Monday, 29 June 2015

Consultants and lawyers to board another council gravy train


Having just squandered almost two million pounds on expensive consultants and some of Scotland's costliest legal firms, Scottish Borders Council's Integrated Waste Management Strategy in complete disarray less than 18 months after the crucial document was given the green light. So it's back to square one with a blank sheet of paper.

But even before a brand new Member-Officer Reference Group (MORG) has the chance to get down to business there have been warnings that more environmental specialists and 'expert' legal brains from the private sector will have to be hired to assist with the region's umpteenth Waste Management Plan.

Meanwhile the council's Audit & Risk Committee has shrugged off criticism of its handling of the disastrous waste treatment contract with New Earth Solutions (NES) which is set to cost taxpayers many millions more. According to a committee Minute all risks had been included in reports to council, with a clear audit trail, and the importance of lessons learned being applied to future procurement was acknowledged.

The air of complacency is under-scored by another sentence in the Minute which states: "It was recognised that not all decisions made by council would be popular within the public domain."

Unfortunately our local authority has declined to make public the risks which accompanied the bizarre decision to radically alter the New Earth contract in October 2012 with a so-called Deed of Variation.

A report last week which marked the return to the drawing board strategy yet again says: "The council terminated the contract with NES due to significant concerns relating to progress, technical deliverability and risk transfer." Those concerns are also shrouded in secrecy.

The embarrassing list of ineffective initiatives aimed at providing the Borders with a fit-for-purpose waste treatment facility stretch back to 2002. Each scheme seems to have been blighted by a common curse with all of them ending up as extremely costly failures. It will be interesting to see if the perhaps aptly coined acronym MORG can finally deliver.

MORG will re-examine a range of options including the possibility of developing a purpose-built plant to exclusively deal with waste from within the council area. But there could also be opportunities for joint working with neighbouring authorities who already have treatment plants of their own.

The combined approach was a runner ten years ago when a Lothian and Borders waste strategy was being worked up. But that idea also ended up in the rubbish bin after lengthy and expensive consultations and the production of glossy literature which now gathers dust on the shelves of local government offices across south-east Scotland.

First step in the 2015 campaign - remember time is rapidly running out if Borders is to achieve Scottish and European landfill reduction targets - will be a Strategic Environmental Assessment Screening Exercise, whatever that might be.

The report to council says: "The costs for undertaking the exercise are anticipated to be in the region of £15,000. It is likely that consultancy support will be required to take this forward as this is a specialist area. The costs for undertaking the legal review have been estimated to be in the region of £12,000.

"Failure to develop a Waste Management Plan puts at risk the council's ability to comply with future European and National Waste Policy and Regulatory requirements."

If Borders councillors had insisted on the implementation of their original 2011 contract with NES instead of switching to a high risk strategy via the 2012 project Deed of Variation then those requirements would be attainable now and with a much reduced bill for landfill tax.

Instead, consultants in their shiny offices and law firms like the Edinburgh practice which trousered almost £700,000 of Borders taxpayers' money during the New Earth debacle will be rubbing their hands in anticipation of another lucrative 'earner'.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

663 casuals still missing from headcount


A few weeks back Not Just Sheep & Rugby reported on serious discrepancies in the quarterly staffing levels data being supplied to the Scottish Government by Scottish Borders Council.

Readers may recall the number of employees (headcount) on the SBC payroll in the final quarter of 2014 stood at 5,300, according to official statistics released by the SNP Government. The total of full time equivalents (FTE) stood at 4,300.

But at the same time the council was telling a Freedom of Information requester it employed 6,421 people. a massive 1,121 more than the official return published on the Holyrood website.

It transpired that the Borders head counters and FTE calculators had not been including supply staff on 'as and when' contracts in their returns to the Edinburgh-based national number crunchers.

Now, a new set of "official" statistics for the first three months of 2015 shows the staffing level at  Newtown St Boswells increased by 100 to 5,400, and the missing casuals remain excluded from the calculations. The FTE total of 4,400 was also up by 100 on the recorded figure of 4,300 for the fourth quarter of 2014.

