Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Drastic loss of traffic from A68 hitting Jedburgh economy


The deliberate downgrading of the A68 road south of Jedburgh by successive UK Governments over the last decade is having a devastating impact on traffic volumes using one of the country's most scenic highways, according to research by Not Just Sheep & Rugby.

Official figures suggest the average daily flow of cars passing through Jedburgh slumped by a massive 35% between 2004 and 2014 while total traffic numbers fell by 28.7% in the same period.

There can be no doubt that a decrease of 1461 cars per day using the section of A68 through the royal burgh must be having a dramatic impact on local businesses with an accompanying negative hit on tourism. The figures mean that potentially over 534,000 fewer vehicles a year are arriving in Jedburgh than was the case in 2004.

This disturbing downward spiral comes in the wake of the move in 2004 to remove trunk road status from the A68 south of the England-Scotland Border at Carter Bar. The baffling decision was taken by the London-based Department of Transport even though the Scottish Government continued to regard the road as a key cross-border route and preserved its trunk road ranking. That remains the crazy and illogical position to this day.

Then the A68 was hit by a second legislative hammer blow in 2011 when the same English government department decided the route was "unsuitable for inclusion" on a list of so-called Strategic National Corridors (SNC) linking northern England and Scotland. This time the A1 was selected for preferential treatment, and drivers were advised to use it rather than the A68.

Now the full effects of those moves are being felt. The UK Traffic Data tables record a huge drop in the average daily number of cars travelling past the Jedburgh census point from 4162 in 2004 to just 2701 in 2014. The count for all forms of motor vehicles is down from 5103 to 3635.

Meanwhile, in the same ten-year period the A1 counter at Berwick-on-Tweed showed a 65% increase in the average daily number of cars passing through, up from 5258 in 2004 to 8775 in 2014. Total traffic at this census point shot up by 57% from 7506 to 11,805.

And the nearest trunk route to the A68 - the A7 from Longtown to Edinburgh - also recorded a healthy increase in traffic at its Hawick counting point.

Here the daily average for cars went up from 5857 in 2004 to 6657 in 2014 (+13.6%) while total traffic showed a 22.6% increase from 7102 to 8713.

Despite its stunning scenery and the panoramic views across the south of Scotland from the Border crossing at Carter Bar, the A68 does not merit inclusion on VisitScotland's list of 12 national tourist routes.

However, the A7 through Langholm, Hawick, Selkirk and Galashiels is promoted as the Borders Historic Route "for the most picturesque journey". That, of course, is a matter of opinion.

The slow death of the A68, perpetrated by civil servants in faraway London, is undoubtedly a key factor in the decline of average weekly retail footfall in Jedburgh. The numbers have fallen from 2920 in 2007 to 2460 in 2015...the lowest level of potential shoppers ever recorded, and down by 15.7% over eight years.

The treatment meted out to the A68 by Government in recent times and the lack of promotion and support by various agencies can best be summed up as a disgrace. Perhaps the time has come to form a Friends of the A68 in a bid to reverse the fortunes of this spectacular cross-border highway. If nothing is done then the impact on Jedburgh, hotels, shops and craft businesses will be extremely far reaching.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Bristol trip little more than a junket


A publicly funded trip to Bristol by a party of twelve councillors and six highly paid officials, which cost Borders council taxpayers almost £4,000, appears to have achieved virtually nothing following the revelation that no notes relating to the visit were taken and not a single report was generated after the junketeers returned home.

The huge group from Scottish Borders Council (SBC) spent a night at an upmarket Bristol hotel (cost £2,283) before being taken on a guided tour of New Earth Solutions' (NES) waste treatment plants at Avonmouth which should have provided the template for a similar facility at Easter Langlee on the outskirts of Galashiels.

But at the end of the day NES could neither fund the Borders project nor prove their brand of technology was fit for purpose. The fiasco resulted in the (admitted) loss of £2.4 million by SBC, money which has been written off without any public apology or explanation.

So what exactly was the purpose of the 'jolly' to south-west England in October 2014? Attempts to extract information about the trip via the Freedom of Information route have been ongoing for almost a year with the council determined to keep this and other aspects of their bungling well away from the public gaze.

Now, the results of a lengthy investigation by Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew, have been released. She has ordered SBC to provide the requester with a limited amount of additional information.

 Her decision notice has confirmed that on this occasion - as on so many others involving SBC - there are no written records of the visit on the council's NES file. It is a situation which stretches the bounds of credulity and means the local authority cannot be held to account under FOI legislation.

