Saturday, 29 August 2015

Viasystems 'victim' starts new job on Tuesday

DOUG COLLIE on the endless winning streak of a casino capitalist

Our headline could have been lifted and plagiarised from the late 1990s files of the Southern Reporter or the Border Telegraph when hundreds of skilled electronics workers from flourishing Exacta Circuits plants in Galashiels and Selkirk were cast onto the economic scrapheap by ruthless US executives who have featured in our columns before.

The Borders factories were part of the burgeoning, debt-ridden Viasystems Corporation, of St Louis, Missouri when they were asset stripped and closed by the mysterious American Mills Brothers and a suit by the name of David Sindelar, chief financial officer and later head honcho at the global circuit board makers. He was also a board member of Exacta at one time.

After the devastating wave of horrific news which threatened to paralyse the economy of the central Borders, many of the local Viasystems employees had to lower their sights and take jobs with much poorer financial rewards to ensure their families survived. And the chance for future generations of Borderers to follow in the footsteps of their well trained parents and find skilled jobs was dashed at a stroke by Sindelar and his colleagues who used the local dedicated workforce as pawns in their international roulette game.

So Not Just Sheep & Rugby was particularly interested in Mr Sindelar's fate and his future employment prospects after Viasystems Group Inc. was bought by a rival US electronics giant called TTM Technologies, of California. Would he remain an important part of the newly formed giant's hierarchy or might he be forced to stack supermarket shelves in downtown St Louis just to earn a crust?

The answer to both parts of the question is firmly in the negative. For we now know that Mr Sindelar has been "tapped" by the board of St Anthony's Medical Center in the city to become its chief executive from this Tuesday (September 1). The fact that he is chairman of the board at the 767-bed hospital, which has over 3,700 employees, may or may not have been connected to the "tapping" exercise.

He may have no professional experience or background in hospital management, but that has obviously not proved to be a stumbling block. The US press coverage of the appointment has not included details of Sindelar's new salary, but a previous CEO appears to have been paid $1.7 million in 2012/13. It seems he'll be taking home slightly more than the minimum wage.

Apparently he'll have his work cut out as St Anthony's has suffered four years of declining revenue which Sindelar attributes to falling reimbursement rates. Last year the hospital posted revenue of $417 million, a $26 million drop from 2013.

His exit package from Viasystems would have been more than generous while in 2014 he "earned " $3,630,404 in total including a $920,000 salary.

But this was the man who, after succeeding James Mills as CEO, presided over the bankruptcy of the original Viasystems business in 2002 with debts of more than $1 billion dollars. This despite the company shifting the majority of its production from Europe and America where employees earned $18 dollars an hour to China where the wage rate was $1.66 per hour.

Somehow the failed corporation managed to re-schedule its debt, and with Mr Sindelar still at the helm, continued in business as Viasystems Group. When the takeover by TTM was finalised in May 2015 the deal included a cash payment of $248.8 million and TTM also assumed responsibility for Viasystems' debts of $669 million. Does all of that add up to an efficiently run and financially successful business?

Commenting on Mr Sindelar's new found employment opportunity, a former employee at one of the Borders electronics plants told us: "I am struck by the fact that this hospital appear to be putting a vampire in charge of a blood bank! I hope the patients at St Ants fare better than we did. To use a medical analogy he inherited a fit and healthy patient in the Borders factories and left us for dead. Is it the Hippocratic or Hypocritical oath he will have to take?"

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Services slashed but spend on consultants soars by 30%


A Scottish local authority which has recently axed garden waste collections, cut the school week, hived off home care services to a Trust, and warns it needs to find millions more in "efficiency" savings over the next five years, increased its spending on external consultants by a staggering 32 per cent in 2014/15.

And statistics released by Scottish Borders Council in response to a Freedom of Information request have revealed that the authority completed no fewer than 2,750 financial transactions with private firms, individual advisers and freelances over the last five years at a cost to the taxpayer of £6.821 million.

Between 2013/14 and 2014/15 the bill for these external "experts" soared from £1,163,000 to £1,539,252 (up 32.35%) at a time when SBC's revenue budget for core services was being rigorously scrutinised for spending cuts.

In a December 2013 press release the council told its 'customers': "Following the provisional confirmation of the council's allocation of resources for 2014/15 in the local government finance settlement, our future financial challenges over the next five years have been identified as a minimum of £24.5 million."

Councillors were also advised: "The public sector continues to face significant funding constraints as the Scottish Government continues to freeze council tax for a seventh year". Yet there seems to have been no instructions to officials to rein back on their spiralling outside consultancy budgets.

SBC introduced a four-and-a-half day school week in 2014 in another initiative aimed at saving cash. The report which recommended bringing in the so-called Asymmetric week claimed the Borders Education & Lifelong Learning service had been set an efficiency savings target of £10.99 million over a five year span from 2013/14.

In what appears to be an unbelievable reply to the FOI requester who asked for details of why each consultant was hired, the council claimed an exemption under legislation because "we do not hold the information". Does that mean the local authority is unaware of the reasons why individual payments of up to £378,000 were made from 2010/11 onward?

The response is accompanied by an 18-page file which lists all consultancy fees (there are 420 of them) of £1,000 or more during the last five financial years.

Research shows the beneficiaries include businesses specialising in activities ranging from financial management to 'change' management, stress management, construction and engineering, artists, choreographers, film makers, fish pass designers, restoration experts, environmental and countryside management, and problem solvers in human resources.

Halcrow, the infrastructure development consultants, who have been providing specialist services for the Borders Railway project, topped the payments league in each of the five years covered. They picked up £345,862, £232,692, £189,813, £378,389 and £334,541 which adds up to a grand total of £1,481,295.

A number of the country's largest consultancies appear regularly throughout the five years of statistics. The information excludes the substantial sums SBC has paid for advice from private law firms.

The rising trend in the use of the private sector is in direct conflict with the advice given to Scottish local authorities in 2013 by UNISON, the local government trade union.

Following a survey of all 32 councils UNISON concluded: "We are concerned that despite substantial cuts in public spending local authorities continue to spend money on expensive private consultants. Even before current budget cuts it was important not to waste money.

