Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Power plant which wowed SBC delegation stays shut till 2018


The delegation of councillors and senior officers from Scottish Borders Council who returned from a fact finding mission to a pioneering energy-from-waste plant in 2014, and afforded the place 'rave reviews', may be embarrassed to learn that the entire facility will remain completely shut down until at least 2018 due to major technological issues.

The Avonmouth RDF (Refuse Derived Fuel), operated by the council's now bankrupt contractors New Earth Solutions had to be closed by its new owners in June 2016 after a pathetic performance record.

Avonmouth, near Bristol, uses the same form of incineration which was to have been installed in a £21 million waste treatment plant at Easter Langlee on the outskirts of Galashiels.

Borders council taxpayers, who lost at least £2.4 million thanks to SBC's mismanagement of the NES contract, may never know the reasons for such enthusiasm by their elected members as no written minutes or report exist about the "jaunt to Bristol".

However, only four months after the team returned home to the Borders their catastrophic deal with NES collapsed and the Easter Langlee project was abandoned. The only winners were the consultants and lawyers commissioned by SBC to facilitate the scheme. Edinburgh law firm Brodies WS walked away with £679,000.

The bottom line is that a form of waste to energy technology, signed up to by SBC in 2012 is still not fit for purpose five years later. We ask yet again what did the visit in 2014 achieve?

The latest chapter in the Avonmouth saga is revealed in a strategic report from Avonmouth Bio Power Ltd., the group which now owns the misfiring facility.

According to the document "The plant is an advanced thermal treatment facility capable of processing 120,000 tonnes per annum of RDF using staged pyrolysis and gasification technology. Uniquely the site also benefits from grandfathered double Renewable Obligation Credits (ROC) for processing organic waste until 2033".

But the inability to provide a consistent RDF has meant has always operated well below full capacity ever since it opened in 2013. So this unsatisfactory situation was being experienced during the SBC 'due diligence' tour.

The newly published report continues: "As a result throughput of RDF has not met the financial targets and the export of electricity has been significantly below expectations. Additionally, the costs of operating and maintaining the plant have risen due to the poor availability as a consequence of the out of specification of RDF".

The document, accompanied by a set of accounts, covers the seven month period up to August 31 2016. It states that an "improvement programme" resulted in material improvements, but these tended to be sporadic and short-lived.

"As a result, in June 2016 the Board decided that a more fundamental approach was required to resolve the continuing operational and financial issues being experienced by the plant. It was agreed to suspend activity in order to undertake a major redevelopment programme, designed to address operational problems, including the potential switch of fuel supply from RDF".

Implementation plans for the redevelopment are currently being finalised..."it is anticipated that these works will commence in 2017 and that operations at the plant may re-commence during 2018".

The Group's accounts show the company's net liabilities stand at £4.035 million and the Group has net liabilities of £6.343 million. The loss for the seven months was £620,000 which followed losses in the previous eight months of £5.723 million.

The plant generated only £505,000 worth of electricity, down from £780,000 in the preceding accounting period.

Avonmouth Bio Power Ltd has outstanding loans of over £25.8 million. A loan of £13.084 million which matures in July 2018, is owed to Cogen Ltd. A further loan of £12.796 million is owed to Aurium Developments Ltd with maturity due in July of this year. This advance carries an interest rate of 18%, and interest of £1.266 million accrued over the seven months.

A waste treatment incineration expert told us: "Interesting that they seem to be trying to make excuses for their failures, including the lack of 'in-specification' RDF which shows their facility is inflexible. Surely they should have known that mixed waste is not a consistent feedstock and that it is hard if not impossible to regularise it sufficiently for their intended purposes in any quantity".

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Another "poor outcome" for SBC


Scottish Borders Council has abandoned the contract procurement process for a multi-million pound waste transfer station on the outskirts of Galashiels as "the curse" of Easter Langlee strikes again.

Not Just Sheep & Rugby does not know how much the local authority has spent on consultants and on inviting firms to bid for the £4.8 million job since they advertised the contract in early December last year.

But a so-called Non-Award Contract Notice, posted on a Scottish Government website, confirms that none of the companies who may also have spent valuable time and money on the paperwork will be getting the lucrative deal.

The notice says the contract has not been awarded because of "discontinuation of procedure". At this stage it is unclear whether a new procurement process will be started, but this latest setback in the council's efforts to solve its pressing refuse disposal issues follows the bizarre pre-election decision by its own members to refuse planning permission for the controversial project.

There was a good deal of surprise when SBC went out to tender before formal approval for the station on the Easter Langlee disposal site was secured.