Meanwhile the council's response to a Freedom of Information request, which has just been posted on the local authority's website, shows there are no fewer than 663 'casuals' on the books. There is no indication as to the type of work these Territorial Army-type personnel carry out or how many of them are actually working on council business at any given time, but the number equates to 12 per cent of the headcount.

A special note which accompanies the latest published staffing levels for all 32 Scottish local authorities explains: "Scottish Borders Council headcount 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. This will be resolved for the next PSE (public sector employment) publication on receipt of revised figures for Scottish Borders Council".

The current headcount figure for SBC is exactly the same as the total given for the second quarter of 2002 while the FTE total is identical to the 4,400 level which prevailed throughout 2012. It would appear the casuals have been missing from the statistics for some considerable time.

It also seems the spate of severance packages which have been sanctioned in recent years at a cost running into many millions of pounds is having little impact on the overall numbers on the council's payroll.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Borders councillors among most expensive in Scotland


Every Borders councillor is costing taxpayers an average of more than £425 per week in allowances and expenses, making them members of the third most costly group of elected representatives in Scottish local government, Not Just Sheep & Rugby has discovered.

This week Scottish Borders Council published its annual statement detailing the money spent on the salaries and expenses claims of its 34 councillors during the financial year 2014/15. The total of £757,172 means the gross average payment to each elected member works out at £22,269 or £428 a week based on a 52-week year.

Detailed and painstaking research by our investigations team allowed us to obtain the equivalent expenditure by every council in mainland Scotland on its councillors. And we learned that only Aberdeenshire and the City of Edinburgh exceeded the average payment per head which prevailed in Scottish Borders. The 68 elected members in Aberdeenshire received, on average, £492 per week (£25,590 per annum) while the corresponding figures for Edinburgh's councillors were £430 (£22,380).

Our Borders representatives were £13 a week better off than their counterparts in Glasgow City Council, earned £15 a week more than colleagues in Aberdeen and collected £21 a week more than councillors in Dundee.

According to one local government observer who has had sight of our statistics: "The figures for Scottish Borders Council are clearly inflated and therefore distorted by the extraordinary number of portfolio holders and the range of 'responsibility' payments many of which should be scrapped. Very few local councillors question recommendations or decisions so this can hardly be deemed value for money. In the vast majority of cases they neither scrutinise nor challenge what is put before them.

"It is quite shocking to be told the Borders is in the bronze medal position on councillor expenditure when the nature of the work is both part time and probably much less demanding than the workload of elected members in more populated urban areas where the issues are invariably more complicated or sensitive. It is difficult to see how such a high ranking on the spending league table can be justified".

It would appear from our research that the old adage Small is Beautiful can be applied to the cost of democracy in Scotland. Clackmannanshire, the tiniest local authority on the mainland, spent just £314,608 on allowances and expenses for its 18 councillors. That works out at only £17,478 per elected member or £336 a week - an impressive £92 per week less than the Borders average.

So far as neighbouring councils are concerned all of them spent considerably less per capita on their respective teams of councillors than SBC. Midlothian was the second "cheapest" council in Scotland on this expenditure scale with its 19 councillors costing £18,044 (£347 per week). Meanwhile Dumfries & Galloway Council spent a total of £974,116 on 47 councillors which works out at £20,725 per councillor per year or £398 a week. And East Lothian's 23 elected members collected £20,145 (£387 per week) on average.

Additional reporting by Ossie Shearer

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Councillors picked a loser from field of thirty


No fewer than 30 companies expressed an interest in bidding for the lucrative Scottish Borders waste treatment plant planned for Galashiels, yet councillors still ended up awarding the multi-million pound contract to a firm which could not deliver the project either technologically or financially.

A second 'confidential' document dated October 25th 2012, which persuaded elected members to take the disastrous decision to vary their contractual arrangements with New Earth Solutions Group (NES), has now been released under the Environmental Information (Scotland) regulations.

But like another report from March 2011 when SBC originally awarded the contract for the Easter Langlee waste facility to NES, huge swathes of text have been obscured by black ink because the information is considered to be "commercially sensitive". It means the reasons for the radical variation of the contract, which led to its collapse and abject failure earlier this year, remain a mystery.