Such shoddy record keeping - if true - must also amount to extremely bad practice which should not be tolerated by national watchdogs such as Audit Scotland (AS). But when SBC's lack of written records on a number of fronts was raised with AS last September their response was decidedly laid back. They said: "It is for each council to determine the best way to share information, in some instances a verbal update may be more appropriate than a written one". What utter rubbish.

According to Ms Agnew's investigation report: "The investigating officer asked the Council to comment on why so few documents had been identified as falling within the scope of the [FOI] request, for example why none of it post-dated the visit.

"The Council explained that the Avonmouth trip was an information gathering and familiarisation event for councillors, to increase their base knowledge of the project and the proposed solution: a decision about the project was to be made at the beginning of 2015.

"The Council submitted that there were no minutes taken on the day or further meetings organised by officers to discuss the visit. The council maintained that it was for the individual members to use the insight provided by the trip as a firm grounding when considering the information and recommendations in the February 2015 report to the Council."

In the absence of any written documentation resulting from the jaunt to Avonmouth, how did the 22 elected members who did not get seats on the gravy train manage to join in the decision making process which resulted in a totally unanimous judgement to ditch NES and walk away from a £65 million contract?

And when asked in a separate FOI request for information contained in reports which led to the February 2015 decision, the council replied: "Other committees were given briefings in relation to the waste management project, but these briefings were verbal in nature and there is no written record".

No doubt the efforts to peel away the layers of secrecy around this disastrous episode in the annals of Borders local government will continue. And it is also a racing certainty that SBC will redouble its efforts to prolong the cover up. The public interest has not been well served in this tawdry affair.

An expert in local government procedures and practices told us: "I cannot believe they do not have notes from the visit or at least an agenda with discussion points. This visit would have been fundamental to the decision not to continue.

" The decision around why they agreed to weaken their position through varying the contract is equally baffling, and officers should be made accountable for this, as this is what left the local authority with limited options".

*For the record, those who took part in the beano at council taxpayers' expense without a pen between them were: Councillors - Davidson, Renton, Brown, Campbell, Ballantyne, Mountford, Scott, Gillespie, White, Edgar, Paterson and Parker. Officers - Tracey Logan, chief executive; Rob Dickson, project sponsor; Kirsty Robb, project accountant; Jenni Craig, project board member; Ewan Doyle, project manager and Ross Sharp-Dent, project board member.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Lessons learned not for public consumption


The results of a "lessons learned" workshop, held by Scottish Borders Council in the wake of their disastrous waste management contract with New Earth Solutions, are to remain a closely guarded secret despite the loss of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money.

A Freedom of Information request invited the local authority to provide copies of reports generated by the 'post-mortem' into the total failure by SBC and its contractors and funders to deliver a modern waste treatment facility at Easter Langlee on the outskirts of Galashiels.

The request also asked for details of all costs incurred by the council following the termination of the £65 million contract in February 2015. At least £2.4 million had been squandered on specialist lawyers, consultants and on internal costs by the time the technological and funding issues facing the project proved insurmountable.

Those additional costs so far total in excess of £50,000, including payments to at least four sets of consultants for advice on the formulation of a revised waste management strategy. Technical advice has cost the public purse £22,031, a financial consultancy has been paid £4,400, environmental specialists have picked up £4,069 while project management costs are stated to be £806. An item entitled internal fees comes to £6,922.

The closing down of the NES contract involved legal expenses of £6,627 and internal fees of £5,518. All of this on top of the £2.4 million spent prior to last February.

But there is to be no disclosure of the lessons learned by the council as a result of having their fingers burned by the waste incineration industry.

In their FOI response, the council confirms the lessons learned documentation is being withheld.

SBC adds: "The request involves making available internal communications. There is considerable public interest in applying the exemption in this particular case.

"The purpose of a lessons learned workshop is to critically analyse and examine the project to highlight any things that could or should have been done better, or differently, or not at all, or indeed identify other approaches which could have been taken."

However, the council claims such a process would only be effective and worthwhile if those participating were free to be open and honest and the information was able to be properly recorded for internal purposes on that basis.

According to SBC: "If it is likely that the contents of that debate or discussion will be released into the public domain, it would inevitably lead to those people being restrained in their communication and the workshop's effectiveness being significantly reduced as a result.

"The public interest in securing this free and frank internal communication outweighs any public interest in this particular information being released in this case".

A local government observer commented: "This is certainly a novel way of achieving a cover up. How can keeping this kind of information under wraps be in the public interest? If SBC has nothing to hide why are they frustrating efforts to get at the truth at every turn?"

Sunday, 13 March 2016

SBC's funders face day in Spanish court


The offshore finance Group selected by members of Scottish Borders Council to fund a multi-million pound waste management project is facing a six million euro writ from British ex-pats living in Spain who claim to have lost substantial sums of cash via an alleged fraudulent investment scheme.