"Now that services and jobs are being cut it matters even more. This raises key questions as to why local authorities do not use their own staff to do the work or why advice and support is not sought from other authorities or via the Improvement Service to avoid these high costs.

"If the current round of redundancies and early departures has led to a skills shortage then this is a real concern for the future of local government".

Anyone who wants to read the full list of consultancy payments can find the statistics in the Freedom of Information archive on SBC's website. It is FOI number 7741 which should be entered into the search box.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Independent expert shreds latest Borders waste plan


The recommended way ahead for the delivery of Borders waste management services, due to be voted on at a council meeting this Thursday, will prove to be at least £7 million more expensive than developing a modern treatment facility at Galashiels, according to an industry expert contacted by Not Just Sheep & Rugby.

And a detailed assessment of a 31-page report prepared for members of Scottish Borders Council has also pointed up other potential flaws, omissions and anomalies in proposals with revenue implications of more than £60 million over the next 15 years.

Following the abandonment of the council's 24-year contract with New Earth Solutions, the company chosen from several bidders to deliver a Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) centre at Easter Langlee, SBC is now planning to build an extensive (and apparently costly) waste transfer station on the undeveloped site. The station would receive 40,000 tonnes of black bin waste from across the Borders before the garbage is road hauled out of the region to be processed elsewhere.

We showed the report to an experienced waste management specialist with many years experience in the business of refuse disposal, and asked him to comment, particularly on the financial aspects of the so-called Option A which councillors are expected to approve at a full meeting of the local authority.

He told us: "To be frank I could pull this report apart, but I will concentrate on the financial impact. Option A is shown at a net present value of £60.6 million over 15 years. This compares with the cost of the planned treatment facility which would have been £77 million over 24 years. If you adjust the MBT to 15 years the like for like comparison is £53 million at net present value."

But he added that the treatment facility would still have paid back all capital expenditure, and the formula used to calculate project values suggested the original proposal for an MBT would have been some £26 million less than the option now being recommended.

The expert described the price tag for the proposed new waste transfer station - almost £5 million - as "extremely expensive". He added: "The council do not appear to have considered using the current transfer station infrastructure for delivery to the treatment facility. This would have reduced the carbon footprint, traffic around Easter Langlee, and the likely need for a new transfer station".

Option A would significantly increase the heavy goods vehicle movements around the Galashiels site. There could also be financial penalties associated with the increase in SBC's carbon footprint.

The report under consideration claims there is insufficient time to re-procure and construct a treatment facility to serve the Borders before 2021 when landfill bans are due to come into force.

But our assessor commented: "To make such a claim is crazy. A procurement exercise would take 12-18 months with construction taking a similar period. There's plenty of time to embark on this route".

He said the report attempted to compare the cost of a waste transfer station to that of the now abandoned waste treatment facility. But, he said, "The context in which this information is presented is completely disproportionate. The non-financial analysis includes the cost of waste treatment, and has very narrow parameters; for example no consideration appears to be given to additional vehicle movements".

And, according to the expert: "The sustainability report shows a positive outcome for employment. However I would challenge this. A transfer station already operates at Easter Langlee, therefore the relevant staff would continue to be employed, all others will be made redundant. This may have been factored into the business case and financial assessment."

At this stage SBC has not gone through a procurement exercise to dispose of their black bin refuse at a treatment facility outside the Borders.

Commenting on this, the independent assessor explained: "Now that they have announced their intention publicly, they may not be able to secure assumed gate fees (the charge levied on a given quantity of waste received at a processing facility).

"When SBC go to tender the nearest treatment facility will know what the gate fees are at other facilities in Scotland. Therefore they may increase gate fees with this in mind as they know it will cost SBC significantly more to transport waste to a facility further away".

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Waste management incompetence to cost millions more

DOUG COLLIE on plans to haul 40,000 tonnes of Borders garbage out of the region each year

Members of Scottish Borders Council, who have already cost taxpayers millions of pounds over their bungled handling of a 24-year waste management contract, are expected to rubber stamp plans for an extra £4.5 million of capital expenditure later this week in a bid to clear up their own ordure (rough translation - administrative mess).

The preferred solution will have revenue implications of £60.6 million over the next 15 years, and will require consent to borrow even more cash to cover the cost of a scramble to comply with Scottish Government and EU landfill regulations.

On top of the financial burden, the recommended option drawn up by council officials and the obligatory expensive consultants can hardly be described as environmentally friendly for it involves taking all of the 43,000 tonnes of rubbish currently being landfilled near Galashiels out of the region for processing from 2017. That will require hundreds if not thousands of lorry movements producing sizable additional carbon emissions.

Yet none of this would have been necessary if an original contract with waste management firm New Earth Solutions (NES) to build a conventional treatment plant at Easter Langlee had been left in place. The facility would have been up and running by 2013 at the latest.

Instead, presumably on the advice of senior officers, the members unanimously decided in 2012  to gamble with millions of pounds of council taxpayers' money by changing the contract to include an untried and untested form of incineration which has proved to be useless. As a result the council's entire waste strategy had to be abandoned when the contract was scrapped in February. As one observer told us: "They'd have been as well taking our money into Ladbroke's".

The original procurement from NES, signed in 2010, would have diverted 80% of the Borders' black bin waste from landfill at Easter Langlee where there are major issues with methane emissions.

But now landfilling will continue at its unacceptably high rate until 2017 while a so-called waste transfer station is developed on the unused NES site at an estimated cost of £5.5 million. When other costs are factored into the equation the new "solution" is £4.569 million dearer than the existing waste management budget.

The report for Thursday's council meeting declares: "The development of a waste treatment facility in the Borders is not a viable option at the current time and an interim solution is required. The development of a permanent facility will be considered and evaluated during the development of the new waste management plan". However, it was a viable option until SBC messed up big style.

"Given prior experience the time frame available for designing, procuring and constructing a waste treatment facility, to ensure compliance with the landfill bans in January 2021, is considered to be high risk (i.e. too short) compared to that of a waste transfer station", the report adds.