Not Just Sheep & Rugby has been told that one of the bidders who made it through the initial procurement process was eliminated because the technology they planned to use was not considered 'mature' enough by senior officers at the council. But the authority later gave the job to NES even though that company's Energy from Waste systems were also untested and risky, and ultimately resulted in premature termination of the 24-year agreement with the loss of several millions of pounds of public money.

The heavily redacted 2012 report by the Director of Environment and Infrastructure - even his name and those of the three co-authors have been blacked out, presumably for commercially sensitive reasons - claims New Earth Solutions "are starting to successfully challenge the 'big six' waste management companies.

In recommending the contract variation to include both the Mechanical Biological Treatment and Advanced Thermal Treatment elements rather than building the MBT and ATT separately, the report asserts: "The proposed changes to the project still represent best value for the Council, to meet the legislative and financial drivers.

"The new integrated facility will actually deliver added benefits and reduced risk to the Council. Once funding is in place and the construction contracts have been signed the main contract does provide the Council with better protection from future changes in the financial viability of the project for New Earth Solutions.

"Therefore, this proposed Deed of Variation will provide NES with a fundable project that should provide the Council with an assured Waste Treatment Facility".

It appears that entire section of the document proved to be completely inaccurate and unfounded as the "assured" facility has not even be started let alone completed. Procurement experts warn that future costs associated with the catastrophic contract variation could run into many millions of pounds, including at least £2 million to re-tender the project.

Should SBC decide to opt for a so-called "off the shelf" solution then the capital cost (at 2012 prices) was estimated to be between £10 million and £20 million.

But, according to the censored report: "The level of technology available to local authorities is limited as a lot of the suppliers are signed up with the major waste companies. External expertise would be required to overcome the lack of experience operating a waste treatment facility".

The council has already squandered many hundreds of thousands of pounds on consultants and lawyers for absolutely no return. So could another gravy train heavily laden with so-called experts be about to leave the terminus as the council attempts to resurrect its seriously damaged waste treatment strategy?

One of the recommendations in the 2012 report was to delegate powers to the council's Chief Executive, Director of Environment and Infrastructure, Chief Financial Officer and the Head of Legal and Democratic Services to vary the existing contract with NES.

Therefore Borders council taxpayers, who 'sponsored' this entire fiasco surely deserve an independent investigation in which the four office bearers listed in the report would be key witnesses. It is both disappointing and puzzling that none of the local government watchdogs or any of the Scottish Government ministers are supportive of calls for an inquiry.

We assume the generous lashings of black ink which adorn the pages of the council reports have been deployed solely to protect NES from industrial sabotage and not to hide the political embarrassment or the apparent incompetence of Borders councillors who are ultimately responsible for this expensive debacle.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Southern 'mole' fails to impress



Carola Godman Irvine... now there's a name to conjure with - although staff at Not Just Sheep & Rugby are hoping she'll perform her own bit of magic and disappear in a puff of smoke.
We were all dying to find out who the mystery woman was and where she came from after picking up this week's Southern Reporter to find her picture looking out at us from page 65 under the strap line COUNTRYFILE.

She'd taken up editorial residence right next door to Halidon, that kenspeckle inhabitant of the farming pages who keeps us up to date with all things agricultural via his contributions in Landlines. For some reason his knowledgeable articles don't merit a mug shot.

Ms Godman Irvine's rambling first effort for the biggest selling weekly paper in the Scottish Borders shifted painfully from an infestation of moles under the lawn of her stately sounding home to the EU referendum (she wants out of Europe). After a brief pause in the realms of European politics she shot off into the world of tumbling grocery prices and the stressful impact they were having on poor farmers, some of whom she informed us were ready to throw in the towel. It was ever thus.

So, we wondered, was this yet another incomer who had discovered the Borders by chance before falling in love with the place and moving the family to a rural idyll like Lilliesleaf or Morebattle before being signed up as a trendy new addition to Team Tweeddale Press. Well, not exactly.

The wondrous world of Google revealed that Carola was firmly ensconced in Great Ote Hall, an impressive historic pile with royal connections not far from Wivelsfield in deepest Sussex. The big house is the setting for grand weddings and all forms of corporate entertainment while the lady herself is one of those poor farmers struggling under the yoke of depressed food prices. Why then, we mused, was she sounding off in a Borders publication? Still can't fathom it.