Premier Group (Isle of Man) was supposed to provide the capital for a state-of-the-art facility at Easter Langlee, Galashiels, to deal with up to 55,000 tonnes of the region's garbage each year.

The money did not materialise, the project was dogged by insurmountable technological issues, and the contract between council and developers New Earth Solutions was abandoned in February 2015 after the local authority squandered at least £2.4 million of public money on the undeliverable scheme.

Premier's New Earth Recycling & Renewables Infrastructure PLC [NERR] is one of a range of different investment funds managed, controlled and administered from the Isle of Man. But according to documentation, the Group's ultimate parent company is based in the British Virgin Islands.

A confidential report approved by SBC members in March 2011 when the original contract for the waste plant was signed includes the following recommendation: "The Head of Legal & Democratic Service or the Clerk to the Council be authorised to execute the Direct Agreement with the Special Purpose Vehicle [New Earth Solutions (Scottish Borders) Ltd] and its funder (New Earth Recycling & Renewables Infrastructure PLC), the purpose of the Direct Agreement being to enable the funder to step in to assess and, if possible, rescue the project in circumstances where the council would otherwise have a right to terminate the contract."

Despite the fact that the contract was terminated over a year ago, SBC maintains that confidentiality clauses in their dealings with New Earth Solutions [and presumably Premier Group IOM] remain valid until 2021.

The Spanish legal action against Premier Group and an associate company Surrenda-Link Mortgage Funding is being conducted by lawyers on behalf of fourteen members of an organisation called Equity Release Victims' Association [ERVA].

The basis of the claim is that neither Premier nor Surrenda Link had permission to operate in Spain, and that they orchestrated the marketing and sale of a financial product for inheritance tax mitigation purposes.

A spokesperson for Lawbird, the Marbella-based law firm representing the interests of ERVA, told Not Just Sheep & Rugby: "The main allegations contained in the writ reveal a great deal of anxiety and worry, consistent with a very significant claim value of circa 6 million Euros".

The main purpose of the Premier product, sold with the name SITIRS [Spanish Inheritance Tax and Income Release Scheme] was to reduce or mitigate Spanish inheritance taxes.

The ERVA spokesperson explained: "According to Premier's lawyers, the SITIRS was devised and promoted by ‘another’ company called Premier Balanced Distribution Inc, based in British Virgin Islands, a revelation that logically exonerates them from any responsibility."

However, evidence is expected to be produced in court showing that both Premier companies were the same, having shared  offices, telephone and fax numbers and email and website addresses.

An interesting post on the ERVA website claims: " Such is the confidence of The Premier Group’s Spanish counsel that they liberally dub lawyers acting for the claimants as clumsy and inept.
What these lawyers have not realised is that the mastermind of this illicit tax-evasion mechanism, boasts the following on his website:
'2001 founded the forerunner fund group that became Premier and has been actively engaged in the design and management of many offshore funds. The Premier Group (Isle of Man) Limited (“Premier”) is the successor of a fund group established in 2001 and is responsible for designing, distributing and managing a range of investment funds to investment intermediaries and financial institutions throughout the UK and international markets.'

ERVA's spokesperson told us: "The judge fixed the date for the preliminary hearing of our case which was held on the 10th November 2015. That day, all the parties involved explained verbally their positions to the judge and proposed the evidences which supports their positions. The judge fixed the date for the second and final hearing of our case, which will be held [in Bilbao] on the 14th July 2016. We should receive a ruling a few months after this."

Friday, 11 March 2016

Viasystems takeover means hundreds of job losses



The ruthless experts in corporate greed who brought misery to scores of families 20 years ago when they closed local Viasystems electronics plants in Selkirk and Galashiels are still despised by those who suffered in the economic meltdown of the Scottish Borders.

But when Not Just Sheep & Rugby reported last year on the American company's apparent demise - it had been taken over by US rival TTM Technologies - it seemed the last chapter had been written in the tragic Viasystems saga. Surely the job cuts and lack of consideration for entire workforces would fade into history alongside the company's brutal management.

The first detailed report from TTM following the Viasystems acquisition shows that in fact factory closures and job losses on a massive scale seem set to continue across the globe as manufacturing capacity is trimmed and the never ending drive to deliver maximum profits at all costs remains the top priority.

Less than a year after the huge take over deal was completed, TTM is involved in "consolidation" plans which will see the closure of two plants in the USA and one in Mexico. It means another 550 employees of the Group will be thrown out of work on top of the 774 workers who were deemed surplus to requirements by TTM when the decision was taken to close a manufacturing facility in Suzhou, China.