So how much has been achieved and how much money has been poured down the drain during the last thirteen years since the need for a Borders plant was first recognised in 2002? The answers to those questions would appear to be nothing, and countless millions of pounds respectively.

The latest set of proposals - the umpteenth over the last thirteen years - are certainly given a positive gloss and spin despite the previous record of incompetence and inaction.

The report explains: "The closure and subsequent restoration of Easter Langlee landfill site will significantly reduce the volume of methane gas emitted from the landfill site. This will reduce the council's carbon emissions and will maximise the generation of green electricity from the landfill site.

"There will be carbon emissions from the alternative treatment technologies used to manage the council's waste. However these are likely to be significantly less than those associated with disposal of landfill as is currently the case."

But the document does concede the haulage of waste to facilities outwith the Borders will increase SBC's carbon footprint associated with vehicle movements. However the majority of the waste will be bulk hauled which will ensure vehicle movements will be kept to a minimum.

What are the chances of this cunning plan succeeding when all of its predecessors have failed? And will the Green lobby welcome the prospect of fleets of lorries uplifting waste from across the 1800 square miles of Borders territory, taking it to a central dump before another fleet of road vehicles haul it off to Dunbar or Edinburgh?

Watch this space.


Thursday, 20 August 2015

Sheep country will lose £65 million if Tories exit EU

by DOUGLAS SHEPHERD and our Investigations Unit

Common Agricultural Policy subsidies for farmers and rural businesses in the Scottish Borders and North Northumberland were worth a colossal £65,810,370 in 2014, according to figures compiled by Not Just Sheep & Rugby in the course of detailed investigations into EU payments.

The statistics are a stark reminder of the potentially devastating financial impact on Borders agriculture and development in the countryside should Britain leave the European Union in the wake of the Tory Government's "In-Out" referendum. Many of the subsidised businesses would struggle to survive without the financial support available via the CAP system.

Ironically, many of those who benefit from these Brussels funds are certain to be Conservative voters. So it will be interesting to see whether many or any of them campaign for a No vote whenever the referendum takes place. Could there be temporary defections within the farming community to the SNP or one of the other political parties in favour of hanging on to our membership of the European club?

According to tens of thousands of subsidies listed on a UK Government website a substantial number of the payments to British farmers run into six figures. That is certainly the case in areas with TD and EH45 postcodes which cover the Borders and Berwick-on-Tweed areas.

The details included on the DEFRA website relate to all CAP subsidy payments made to beneficiaries during the EU financial year 16 October 2013 to 15 October 2014. We are told: "The UK Government remains committed to full transparency in the use of public funds, including the publication of details about all payments made under the CAP."

So Not Just Sheep & Rugby thought it would be in the public interest to assemble figures for each of the Borders postcode sectors, including details of some of the larger payments, although the list is by no means comprehensive. It does give an idea of the contribution CAP payments are making to the regional economy. The figures are in £ sterling and are not necessarily listed in order of value.

GALASHIELS (TD1) - total payments - £3,517,922; including L G Litchfield (Bowland) 378,366; T & J Elliot 162,049; T Elliot (Bedshiel) 127,391; J G Runciman 100,102; J Runciman & Sons 108,030; J Runciman (Lugate) 109,156; A & E Brown 141,423; Southern Upland Partnership 168,000; William Montgomery 195,477.

LAUDER (TD2) - total payments £2,261,345; including Firm of Sutherland 183,517; Huntington Partnership 132,027; W H Sharp & Son 160,093; W Runciman 105,943; William Barr & Company 190,388.

GORDON (TD3) - total payments £2,141,564; including G McDougal (Bassendean) 338,385; Haddington Farms 164,271; J & T MacFarlane 736,918; R W Morris & Company 170,374.

EARLSTON (TD4) - total payments £1,288,565; including Fans Farming 235,614; J W Fullerton & Sons 225,597; Hamish Morison Farming 145,534; R & J Scott Aiton 165,757.

KELSO (TD5) - total payments £10,305,529; including C M Goodson 157,622; Balgonie Estates 233,023; Floors Farming 329,949; H H Robson & Co 111,794; J S Baird & Son 115,096; Kames Partnership 123,488; Lochtower Ltd 146,654; D & DWD Thomson 191,053; J Jeffrey 218,477; J Neil & Son 162,450; TDC Thomson 159,768; T H Brewis 139,593; Ninewells Farms 145,714; Oxnam Estates 136,150; Playfair Farms 182,352; R H Bell 118,194; T W & T B Edgar 328,470; The Oliver Family LLP 206,791.

MELROSE/ST BOSWELLS (TD6) - total payments £2,608,321; including George Marshall 109,928; F & C M Forster 105,669; Mertoun Estates 201,924; Malcolm Stewart 124,403; Maxwell (Faughhill) 162,145; Riddell Farms 124,849; T D Wight 106,100.

SELKIRK (TD7) - total payments £4,661,694; including BQ Farming Partnerships 281,171; Eckford Farming Ltd 192,022; Langholm Farms Ltd 277,468; John White & Sons 103,123; MacDonald Partners 129,942; Matinley Farms 119,943; W J Coltherd 111,720; Sir F M Strang Steel 152,304; Swinside Farming 129,573; T REnwick & Sons 142,812; W N Douglas 220,405.

JEDBURGH (TD8) - total payments £4,618,173; including Borders Forest Trust 194,864; Fenwick Jackson 126,181; Nisbet Mill Farm 218,381; A & A Scott 170,677; R G Barbour & Sons 252,013; R Tile 121,719; Robert Neill & Partners 191,158; Scottish Borders Brewery 154,032; The Firm of Samieston 100,118.

HAWICK (TD9) - total payments £7,937,831; including A R Bell & Son 132,956; H & C J Usher 110,347; H & M Farms 250,219; Hallrule Farms 107,509; W W Dunlop & Son 129,688; Mrs L Townsend 155,737; R J Feakins 204,864; T W Tennant 153,228; W R Girvan (Berryfell) 180,449; W S Davies & Son 149,443.