Turns out Carola already writes her own blog with the sidebar describing her as Farmer, Campaigner, Columnist. It's full of stuff which might be relevant for those who live the high life in the English shires with the occasional quirky sprinkling of anti Scottish Nationalist vitriol.

Apparently, during a recent foray north to Aberdeenshire for what seems to have been a society wedding, there had been "much talk about the rise of the SNP".

Carola declared in a blog post in early June: "There is genuine concern that the angry minority of Scots who feel they were robbed of independence they so crave, will do almost anything to have the result reversed."

Excuse me? Was it an angry minority of  Scottish voters who elected all but three SNP candidates and sent them to Westminster at the General Election? Get a grip woman.

Then, in true Daily Mail style Ms Godman Irvine warns: "The rise of the Scottish National Party could in the long run end in tears". Like the Mail she doesn't seem to accept that the SNP actually won the election in Scotland hands down

Why tears? Because one of the Mail's favourite icons - Ultimo bra queen Michelle Mone - "raised in Glasgow and from a working class background no longer feels safe in Scotland and has moved south to London. If feisty successful entrepreneurs like her are driven out, one has to feel deep concern for the people of this once great nation."

What utter unfounded tripe. Come on Southern Reporter, you can surely do better than that. Try recruiting your columnists closer to home for a start and leave Carola to her farming, campaigning, and the desperate battle against the moles of Great Ote Hall.

Monday, 15 June 2015

From trailblazers to Emperor's New Clothes!


Two previously unpublished reports relating to the proposed multi-million pound refuse treatment facility planned for Galashiels reveal that members of Scottish Borders Council were assured the project offered them the chance to become Scotland's trailblazers in the field of waste management.

But the confidential documents, released by the council as a result of a Freedom of Information request, have been  heavily redacted (censored) to conceal facts and figures which persuaded councillors to award the project contract to New Earth Solutions Group (NES) in March 2011 and to maintain the veil of secrecy surrounding the financially and environmentally disastrous contract variation, agreed by the council just 18 months later in October 2012.

The sheer scale of the passages blacked out in the reports is difficult to convey, but the obliteration even extends to the names of those who compiled the crucial documents on which decisions were made...decisions which would ultimately cost Borders council taxpayers at least £2 million.

The earlier of the two reports, dated March 24 2011 and titled WASTE TREATMENT PROCUREMENT PROJECT - RECOMMENDATION FOR CONTRACT AWARD - is in the name of SBC's Chief Executive (David Hume held the post at the time) but even his name is obscured with thick black ink.

And the same applies to the authors of the report although their titles remain 'un-redacted'. They are the Project Manager, Head of Neighbourhood Services, Head of Procurement - Senior Supplier, Head of Engineering & Infrastructure - Project Assurance, Finance Business Partner, Waste Treatment Manager and Procurement Consultant (external).

This report, marked 'CONFIDENTIAL NOT FOR PUBLICATION, explains that the main purpose of the project is to provide the council with a treatment solution to minimise the amount of waste being landfilled to meet European Union directives. It would also deliver cost avoidance measures to mitigate the predicted rise in Landfill Tax (£8 per tonne per annum) over the coming years.

"Overall, the council cannot legislatively or financially afford to continue to direct the majority of the waste to landfill", the report warns. The failure to deliver the Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) facility four years later must surely have destroyed SBC's waste strategy even if senior officers and leading councillors fail to acknowledge that fact.

The March 2011 report states: "It is believed that early tendering for an appropriate solution for the Scottish Borders has helped secure a more competitive financial arrangement than may have been the case when more tendering exercises are underway elsewhere in Scotland. In particular, the authorities in the central belt will have more lucrative contracts to procure and could have drawn market interest and best value away from the Scottish Borders".

Does that mean SBC will face potentially serious procurement issues if and when it decides to embark on a mission to secure a replacement contractor for NES?

The report adds: "The contract follows closely a PPP type contract with elements of risk and savings sharing. These elements are designed to allow NES to be incentivised to perform above the contractual levels but also allow the council to share in any increased income or reduced costs".