Industrial action, including a work stoppage failed to avert that closure. It seems to have been a re-run of events in the Borders during the 1990s when political interventions and deputations to far away Missouri failed to make a jot of a difference. The fate of the workers in Selkirk and Galashiels lay in the hands of so-called casino capitalists who showed no flicker of emotion or compassion as their closures took effect.

TTM now generates $2.1 billion in annual sales, has control of 28 separate production centres in the Americas and China with a combined workforce of 29,000, including those who previously manned Viasystems' plants.

The acquisition cost TTM $248.8 million in cash, shares worth $149 million, and they assumed and refinanced Viasystems' crippling debts of $669 million. Now the TTM debt burden dwarfs that of Viasystems and stands at around $1.25 billion.

In a report filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), TTM warn prospective investors and shareholders: "We have substantial outstanding indebtedness, and our outstanding indebtedness could adversely impact our liquidity and flexibility in obtaining additional financing, our ability to fulfill our debt obligations and our financial condition and results of operations".

Those who lived through the Borders Viasystems nightmare may recall there were similar grave warnings about the business's debts shortly before the empire presided over by the notorious Mills brothers and their managers crashed into the American equivalent of liquidation. But it was not long before the same group of industrialists - give or take a few - were up and running with a set of new loans and a similar philosophy of ruthlessness towards their employees.

Perhaps things are no different at TTM for their executives, like those who presided over Viasystems, are expressing serious misgivings about significant increases in the minimum wage payable in various provinces of China where most of the company's manufacturing centres are located.

The report to SEC adds: "In addition, we have experienced very high employee turnover in our manufacturing facilities in China, generally after the Chinese New Year, and we are experiencing ongoing difficulty in recruiting employees for these facilities.

"Furthermore, labour disputes and strikes based partly on wages have in the past slowed or stopped production by certain manufacturers in China. In some cases, employers have responded by significantly increasing the wages of workers at such plants".

TTM confirm that their so-called consolidation plan involving factory closures is part of a strategy to improve total plant utilization, operational performance and customer focus following the Viasystems acquisition. But there is no expression of regret that 550 workers will lose their jobs by the time the plan is fully implemented in June 2016.

The matter-of-fact style of reporting reveals that during 2015 the company "recognized total restructuring charges of $7.4 million"

The report continues: "These charges primarily represent severance expense associated with the plan and other global realignment restructuring efforts. We estimate that we will incur total charges of approximately $10-15 million related to these closures. Additionally, our first quarter 2016 financial results will be negatively impacted as a result of the planned closure of these facilities".

That document with its complete lack of sentiment or sorrow could easily have been written by one of the Mills brothers or one of their cohorts who masterminded the Viasystems exercise which almost bled the Borders dry.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

No task force for these job losses

DOUG COLLIE reflects on well paid jobs being axed in the Borders

Recent job losses at Borders-based companies have been greeted with expressions of dismay from local politicians, with the obligatory task force deployed by Government in a bid to soften the blow for communities hit by the failure of businesses such as Hawick Knitwear Ltd.

There is no doubt that each manufacturing job lost is a hammer blow for the family concerned, at the same time eroding still further the spending power within the local economy and triggering the distinct possibility of the 'victim[s]' heading for pastures new in search of gainful employment.

The entire Borders economy is fragile enough without the continual decline in job opportunities, and the apparent inability or unwillingness of those in power to source and deliver major investment so that hundreds of skilled, well-paid posts can be attracted into the region. When was the last time a news conference was convened for a joyous announcement heralding the arrival of a major new player on the local industrial scene?

After all, it's not as though the textile barons still have the power to block alternative ways of earning a crust so that their Borders mills can maintain an exclusive grip on the pool of cheap, available labour. That kind of damaging influence surely dissolved several decades ago.

So much for the travails of the once dominant knitwear, spinning and weaving sectors.

There will be two more rounds of damaging job losses at the end of this month which may hardly merit a mention, and there certainly won't be a task force to pick over the debris. Yet in their own way the clutch of redundancies at Scottish Borders Council and at the Johnston Press newspapers in the Scottish Borders will have a long-lasting impact on earnings and opportunities for youngsters.

The local authority has signed off scores of early retirement packages over recent years at a cost running into many millions of pounds. According to senior officials still in situ the severance deals have the potential to save huge sums as previously indispensable posts are axed, never to be replaced.

This time six more leavers will go, costing the council £321,000 in severance pay and pension lump sums, but yielding a claimed annual saving of £274,000. One well placed officer will walk away with a deal worth £140,000.