DUNS (TD10) - total payments £1,887,061; including J C and K C Constable 195,643; John Cavers & Son 111,094; John Mitchell & Co 166,192.

DUNS (TD11) - total payments £8,290,984; including A & G Rodger 152,692; A M & A Calder 207,936; Charterhall Farms 132,162; Duncan Shell 206,054; Ellemford Farms 160,890; G W B Fullerton & Son 167,305; Harehead Farms 222,581; J J & H D J Dobie 144,125; L L MacVie & Co 111,392; MacFarlane Farms 413,594; A & J Hodge 139,525; R P Cowe 176,344; R & J McDonald 321,420; Robert Forrest Ltd 140,427; S White & Co 139,087; W B Prentice 116,613; West Weetwood Farming Partnership 129,487.

COLDSTREAM/CORNHILL (TD12) - total payments £1,250,377; including C A Ramsay 122,869; S & D Blaylock 134,141.

COCKBURNSPATH (TD13) - total payments £593,476; including J P H Wight 161,767.

EYEMOUTH (TD14) - total payments £1,819,099; including P T Edmonson 106,206; R H Allan 103,415; J Fullarton & Son 134,317.

BERWICK-ON-TWEED (TD15) - £8,361,954 paid to 193 beneficiaries.

PEEBLES (EH45) - total payments £2,338,979; including Haystoun 124,706; Glenrath Farms 130,134; J B Currie 124,248; J P Campbell & Sons 352,656.

*Footnote - Even Carola Godman Irvine, of Great Ote Hall, Sussex, who annoys a large proportion of the readership of the Southern Reporter each week with her extreme views on a host of issues including the current migrant crisis, is subsidised by European taxpayers. The payments register shows she received £38,936.15 from CAP sources in 2014 made up of £1,966 for "rural development" and £36,970 in direct aid.

This week the outspoken columnist - her links to the Southern's circulation area appear to be non-existent - is complaining because her cereal yields are so good there will be a glut of grain resulting in depressed prices. You win some you lose some Carola!

Monday, 17 August 2015

Recycling? Back pedalling more like!


Scottish Borders Council's recent pathetic performance on rubbish recycling plumbed new depths in the first quarter of 2015 with only 36.27 per cent of household waste not going to landfill. At the same time more than 63 per cent of Borders garbage was buried in the ground, attracting landfill tax of £80 per tonne.

But in publishing statistics which show recycling down by a full five per cent compared to the 41% which was being achieved 12 months ago the council claims to have saved £450,000 per annum by the controversial removal of garden waste collections.

At the same time the withdrawal of the green bins is said to be entirely to blame for the Borders recycling performance heading off in the wrong direction when set aside the achievements of most of the rest of Scotland where a number of innovative local authorities have managed to combine garden and food waste collections.

SBC is introducing the food waste caddies in a number of towns during 2015 after receiving a six-figure sum from Scottish Government sources to launch the new weekly service. But it does not appear that any other council in Scotland felt it necessary to deny taxpayers their valued garden waste kerbside collections to make way for food scraps uplifts.

One thing is certain. The council is paying much more landfill tax than necessary thanks to the bungled attempts over the last thirteen years to provide the region with a modern waste treatment facility. Had a Mechanical Biological Treatment plant been delivered at Easter Langlee then the revenue savings would undoubtedly have run into many millions of pounds by now. And still the wait for a waste treatment solution goes on.

If a "do nothing" scenario was unacceptable in 2009 when SBC set off on yet another fruitless journey, this time in pursuit of a disastrous contract with New Earth Solutions, how much less acceptable is the same scenario in 2015?

Yet another group of talking heads has been established at Newtown St Boswells to work on yet another integrated waste treatment plan. So will they opt for a new plant or could we end up with a situation whereby Borders waste is taken 50 miles by road (or perhaps rail) to Edinburgh or Dunbar for processing?

Another consideration is the prospect of landfill allowance scheme fines which still hang over all local authorities.

SBC is believed to have had a landfill allowance of 17,654 tonnes for 2013/14. But an annual household waste total of around 50,000 tonnes coupled with a landfill figure of 63.46% potentially exposes the Borders to EU fine of £2.23m (32,518 - 17,654 x £150).

Although the fines are currently suspended by the Scottish Government they can apply them if they wish. Ministers have previously indicated this may happen if councils do not take measures to treat waste and divert from landfill.

This is believed to have been the main driver - along with landfill tax - for procuring a treatment facility. So maybe the newly constituted waste management "committee" will get their skates on before those punitive financial penalties are introduced.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Easter Langlee revelations as losses continue to grow


The "pioneering" technology company which was supposed to provide the Scottish Borders with a state-of-the-art waste treatment plant at Easter Langlee believed a string of planned incinerators in the UK would generate in excess of £900 million of revenue in five years following a £150 million capital expenditure programme.

But while NEAT Technology Group was outlining these highly ambitious and undeliverable claims, the company was, at the same time, failing to convince Scotland's environmental watchdog that its 'revolutionary' pyrolisis and gasification processes were fit for purpose.

It has now been revealed that NEAT Technology - the business has since changed its name to Syngas Products Group Ltd - spent £20,300 in an unsuccessful bid to persuade the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) to vary an operating certificate for the Galashiels plant to allow the controversial energy recovery facility to be developed.

The application to SEPA was lodged in May 2013 by New Earth Solutions (Scottish Borders) Ltd, a £1 company set up by Scottish Borders Council's contractors to build the multi-million pound plant. But SEPA remained unconvinced the "cutting edge"technology was safe and suitable. The certificate had still not been issued when the application was withdrawn in February 2015 and SBC abandoned the deal having spent millions of pounds of public money on the failed venture.

During the 21 months of negotiations SEPA served three separate further information notices on the company and remained dissatisfied by limited emission data while also expressing concern over the potential noise impact of the whole Easter Langlee installation given its close proximity to housing.

Last month it was revealed the prototype plant at Avonmouth, near Bristol was performing so poorly that New Earth is in talks to sell it off to an Australian bank and an unnamed institution. The Group's controllers warned: "Given the continuing poor performance of Avonmouth ERF and the need for further significant capital expenditure, which still carries significant risk as to its ultimate success, the terms of any sale are unfortunately likely to be unfavourable for shareholders."

