility capable of dealing with 80 per cent of the region's garbage in 2013 has affected the statistics in a big way.

The newly released waste management figures for SBC published by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) tell a very sorry tale. The council's recycling rate is down by 9.6% from 46.3% in 2011 to 36.7% last year. Over that four year period the tonnage being recycled slumped from 24,897 to 18,345, a dramatic fall of 26.3%.

Only three other councils in mainland Scotland recycled a smaller proportion of their waste than Borders. And between 2011 and 2014 the tonnage being landfilled at Easter Langlee shot up from 53.3% to 61.4%. An extra 1,978 tonnes were buried in the ground even though the total waste generated by Borders households fell in the corresponding years from 53,822 tonnes to 49,952. Glasgow City is now the sole mainland authority which landfills a greater percentage of its garbage than SBC.

Yet that confidential document from March 2011 - it concerned SBC's new waste management contract with Dorset-based New Earth Solutions Group - proudly declared: "This contract will make Scottish Borders Council the lead authority in Scotland with a facility and contract that can be adapted over time to meet the changing needs of the waste industry".

The unnamed author of that verbal tosh should be asked to explain why the predicted triumph failed to materialise, and what has gone wrong in the interim. And it is to be hoped other Scottish councils are not still waiting for the delivery of the Borders template on which to base their own management schemes.

For the record, here are the SBC statistics for the last four years:

Year     Waste generated  %recycled    % landfilled      tonnage landfilled
2014       49,952 tonnes       36.7              61.4                  30,666
2013       51,242 tonnes       41.3              56.2                  28,821
2012       52,861 tonnes       42.8              55.7                  29,940
2011       53,822 tonnes       46.3              53.3                  28,688

The amount going to landfill far exceeds the limits set in the Scottish Government's Landfill Allowance Scheme (LAS), which was revoked in 2012. But in a future article we will use LAS figures to illustrate just how badly SBC has performed in the field of waste management and outline the implications for the Borders if the suspended system of fines are reintroduced.

The fact is that this most basic yet vital local government service is being poorly delivered, and is not being afforded the priority it deserves. Councillors have taken their eye off the ball, concentrating instead on "prestige" projects like the tapestry museum which, unlike waste disposal, will not affect every household in the region.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

A law unto themselves?


The weekend revelation that Scottish Borders Council had invited firms to tender for a £6 million contract even before the project had received planning permission must have set alarm bells ringing among local taxpayers and residents who believe in democracy.

But surely there are implications too for those who are supposed to be responsible for proper procedures in local government, although it is increasingly difficult to find any watchdog with the willingness to intervene when mistakes are made or decision making processes are flouted and ignored.

At the same time there appears to be a complete lack of opposition and dissent inside the council chamber and throughout the local authority's structure. Have councillors been silenced or are their criticisms not covered in the local press for fear of lost advertising revenue? Those public notices must be worth a fortune!

The recent disclosure that SBC frequently doesn't bother to record internal discussions and briefings in writing, preferring instead to conduct even important items of business verbally, also points to an air of arrogance, and disdain for accountability.

In addition there have been examples of a complete lack of public consultation on topics which taxpayers considered to be important in their daily lives - perhaps most notably the withdrawal of garden refuse collections in 2014.

The concerted efforts to cover up potentially embarrassing and damaging information linked to the council's disastrous waste management contract with New Earth Solutions, and the decision to commit millions of pounds of public money to pay for the tapestry museum at Tweedbank before allowing electors to have their say adds to the impression that the current administration has become a law unto itself.

So much for the promises of a wholly transparent regime when the various political groupings got together to run local affairs after the municipal elections of 2012. Even attempts to extract data and statistics via the Freedom of Information route can be blocked or delayed by legal arguments or through the use of exemptions in the legislation. Many requesters concede defeat by throwing in the towel. Much more information should be published without the need for FOI requests.

Last Friday's publication of an official notice on the Scottish Government's Public Contracts Scotland website makes no mention of the fact that planning permission for the Great Tapestry of Scotland museum has yet to be secured. Nor does it outline the considerable level of local opposition, with a 4,400 signature petition due to be considered by councillors later this week.

It surely means planning approval for the expensive project at Tweedbank is a given, and the petition will be consigned to the litter bin despite its strong backing from disgruntled members of the public. Senior planning officers are recommending approval for the council's own development application which will, no doubt, be rubber stamped at committee next Monday.

In the circumstances the application for consent should be considered by a neutral planning authority - say East Lothian or Dumfries & Galloway Council - whose officers could examine the proposals objectively, and purely from a planning perspective without the influence of internal vested interests.

It is a course of action which is not available at present, but in the current circumstances it certainly should be. The only other option would be for the case to be called in and decided by Scottish Government planning officials without input from Ministers.

Instead what we are witnessing is a process more akin to Putin's Russia or Xi Jinping's China rather than an outcome based on a genuinely Scottish democratic procedure. It does SBC no credit whatsoever.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

£6 million tapestry contract up for grabs


The publication of a notice by Scottish Borders Council, which invites developers to bid for the lucrative £6 million contract to build a museum to house the Great Tapestry of Scotland will have angered many of the objectors to the scheme.