A recent Freedom of Information request on this aspect of council procedure shows that already during the 2015/16 financial year five lucrative packages ranging in size from £67,000 to £103,600
have been tied up by volunteers seeking early departure.

The cull of council staff resulted in expenditure of £914,000 in 2013/14, just over £1 million in 2014/15 and £1,566,000 (so far) in the current financial year.

But while projected savings have been calculated there's no mention of the loss of opportunities for future generations of graduates and other job seekers who are forced to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

News is also filtering through this week of yet another round of staff cuts coming at Borders newspapers owned by the dysfunctional Johnston Press. The company has presided over a disaster of its own creation since acquiring the titles of family-owned weeklies during the 1990s, and things seem to go from bad to worse on a daily basis.

Some of the most dedicated, hard working and respected journalists and writers on the Borders press circuit are set to leave on March 31st following the latest invitation from their employers to take voluntary severance.

Despite their long-term commitment to the Fourth Estate - some have worked on their beloved papers since the 1970s - it is doubtful whether they will be able to command financial packages on a par with their local government counterparts.

How Johnston management plans to continue producing readable publications after their valuable gang of seniors departs the scene is a conundrum of their own making. But surely the fact that so many career journalists made it clear they wished to leave at precisely the same moment should have sent a message to the company hierarchy that they themselves are more than bit players in this business tragedy.

Now, those individuals still involved in the shrinking print press wonder whether all or any of the historic Borders newspaper titles in the Johnston stable can survive, let alone prosper.

The fewer local papers we have the less likely it is that local politicians, councillors and paid officials can be held to account or even be quizzed about their actions. And of course the chances for aspiring young journalists to get a foothold in the newspaper industry will diminish still further. However, those are not issues likely to be exercising the minds of the cut-crazy, bomb-proof executives in Johnston HQ.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Millions in the making? £10 to kill it off!



Borders councillors who gave "world-leading" technology their unanimous support less than three years ago after being told the business fronting the venture would deliver cheap power to hundreds of homes, schools and commercial premises in Galashiels may be unaware the firm concerned is to be struck off the Companies register.

The £10 fee required for the necessary paperwork to kill off Scottish Borders District Heating Company Ltd. will be the last financial outlay on a failed project which may have cost its parent group and Scottish Borders Council (SBC) a small fortune for the elaborate studies, research and negotiations carried out by consultants and local authority staff over two years.

The demise of the district heating company, part of the myriad of businesses which form New Earth Solutions Group (NES) is just the latest of SBC's disastrous waste management contract with NES which had to be abandoned a year ago because of insurmountable funding and technological issues.

However another NES creation, New Earth Solutions (Scottish Borders) Ltd, the special vehicle set up to build a multi-million pounds waste treatment plant at Easter Langlee remains on the Companies House list as an active concern despite the fact that the contract with SBC had to be torn up in February 2015.

The district heating scheme for Galashiels - to be powered by NES's thermal treatment plant - was acclaimed by members of SBC's planning committee when they considered an application in September 2013 even though at that time the form of technology to be incorporated at Easter Langlee was untried and untested. It subsequently turned out to be completely useless, and NES 'sold' it off for nothing during 2015.

At the time the proposals had not even received an operating permit from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA). And the 'pioneering' scheme had still not received SEPA approval by the time the contract hit the buffers, suggesting a possible lack of due diligence before the council put pen to paper.

Yet according to a report in the Border Telegraph published after the planning committee meeting several elected members lavishly praised the project. Councillor Michelle Ballantyne declared: "This is good for Galashiels, good for the Borders, and I am comfortable that we should support the application."

Fellow committee member Jim Fullarton said: "This is world-leading technology and deserves our full support". The state-of-the-art plant would, they were told, supply cut price heating to areas of Galashiels.

Details of the district heating scheme were contained in hundreds of pages of documentation which accompanied the permit variation application to SEPA. The project drivers were listed as fuel poverty, decentralised heat production, forecastable fuel prices and the need for 40% carbon reduction by 2020.

A separate Heat and Power Plan prepared in support of the application identified thirteen potential heat users and six "potential future heat off-take opportunities" within close proximity of the thermal treatment plant site.

This report identified possible users as homes under the control of three separate housing associations, Langlee Primary School and Scottish Borders College, Glenview Children's Home as well as various commercial properties. The list went on identify civic properties under the control of SBC and Heriot Watt University Residences.

Following the collapse of the entire "visionary" project it was probably just as well that up to 500 households on the Langlee estate and beyond were not totally reliant for their future energy needs on the about to become defunct Scottish Borders District Heating Company Ltd which remained dormant throughout its short, inactive life.