Further research by Not Just Sheep & Rugby shows that while the Galashiels project was still 'live' and after a delegation of Borders councillors and senior offices toured the Avonmouth plant in October 2014, NEAT Technology produced a glowing account of the future potential of their unproven energy recovery techniques.

The directors' report for the period June 2013 to June 2014 (lodged at Companies House in December 2014) proudly declared "[The company] is at the forefront of advanced thermal waste-to-energy technology delivering advanced thermal treatment of residual household and commercial waste. NEAT uses proven and patent protected technology developed for the recovery of renewable energy from waste."

Yet only two months after that report was written the Borders project was dead in the water. It again poses questions over the standard of the 'due diligence' carried out by SBC before, during and after the Avonmouth trip at taxpayers' expense.

But NEAT's claims did not stop there. The report explained the Avonmouth plant would yield significant cost reductions in 2014/15 and in future years, and provide NEAT with a strong royalty income stream.

Following Avonmouth's completion NES was planning to roll out renewable energy recovery to all of its existing and proposed waste treatment sites using NEAT technology. A second incinerator would be built at Avonmouth together with similar facilities at Canford (Dorset) and at Galashiels.

According to the extremely upbeat report: "In total, NES Group's current waste treatment facilities have the potential to supply 40 megawatts of renewable energy. This will require substantial capital expenditure of £150 million with the potential to generate a renewable energy business with revenues in excess of £900 million over the next five years."

It seems those involved in the Borders waste treatment project, including "experts" who cost the council hundreds of thousands of pounds in consultancy fees were firmly convinced by NEAT's own publicity. Perhaps SBC should try to recover the taxpayers' money squandered on engaging so-called environmental, technical and legal wizards to serve on their project team.

It is unclear whether SBC bothered to read NEAT Technology's 2013/14 accounts which accompanied the predictions of such a rosy future. If they had taken the trouble to scrutinise the books they might have noticed that the company had recorded a whopping £7.986 million loss on the year.

But that did not prevent NEAT from shelling out "directors' emoluments" of £1.354 million to the five members of the board. The highest paid director received £231,000 but the Group loss after tax stood at £13.907 million with a shareholders' deficit of £13.897 million recorded.

Syngas Products does not appear to have modified its claims for the incineration methods that have resulted in huge problems for NES at Avonmouth. Today the "new" company's website tells potential customers and investors: "Syngas Products (formerly NEAT Technology) is at the forefront of advanced thermal waste-to-energy technology delivery".

Now where have we heard that before? It's to be hoped potential buyers of the risky technology are less gullible than SBC.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Expensive ego trip wrapped in a shroud


The lack of adequate documentation and a foreshortened consultation period has left angry opponents of the highly expensive Great Tapestry of Scotland venture by Scottish Borders Council seething and frustrated.

Written objections to the council's own planning application for a £4.5 million custom-built tapestry centre at Tweedbank must be lodged with the council by August 20, with the council deciding whether to grant itself approval for the costly scheme as early as next month. In the words of Littlejohn, of the Daily Mail, "you couldn't make it up".

SBC's unique dual role in this case - judge and jury - means they've already decided an Environmental Statement is not needed even though their chosen site for the building will involve riding roughshod over and through a Tree Protection Order they imposed themselves less than ten years ago. No less than 123 fine trees will require felling. Would a private developer be afforded this kind of special treatment?

 A pre-application consultation report has been rendered surplus to requirements while the normal three month period allowed for the lodging of submissions on major applications has also been set aside.

Nevertheless, a steady trickle of letters of objection is finding its way onto the planning department's web pages with a fair number of opponents letting off steam by telling the council exactly what they think of their financially risky proposals to house the tapestry near the southern end of the Borders Railway. At the time of writing support from members of the general public seems non-existent.

A detailed appraisal of the "flawed" planning application by Mr Jonathan Parrott FRICS, from West Linton, sums up the feelings of many of us who would rather see SBC allocating resources to essential services. Unfortunately the council appears to have taken its eye off the ball so far as the delivery of those core services are concerned.

As Mr Parrott says: "I have previously made public my objections to the scheme on the basis of cost to the public purse and investment based upon a questionable business plan." And so say nearly all of us!

But he goes on to point out the many aspects relating to the detailed planning application which raise important questions, and where the data employed or building construction proposals are flawed.

In an eloquent four-page submission, Mr Parrott claims: "I feel that SBC and their architects Page Park (PP) are paying an element of lip service to some of the processes involved in progressing the scheme."

In a reference to the wooded area which will have to be cleared to facilitate the large new building alongside Tweedbank's industrial estate, Mr Parrott points out: "It cannot be acceptable for SBC to be supporting the wholesale removal of many fine specimens of deciduous and less usual evergreen trees.

"PP do themselves no credit by inferring that the loss of ash trees is acceptable because they will only go through (ash) die-back anyway. What sort of attitude is it that permits this wanton vandalism in the name of an ego-driven project?"

He is also less than complimentary about the design of the proposed tapestry centre, likening the exterior to a merry-go-round, and dismissing it as a building with no merit.

Mr Parrott continues: "The creation of a status building in this location is truly the making of a silk purse from a sow's ear. And one feels that the various consultants supporting this expensive misadventure are, to borrow another euphemism, exploiting SBC's tendency to see itself as the Emperor with a set of new clothes".

One can only agree with Mr Parrott that the application should be refused, or at the very least be passed back for re-submission. As he observes: "Too many fundamental requirements for a democratic consideration of such an expensive development have not been complied with.

"This undistinguished building will be located in an entirely inappropriate location. This whole venture is driven by some massive egos with no respect for the ultimate payer, the general public."

We can only hope the Emperor and his entourage treat Mr Parrott's letter with the respect it deserves before deciding to abandon their folly even if it means the Borders misses the chance to accommodate a tourist attraction of doubtful value.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Can I have that in writing?