No doubt the following passage fostered a sense of pride among elected members who accepted the NES bid: "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."

Unfortunately that golden opportunity would be thrown overboard a few short months later. As one observer remarked: 'Oh how the mighty are fallen".

It is clear that had Borders councillors stuck with the original contract for the MBT at Easter Langlee some 80% of the region's household waste would have been diverted from landfill by now.

Instead they opted to vary the contract to include a completely untried and untested technology to convert refuse into energy via incineration. The insurmountable problems associated with this risky advanced thermal process led to the entire project being abandoned earlier this year.

The limited amount of un-redacted information in the second report, WASTE TREATMENT PROJECT CONTRACT VARIATION will be covered in a future article on the Not Just Sheep and Rugby website.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Borders landfill tax burden calculated by forgotten formula


An investigation by Not Just Sheep and Rugby suggests the failure to deliver a functioning waste treatment plant for the Borders over the last 12 years could be costing significant amounts per month in increased landfill tax.

Following the collapse of Scottish Borders Council's massive 24-year contract with New Earth Solutions (NES) earlier this year the local authority was asked to divulge the projected additional payments of landfill tax over the five years from 2013/18.

If councillors had proceeded with their original (2010) project for a conventional treatment facility at Easter Langlee on the outskirts of Galashiels up to 80% of refuse would have been diverted from landfill on the completion of the plant in 2013.

But instead, for reasons which have never been made public, elected members decided in October 2012 to embark on a much more ambitious - and extremely risky - scheme involving untested technology to convert waste to energy. Eventually that dangerous strategy led to the complete collapse of the entire project at great public cost.

The council's response to a Freedom of Information request for the extra landfill costs produced the following response: "For the period in question 2013/18 there is no additional gate fee [cost of disposal] or landfill tax costs as a consequence of terminating the contract with NES."

However, this is not the first Borders waste treatment project to hit the skids. Between 2003 and 2008 SBC and neighbouring local authorities were involved in another initiative which must have cost many millions of pounds and huge amounts of staff time plus the inevitable commissioning of expensive consultants.

It was known as the Lothian & Borders Area Waste Plan (LBAWP), and it worked on a project to produce a single waste strategy for the entire south-east of Scotland. The task was enormous. The area was generating 555,000 tonnes of municipal waste per year including 68,000 tonnes in the Borders, equivalent to 12% of the overall total.

An extensive collection of documents relating to LBAWP - abandoned in the face of policy changes at Scottish Government level - remain available online. They show that even back in 2007 when 77% of waste was being landfilled there was an urgent need for action if future diversion targets had any chance of achievement.

Included in the array of documentation is a report written in 2007 which contains disturbing predictions of additional landfill fines and landfill tax which the five partner authorities would face unless the project was delivered. The increased penalties and taxes were due to kick in during 2013.

According to the report which was considered by SBC: "Any delay at this point exposes the five councils to the potential of landfill fines of £1.5 million for each month delay by 2013. In addition, the councils are exposed at 2013 to increased landfill tax of over £700,000 per month for delay."

The system of fines remains suspended, but penalties could be reintroduced at any time.

When the report was produced SBC was facing 12% of those additional overall costs by 2013. It works out at £180,000 per month in potential fines plus £90,000 per month in additional landfill costs.

So as things stood back in 2007 those respective extra fines and taxes over the five years from 2013 to 2018 would total £10.8 million and £5.4 million respectively.

No doubt the improved recycling rates and other initiatives have resulted in considerably lower landfill bills than those calculated from the LBAWP formula. At the same time it is hard to believe all of the predicted additional costs have been eradicated.

But it is clear expenditure on waste treatment would have been substantially below current levels had Borders councillors stuck with the original 2011 decision for the construction of the conventional facility rather than the alternative which had to be abandoned because of technological and funding issues.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Waste plans won't stand up to "Scrutiny"!


A committee which is supposed to analyse and dissect important decisions taken at Scottish Borders Council has refused to initiate an investigation into the failure to deliver a state-of-the-art waste treatment facility at Easter Langlee.