The appearance of the contract notice on the Scottish Government's Public Contracts Scotland website on Friday of this week precedes consideration by the council of a highly controversial planning application, involving the removal of hundreds of trees from land at Tweedbank, near Galashiels to make way for the flat-roofed building.

One opponent told us: "Planning consent is now guaranteed otherwise this invitation to tender would not have been issued at such an early stage. The entire process has become farcical; first the local authority decided an environment impact study wasn't needed, and now it seems objecting to this costly project is a complete waste of time."

According to the notice SBC expects five potential developers will be asked to submit bids for the museum scheme which will cost £7.2 million, including VAT.

The notice claims: "The new Great Tapestry of Scotland Museum will be a high class visitor attraction and an asset of architectural importance to the Borders. It will provide a properly designed solution for displaying the tapestry and will be an instantly recognisable setting to hold local and international events."

Trustees and patrons of the tapestry charity have repeatedly slapped down critics of the proposal to house the 160 panels in the Borders. And yet the Borders public have yet to be given details of the arrangements under which the 143-metre long embroidery will be passed from Trust to Council.

Before any contract is awarded the terms and conditions attached to the arrival of the tapestry at Tweedbank should be made clear, an objector claimed. He said: "Presumably, the charity will retain ownership so that the visitor attraction can hang on to its charitable status. Does that mean SBC will lease the tapestry or will the local authority assume guardianship? We need to know".

The charity's latest published accounts show an operating loss of £59,068 for the financial year compared to a £58,827 profit in 2012/13. Total income fell from £180,351 to just £67,813 in 2013/14.

But the equivalent of more than half of the charity's income (£35,224) was loaned to a limited company called Tapestry Trading (Scotland) Ltd with the same registered address as The Great Tapestry of Scotland. Two of the charity's trustees are also directors of Tapestry Trading.

Will Scottish Borders Council take control of the trading company if and when the tapestry arrives for display in the region? Or will it remain a separate business entity?

The limited company's accounts record a trading loss of £15,000 for the year. The report adds: "Turnover includes amounts received from Royalties. The Royalties are generated from an exclusivity arrangement".

Does any proposed agreement between the parties mean the Royalty payments will become the property of the Council which may need all of the income it can get if the project is to become financially viable? Or will this income stream remain with Tapestry Trading's directors?

Critics have already claimed that calculations contained in the business plan,which estimates 47,000 visitors a year each paying a £10 entry fee will be required if the newest Borders tourist attraction is to break even, are totally unrealistic.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Black comes the whitewash!


The decision by Borders councillors to terminate their expensive and useless waste management contract with New Earth Solutions - the only thing they got right during the entire financial disaster - has, as predicted, been fully backed by the council's external auditors.

But the report from KPMG, the accountancy firm which will be paid £302,000 by Scottish Borders Council taxpayers for auditing the local authority's 2014/15 accounts only covers the decision taken in February to abandon the 24-year contract. It does not look at the background which led to the multi-million pound gamble with untried and untested technology.

The 51-page document, now available to read on the SBC website, deals with the waste management issue in a few sentences. Here is the relevant section of the report in full:

Termination of waste management contract

In 2014-15, £2.2 million was written off as a result of the termination of a waste management contract. We have reviewed the Council’s decision making process in relation to the termination of the contract. Key points include:

these costs do not include any early termination fees or additional costs claimed by NES, as a “no fault” termination provision formed part of the contract;

the decision was considered and made by the Council in February 2015:

information was provided by an internal project team, supported by appropriate external professional advisors; and

appropriate options were considered and due diligence processes are evidenced as being followed.
We are satisfied that the Council has followed appropriate procedures in relation to this decision. We have reviewed the business case relating to this decision, which was presented in February 2015 and set out the options available to the Council. The recommendations were approved by Scottish Borders Council in February 2015 and a joint statement issued publicly thereafter.

As one observer remarked: "We've already had the generous helpings of black ink from the council's own censors when dealing with requests for information on this controversial topic. Now we have a complete whitewash from the 'guardians' of  public expenditure."

According to an experienced consultant contacted by Not Just Sheep & Rugby : "Interestingly it is what is not said that speaks volumes. The audit refers to having followed the correct process: there is no comment in relation to whether the business case was sound in its assessment, if there were additional costs to the council or whether it was a saving, whether they supported the recommendations, and there's no commentary on assumptions made
"In my experience of dealing with auditors and their reports, they generally make very limited commentary to avoid overly embarrassing officers/council. Most audit reports I have seen on reviews similar to this have generally been around 15-25 pages long. To summarise to this extent indicates their scope was very restricted.

"Generally there would at least be commentary around the written off £2.2m (e.g. this could have been avoided if….). So why was the remit so narrow".

Even the implications of the move to end the deal with NES will be massive. The council has already indicated it will have to borrow millions of pounds for an alternative waste management strategy, adding considerably to the volume of loan charges payable over the next 30-40 years.
Their intention is to take all of the Borders household rubbish out of the region in fleets of lorries which would represent one of the biggest "anti-green" initiatives in Scottish local government history.

SBC's outstanding debt - according to the auditors - stands at £172 million on which they are paying an average interest rate of 6.5%. The annual bill for loan charges totals £29.4 million....more than enough to build several waste management facilities which actually work.