DOUG COLLIE on how a Scottish council doesn't seem to bother recording important events

Fourteen years after receiving a public tongue lashing from Parliamentarians for failing to record top level discussions in writing, Scottish Borders Council's members and senior officers continue to conduct verbal briefings which are not minuted and therefore cannot be cited at a future date.

Last week a Freedom of Information requester who asked for copies of reports, minutes and other papers linked to the council's decision to terminate its disastrous waste treatment contract with New Earth Solutions was told that committees were given briefings on the subject, but those briefings were "verbal in nature" and there was no written record.

It is the latest in a string of high profile events which have not warranted the council's clerks putting pen to paper so that discussions, contractual agreements or decisions could be questioned or quoted 'down the line'.

Some would say this risky practice of relying on word of mouth or on the memories of those present at these verbal interchanges is fraught with danger, and at the same time conveniently absolves elected members of their important duty of accountability.

And yet given the events of 2001 when SBC's gross over-spending on its education budget provoked a full-scale investigation by the Scottish Parliament, many might have thought it essential that copious notes should be taken of all future meetings and briefings.

During an evidence session in December 2001 before the Education, Culture & Sport Committee, chaired by Jedburgh-born Labour MSP Karen Gillon, representatives of all political parties expressed dismay and alarm after being told that important discussions about the crisis had not been recorded in writing.

Labour's Frank McAveety asked former Borders education committee chairman David Suckling: "Were questions or actions recorded in the council minutes? One of the problems is the lack of clarity on how things were recorded".

He was told by Mr Suckling: "Responses were almost always not recorded. I am very impressed with the verbatim report of all meetings here (the Scottish Parliament). The council to which I belong does not have such a report. I do not have a list of the questions that were asked during meetings".

Murray Tosh, for the Conservatives, said he did not expect the convener of the committee to keep notes, but he would have expected a clerk or assistant clerk to keep notes of questions that were asked and answered.

An incredulous Ian Jenkins (Liberal Democrat) declared: "You mentioned you were aware that discussions between various officials were taking place. But it appears these discussions were not noted and there was no record of their taking place. Do you see the fact that those discussions were not recorded as an important error?"

And Ms Gillon chipped in with: "To an outsider Scottish Borders Council's internal workings are confusing, especially as there is no written record".

There was another convenient outbreak of the verbals when SBC responded to a Freedom of Information request in 2012 after Mr Raymond Dorricott asked for the date on which former Chief Executive David Hume intimated he would be leaving the local authority. A simple question,surely.

But no. The council notified Mr Dorricott that, in fact, there was no written record of the date on which their chief informed them of his intention to go.

When the responder referred the case to Rosemary Agnew, the Scottish Information Commissioner, for investigation SBC advised her that Mr Hume notified them verbally and that no notes, emails or minutes recording details of this discussion were held. A strange way to run the largest "business" in the Scottish Borders you might think.

But SBC went on to tell Ms Agnew that Mr Hume had retired under the Voluntary Service Agreement, but did not submit an application form as part of the process. The council also advised that there was no requirement for staff to put notice of their intention to cease being an employee in writing. Sounds incredible. "I've had enough, I'm off", and that's your contract of employment immediately declared null and void.

Little wonder Ms Agnew wrote in her decision report: "The Commissioner finds it reasonable for members of the public to hold the expectation that such information would be recorded, and finds it surprising that no formal record appears to have been made by the council with regard to its former chief executive informing it of his intention to cease employment." Another rebuke which appears to have gone unheeded.

Presumably there is a written record of Mr Hume's severance package which is said to have included £103,174 compensation for loss of employment, a pension lump sum of £136,392 and an annual pension of £50,374.

This recurring lack of attention to written detail seems certain to throw up unnecessary problems and issues for the council going forward.

In fact the lack of a written contract over a six year period with SBC's chosen digitiser of paper pension records DID cause an enormous amount of grief in 2011/12 after he dumped hundreds of records in a skip, and the local authority was "charged" with breaches of the Data Protection Act.

A £250,000 fine imposed by the Information Commissioner was only overturned after SBC forked out more than £40,000 of public money for specialist lawyers and expert witnesses. But the tribunal judgement records: "He (the contractor) had worked with SBC from 2005 to 2011 yet there was no written processing agreement between the parties obliging him to comply with the council's instructions and to apply appropriate security measures to the data."

Surely it is time that SBC and all other public bodies are ordered to compile a full written record of all meetings and briefings, thereby removing the handy "verbal discussions" cop-out once and for all.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

The future's so bright you'll need...

EWAN LAMB on the familiar winners from Viasystems' disappearance

"We are thrilled with where we stand at this point and we are excited about the opportunity in front of us", declared an American electronics executive this week after his debt-ridden company took over the equally debt-ridden empire that was Viasystems.

Those words uttered by Tom Edman, president and chief executive officer of TTM Technologies, during a US conference call on Wednesday could have been lifted from an almost identical declaration 18 years ago when a bunch of Yanks hellbent on making a fast buck took control of highly profitable Forward Group's printed circuit board (PCB) factories in Galashiels and Selkirk.

In 1997 the hardworking Borderers who had turned Exacta Circuits into a global success story were told their futures were so bright they'd need to wear shades. But as we recalled a few days ago, less than a year later the top brass from Viasystems would asset strip the Borders factories and leave more than a thousand skilled workers jobless and extremely angry.

There was no mention this week that TTM's acquisition of Viasystems would mean cuts in the combined workforce of 30,000. But pundits believed redundancies will be necessary if the newly created giant is to achieve its goal and save $55 million dollars a year.

However, it has emerged that several of the influential figures who brought economic misery to sheep and rugby country in the late 1990s have "done good" from the TTM/Viasystems deal. The names Hick, Muse and Sindelar will remain in the memory of many of their Borders 'victims' who were sacrificed in the campaign to gain world domination of PCB manufacturing.

TTM paid $368 million for Viasystems along with another $559 million to cover the company's huge debt mountain. In doing so TTM pushed their own level of indebtedness up by $884 million to an eye-watering $1.1 billion. Viasystems shareholders received $11.33 dollars per share together with 0.706 of a share in TTM.