The so-called Scrutiny Committee was only re-formed a matter of weeks ago, but it appears the range of issues open for consideration may be extremely limited.

After being told council taxpayers and other members of the public could submit requests for action by the committee, retired journalist Bill Chisholm, who originally hoped that politicians representing the Borders might push for an independent investigation to pinpoint the reasons for the lost millions, asked Scrutiny to intervene.

In his request at the beginning of May Chisholm wrote: "I would wish Scrutiny to examine the circumstances surrounding the Council’s proposed Integrated Waste Treatment Facility at Easter Langlee, Galashiels, the various decisions taken during the life of the original and amended contracts with New Earth Solutions Ltd, the reasons behind the cancellation of the 24-year deal with NES after just four years, the abandonment of a vital environmental project for the Borders, and the subsequent loss and write-off of at least £2 million of public money."

A growing number of demands for information about the debacle, lodged with SBC under Scotland's Freedom of Information system, have been refused on grounds of "commercial confidentiality" clauses in the council's contract with NES. The secrecy is due to last until 2021, and the council seems determined to write off the wasted millions without even giving its own council taxpayers a meaningful explanation.

Some of the FOI requests are expected to end up with the Scottish Information Commissioner for a final decision once SBC is finished reviewing them. The Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, can order public authorities to release information if a request passes the public interest test.

This week Chisholm contacted the council to ask whether his request for a Scrutiny inquiry, submitted a month ago, was still being considered. He asked: "I assume it takes weeks (a month so far) to scrutinise requests for scrutiny. Has it actually been kicked into touch or is it still “live”? What a complete and utter farce."

The council response reveals that in fact his request had been rejected at a meeting of the committee ten days earlier.

Council clerk Jenny Wilkinson told Chisholm: " The Scrutiny Committee considered your request at its meeting held on 28 May 2015 and decided not to undertake a review at this time.  The Council has discussed the issues of the waste contract with Audit Scotland who have in turn referred the matter to the Council’s External Auditors, KPMG, who will review the Council’s actions as part of the statutory audit process for 2014/15. 

"Their report (the Council’s annual audit report) will be published by 30 September 2015.  Any issues arising from that review will be made public and reported back to Audit Scotland, as well as the Council.  A further enquiry into the Council’s actions, in effect duplicating the auditors’ work, is therefore considered inappropriate at this time."

When asked for his reaction, Chisholm said:  “The Scrutiny Committee’s refusal to investigate this extremely serious financial loss of £2.3 million (and counting) proves the system recently devised to examine council decisions is worthless. What is the purpose of Scrutiny if it is not to carry out a thorough review of the catastrophic failures associated with the waste management project?
“I’m convinced that because councillors of every political persuasion were involved in the fateful and financially disastrous decision of October 2012 to radically amend the New Earth Solutions contract no politician is prepared to grasp the nettle. They are too afraid of the consequences in case those responsible might be held to account.
“Instead there is a batten-down-the-hatches attitude with every request for information repelled on grounds of ‘ commercial confidentiality’. Had SBC been in the private sector the outcome of this costly failure would have been markedly different. Heads, as they say, would have rolled."

Friday, 5 June 2015

Town centres need intensive care to avoid retail oblivion

EWAN LAMB reports

The agencies responsible for economic development, promotion of tourism and regeneration   together with politicians and elected councillors have failed miserably to halt and reverse the alarming decline in so-called footfall in Borders town centres, it has been claimed.

The criticism comes on the back of new statistics which suggest the average weekly number of pedestrians (and therefore potential shoppers) counted in eight regional towns has plummeted by 32% between 2007 and 2014. But according to the report the drastic reductions in Hawick and Melrose last year could have been down to poor weather when the counts were undertaken.

Nevertheless, the 15-page report from Scottish Borders Council - it was posted on the council website this week without comment - must be of serious concern to the region's retailers and for the agencies responsible for economic stability and prosperity.

A prominent member of the Borders retail sector said: "This report should act as a wake up call for the entire region and those attempting to assist with what is becoming a dangerous downward spiral. There have been numerous initiatives, reports and discussions over the last decade, but none of these have brought about an improvement let alone halted a relentless decline."