Hicks Muse & Partners, the investment house which funded the now defunct Viasystems during their Borders rampage - they went on the heap further misery on communities across Europe - held ten million shares (48% of the total) in the resurrected version of Viasystems at the time of the takeover. So their holding was worth $113 million and they were also entitled to seven million shares in TTM.

David Sindelar, directly involved in the industrial carnage in Galashiels ans Selkirk - he was chief financial officer of the St Louis, Missouri outfit and a director of Exacta Circuits in 1997/98 - is now head honcho at Viasystems. According to information filed at the US Securities and Exchange Commission he owned 601,861 Viasystems shares when the deal with TTM was negotiated. So that's another $6.819 million towards his pension pot.

Little wonder there is a pervading smell of positivity oozing out of the new conglomerate which bears the name of TTM. Even the Viasystems website has been amended to become "TTM Technologies. Formerly Viasystems". Perhaps that name will soon be (deservedly) consigned to the dustbin of history.

A distinctly upbeat Mr Edman told the conference call: "The combined company is entering its third month and we are already beginning to see tangible evidence that the capabilities and scale that we now possess are allowing us to add value to our customers with a broader technology profile.

"The integration process is proceeding on track and we are excited about the opportunity in front of us. Our message to employees from day one of the acquisition has been to remain focused on execution on behalf of our customers".

Perhaps the 30,000 fortunate enough to be working for TTM will need those shades after all!

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

It must be tough at the top!

OSSIE SHEARER on yet another worrying week for Viasystems workers

Just as hundreds of employees in the Scottish Borders electronics industry did seventeen years ago, thousands of workers on the Viasystems payroll are this week probably agonising over their own futures amid fears of yet another workforce cull.

We recently reported on the takeover of the US printed circuit board makers by another American outfit, TTM Technologies from California in a $927 million deal which has created a global giant with a joint team of 30,000 workers. This week the new best buddies will reveal details of what the merger might mean for stakeholders.

But with some of their production processes said to be "over-lapping" it is feared jobs will be lost as they pursue their dream of saving $55 million dollars as a direct result of their partnership. It will all sound more than a little familiar to the one thousand former Viasystems workers in Selkirk and Galashiels and hundreds more on Tyneside who were victims of the ruthless "casino capitalists" in the 1990s.

As well as closing factories and leaving local politicians to tackle the economic problems created by their heartless working practices, Viasystems executives, including current chief David Sindelar, also left without repaying £17 million of Regional Selective Assistance funding handed to them by a gullible UK Government. No effort was made to recover the cash.

The new generation of Viasystems workers who wonder what this week might hold have been expressing strong view on US websites. One wrote: "Viasystems merger with TTM Technologies=DOOM" If only social media had been around in 1998...what would the hard working Borderers have said about the uncaring attitude of their filthy rich bosses?

Other internet posters claim: "Management force employees to work a seven day schedule", and "Management is smug and don't care about their people" or "Since day one I have worked six days a week - five 10-hour shifts and a 12 hour. Realise your employees have lives and families and this is the cause of your high turnover rates. Zero leadership - no vision. Borderline sweatshop mentality."

Viasystems has already paid out millions of dollars to departing workers in the form of severance packages. But it is to be hoped that any deals which flow from the merger with TTM leave redundancy victims better off than British workers who fell by the wayside when the company shut up shop here. Many of them received next to nothing.

A well-timed bankruptcy in the 1990s meant some ex-employees who were entitled to between £12,000 and £35,000 each ended up with two or three-pence in the pound because they were classed as unsecured creditors by the liquidators. So a £16,870 severance package became £386 overnight.

While legal actions were raised by trade unions in a bid to secure a better deal for devastated workers facing a bleak future Viasystems chairman Tom Hicks was shelling out £450 million to buy Liverpool FC.

Graeme McIver, from Galashiels, worked for Viasystems and its predecessors in the Borders for 13 years. He was the senior staff shop-steward for the Transport and General Workers Union at both plants and was the media spokesperson during the workers battle to keep the factories open. He contacted us after our previous Viasystems article.

He told us: " The effect of the closure was not just to strip over 1,000 people of their immediate livelihoods but to deprive future generations the opportunity to continue earning decent wages in a skilled manufacturing environment. Whilst it is true that the bulk of former workers were able to find alternative employment, it is unlikely that the majority ever managed to earn similar levels of pay.

"I know from my own experience that employment in the Borders tends to be low-paid, temporary or zero-hour contracts, a lack of trade-union recognition and consequently poor work-place conditions. This has a detrimental knock on effect onto the local economy and restricts job opportunities for young people, many of whom have to leave the area to seek decent employment."

Graeme described the owners of Viasystems as casino capitalists who deliberately and systematically abused and exploited weak employment laws and government grant assistance to facilitate the asset stripping of the Borders plants. In turn they planned to increase profits by exploiting the low regulation, poor health and safety provision and poverty wages of workers in Mexico and China to keep the cash rolling in. He said: "To me they are beneath contempt".

But while lowly production staff may be about to suffer once more at the hands of their management, the men at the top of the Viasystems empire will feel no financial pain even if they are affected by the TTM takeover.

It turns out that on the day the deal was announced Viasystems board of directors approved the setting up of a pool of $1,189,150 to pay cash bonuses to "designated officers and key employees" once the merger deal was delivered.

New deals for David Sindelar and two senior colleagues means he is entitled to $9.1 million if the axe falls in the wake of the takeover. In addition he would also continue to receive his $920,000 a year salary (plus expenses) for 18 months.

It really is tough at the top.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Tweedbank safari next for Minnesota dentist?

DOUG COLLIE brings you the story our rivals wouldn't touch!

Walter Palmer, the US dentist who has become a hate figure after shooting Cecil the lion with a bow and arrow in Zimbabwe is to be offered the chance to salvage his shattered reputation by an irate group of Borders council taxpayers.

Palmer, from Minnesota, has already slaughtered 43 wild animals in big game expeditions around the world. His trophy cabinet includes Paula the polar bear, Robbie the rhino, Laurie the leopard, Bobby the bison, Sammy the stag and Eddie the elk.

One of the hunter's unfulfilled ambitions is to bring down a massive elephant. But so far big game companies in Africa and India have been unable to find one large enough to satisfy Palmer's blood lust and sense of adventure.

Now Scottish Borders objectors to a multi-million pound project by their local council want to invite Palmer to realise his dream by leading a safari to the wilds of Tweedbank in search of Tapp Estry the white elephant. But time is short as conservationists at the local authority plan to splash out more than £5 million of public cash to provide the endangered species with a compound where Tapp Estry would become a tourist attraction and a figure of fun at the same time.

Not Just Sheep & Rugby has been told by one respected linguist that Tapp Estry is Swahili for 'Money's No Object'. Opponents of the project plan to launch an appeal to raise funds to offer Palmer a bounty to shoot the white elephant before it can be corralled in a lavish pen which is currently the subject of planning permission.

The site at Tweedbank is presently afforested and, ironically, is protected by a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) approved by councillors in September 2006. The maximum penalty for illegal works affecting a protected tree is £20,000 although the general feeling is the local authority will find a way to by-pass or even circumvent their own TPO as the construction of Tapp Estry's enclosure would involve the felling of scores of the protected trees.

A spokesman for the protestors told us: "At this stage we cannot say whether the giant Tapp Estry is at large in those woods. But if he is then Mr Palmer would be doing us all a favour by knocking it off with his bow and arrow. We may consider asking the Royal Company of Archers to accompany Walter on safari."

It is understood a special export licence will be required from Scottish Government officials to allow Mr Palmer to take the white elephant's head and hide out of the country.

The spokesman for the group who want Tapp Estry exterminated commented: "Surely the head of a white elephant on the wall of Mr Palmer's trophy room would be the ultimate achievement. He might even be persuaded to hang up his crossbow for good, thereby reducing the threat to the earth's entire wildlife population."

After accomplishing his mission at Tweedbank Mr Palmer may be invited to head a second expedition into the dangerous Gala Policies to find and destroy Peter the panther. Several sightings of the black Big Cat have been reported in the Border Telegraph, although sceptics claim it may be the figment of editorial imagination during the so-called 'silly season'.

An unofficial spokesperson for the council who did not wish to be named said: "We may have slashed the budgets of all the essential services we deliver, but having somehow magicked well over £5 million out of thin air to pay for Tapp Estry's cage, nothing will stand in our way. The railroad is about to reach the deep south and we need a major visitor attraction if it is to have any chance of being profitable.

"Now that we are aware of the invitation being extended to Mr Palmer we may decide to rush the planning application through with undue haste. I believe it's already been decided not to bother with an environmental impact study despite Tapp Estry's status and the high landscape value of the habitat chosen for him.

"It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that snipers may be deployed on Broomilees Bridge by the Tweedbank roundabout to take out Palmer and his party should they decide to proceed with their safari."

Saturday, 1 August 2015

'Incineration a technology of the past'

EWAN LAMB reports on more reaction to the sale of Avonmouth

The high risk thermal treatment techniques sanctioned by Borders councillors for a waste processing facility at Galashiels represent technologies of the past rather than the future, according to a leading anti-incineration network.

Meanwhile a highly respected waste management expert has told Not Just Sheep & Rugby that the decision by Scottish Borders Council to vary a long-term contract with New Earth Solutions in 2012 to include the unproven methods of incineration had been "a complete disaster" for the Borders.

These are the latest reactions to reach us following the disclosure that NES is selling off its "ground breaking" Avonmouth Energy Recovery Facility (ERF) after failing to sort out numerous technical problems at the plant. It was to be the forerunner of a similar disposal centre to serve the Borders until the council voted to extricate themselves from the deal in February after squandering millions of pounds on planning the project and commissioning expensive 'specialist' advice.

New Earth had hoped their ERFs at Avonmouth and Easter Langlee would generate further income from electricity sales and renewable energy subsidies in the form of so-called obligation certificates.

But following the seemingly insurmountable difficulties at Avonmouth - the plant requires substantial further investment if it is to become viable - NES now hopes to sell off the energy business to a bank and an institution at a considerable loss to shareholders and investors. Instead the Borders' preferred bidders say they will form a stand-alone waste business which hopes to export Refuse Derived Fuel to be burned in Germany. A waste industry insider described the latest moves as "a complete and utter shambles".

Shlomo Dowen, national coordinator of the United Kingdom Without Incineration Network (UKWIN) told us: "New Earth Solutions seems to have found only problems and not solutions when it came to experimenting with gasification and pyrolysis incineration technologies."

Their latest candid and somewhat apologetic statement to shareholders acknowledged that the technologies continued to carry substantial risk, said Mr Dowen.

He added: "Even if it could somehow be made to work, this would be a technology of the past rather than one of the future. As a society we need to be reducing waste and increasing recycling, rather than finding risky and expensive ways to dispose of valuable resources.

"As such, the company owes a double apology to those who have financed and subsidised this venture."

The waste management specialist who offered us his opinion claimed Scottish Borders Council's decision to vary the contract with NES had been a complete disaster for SBC. The original deal signed in 2011 had given NES eight years to develop the ERF technology due to its immaturity at a time when it had still to be proven to be viable.

It seemed there had only been a six per cent difference in guaranteed diversion rates (from landfill) between just having the Mechanical Biological Treatment facility at Galashiels (80 per cent) and having both the MBT and ERF capabilities (86 per cent). The MBT, which was fully tried and tested, and received all of the necessary operating certificates, would have been viablke on its own.

He said: "Having read the note to shareholders, it re-enforces how well NES are at normal waste disposal operations; hence this is why the original contract will have focused only on the MBT."

Our expert commentator said NES was struggling to get the ERF to perform to acceptable levels although he was unable to offer an opinion as to whether NES could survive going forward.

But he added: "Even if NES had built the MBT at Easter Langlee and then gone bust, the facility would have reverted to the council to operate or to have an alternative operator, probably at no additional cost. The sad thing is the cost of waste disposal will cost SBC millions more in the future."