The figures contained in the report show the average footfall in eight town centres fell from 46,380 per week in 2007 to 31,590 in 2014. Individual totals include Galashiels 9,500 in 2007 down to 7,780 in 2014, a fall of 18%.

Perhaps the most disturbing picture in all of the towns lies in Hawick where concerns have been expressed in recent years about the large proportion of empty retail properties in the central area.  According to the statistics Hawick suffered a massive 61% slump in footfall from 9,680 to 3,750 in just seven years.

But researchers will be hoping the 2014 figure is merely a blip caused by heavy rain when the counting was done. The report says: "Hawick will continue to require close attention going forward".

At the same time Kelso appears to have fared best of all, the 2014 weekly average of 4,980 represented a mere one per cent fall from 2007's 5,050. The supposedly rogue result for Melrose showed a 72% reduction from 3,540 (2007) to 990 (2014).

The retailer contacted by Not Just Sheep & Rugby told us: "Those in authority are probably pinning their hopes on the railway's return to save the day. But unless there is an effective campaign with significant financial backing to attract more people into the Borders there is no guarantee the train will come to the rescue.

"Many community leaders in towns like Hawick, Jedburgh and Duns, which are some distance from the Tweedbank rail head, are not convinced their towns will benefit significantly from the reopening of part of the Waverley Line. The current strategies from tourism promoters and those in charge of economic development are clearly falling short so far as the Borders is concerned. Tinkering with the current range of measures is not going to get us out of this mess - instead we need a major programme of investment."


Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Internal audit airbrushes £2.3 million losses

A 12-page report by Scottish Borders Council's internal auditor makes no mention of the large sums of money lost in the local authority's ill-fated efforts to develop a multi-million pound waste treatment facility at Galashiels even though the audit covered waste and recycling services.

It has already been revealed that the council's ill-judged involvement with New Earth Solutions Group, the contractor selected to deliver the project at Easter Langlee, has cost local taxpayers at least £2.3 million which was lavished on consultants and specialist legal firms from outside the area.

But the ramifications following the unexpected decision by councillors to suddenly abandon the contract after the scheme encountered funding and technological issues could mean the substantial financial losses will escalate even further.

The publication this week of SBC's internal auditor's annual report for 2014/15 refers to "identified weaknesses" although no details concerning those weaknesses have been outlined in the public report.

All we are told is that 34 separate internal audit recommendations were made, twelve of them have been implemented, and six are overdue.

The report by Jill Stacey, Chief Officer, Audit & Risk, declares: "Where governance improvements were identified these were highlighted to management and actions were agreed to make improvements to manage the risks to the council."

But again there is no information relating to the governance improvements required or the actions agreed. The fiscal checks carried out during the last financial year covered 24 different topics and services ranging from waste and recycling to the council's proposed Culture Trust.

And the reason for the so-called governance audits?

According to the report: "To provide assurances in relation to the council's corporate governance framework that is a key component in underpinning delivery of the corporate priorities within the council's corporate plan". I'll leave you to work that one out for yourselves.

One financial expert who read the report told us: "It is hard to believe there is no reference to the failed contract with NES especially as waste and recycling was an area that was audited. Perhaps the issue was dealt with but has not been made public. We may never know.

"Given that SBC is breaking EU law with the amount of waste going to landfill and the potential for LAS (Landfill Allowance Scheme) fines, I find it difficult to understand why this has not been identified by the auditors.

"The auditors should also pick up the risk of increased costs due to higher gate fees for waste treatment in Scotland compared to those in the NES contract and therefore the need to make provision for this, plus the cost of procuring. Given SBC has admitted the failed waste project has cost the £2m+ I assume they will need to set aside a similar amount to re-procure".

Audit Scotland, the public spending watchdog, has said it will not carry out its own independent investigation into the Easter Langlee debacle.

Instead, SBC's external auditor (KPMG) will consider concerns expressed over the failure of the waste treatment project in planning their audit work for 2014/15. Should any significant issues be identified by the audit they will be reported in the annual report on the 2014/15 audit, due to be published on the council’s website by the end of 2015.

However, at least one senior councillor involved with the catastrophic contract has said he is confident SBC acted properly, and that the council will be vindicated by the external auditors.