An appeal against refusal or the identity of an alternative site would have to be made before the scheme could proceed, causing further problematic delays as landfill deadlines approach.

The waste transfer station, where Borders rubbish would be stored before being taken by road out of the region for disposal was the chosen solution in the wake of the disastrous collapse of the £80 million management contract with now bankrupt New Earth Solutions.

NES were meant to build a £21 million garbage treatment facility on exactly the same spot as the planned waste transfer station. SBC spent at least £2.4 million of taxpayers' cash on that venture before it collapsed in disarray in February 2015.

A two-year investigation via the Freedom of Information process has resulted in the council being ordered by the Scottish Information Commissioner to release reports they wanted to remain confidential. Those reports have yet to be released for public consumption.

A damning report from the SIC showed SBC attempted to keep information under wraps on grounds of commercial confidentiality when in fact much of it concerned their own discussions and decision making.

Audit Scotland, the public spending "watchdog" which has refused calls for an inquiry into the New Earth Solutions debacle, was asked to comment on the SIC report and whether they condoned cover-ups.

In response, Audit Scotland say the information from former Commissioner Rosemary Agnew has been shared with SBC's external auditor.

"After full consideration of the content of the decision, they are content that the audit work previously completed by the external auditor of the council showed that the council followed a reasonable process in the procurement of the waste management contract.

"We believe the key judgement for the council was whether continuing with the contract would have seen even more public money lost. It is our opinion that the council came to a reasonable judgement in terminating the contract when it did".

It appears from this comment that Audit Scotland and external auditors KPMG have ignored the fact that when councillors signed the original contract with NES in 2011 and a varied version of the deal in 2012 the form of technology planned for installation at Easter Langlee was completely untried and untested.

That remains the case to this day with a plant using a similar system having to be closed down completely last year. And when the Borders contract was concluded the funding for the £21 million plant at Easter Langlee was not in place, and it had still not been sourced in 2015.

In what can best be described as a magnificent example of understatement Audit Scotland add: "We do not deny that a loss of £2.4 million is a poor outcome for the council".

However, SBC simply wrote off the loss and moved on. It was, in one critic's words "a spectacularly disastrous outcome for council taxpayers".

"As part of the 2016/17 annual audit of SBC we will be reviewing whether the council has identified any 'lessons learned' through their review of how the waste management contract was managed", adds Audit Scotland.

The "watchdog" then goes on to slap down claims that the SIC decision represented clear evidence of a deliberate cover up. According to Audit Scotland: "Although we do not agree with this view, we continue to encourage councils to be as open and transparent as possible with the information they hold".

That is not a practice which many have witnessed in SBC's case.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Worth every penny, no doubt!

DOUG COLLIE on the latest councillors' salaries and expenses at SBC

Council taxpayers and other electors in the Scottish Borders will be interested to know that it again cost a shade over three-quarters of a million pounds to cover salaries and expense claims of their 34 elected representatives during 2016/17.

Figures just posted on Scottish Borders Council's website reveal a wage bill of £675,468 for the last financial year together with combined expense claims of £97,506.

The overall bill for keeping the authority's councillors in post was slightly down on 2015/16, thanks to a small decrease in expenses claimed. The grand total for 2015/16 was £778,149 with £109,369 of that attributable to travel and other costs. Salaries in that year accounted for £668,780.

Council leader David Parker, who was replaced following this month's local government elections by 'rookie' councillor Shona Haslam, was the top earner with a salary of £33,789 and expenses (£1,207) totalling £34,996.

From May 4th this year the leader's salary was fixed at £33,857 while the remuneration for Councillor Parker in his new role as council convener will be £25,392.

A report submitted to a special meeting of the new authority confirmed that senior councillors, including those who sit on the powerful executive, and who have "a complex, cross service responsibility" will be entitled to £22,240.

Those with a smaller role in the council hierarchy will be paid £18,450 while back-benchers with no special status will have a 'basic' salary of £16,927. A total of 14 elected members will be entitled to one or other of the enhanced rates of pay.

It is worthy of note that the Newtown St Boswells 'wage bill' for councillors has increased - albeit slightly - in each of the last four financial years despite cuts to services, a significant number of redundancies and reductions in the grants from central government.

The four annual totals are: 2013/14 £648,566; 2014/15 £659,844; 2015/16 £668,750; 2016/17 £675,468. And the bill is set to rise yet again in 2017/18 with a budget of  £682,225 set for salaries this time round. The cost of senior councillors is given as £296,200.

The report on the salary structure from council chief executive Tracey Logan says: "No detailed guidance is provided by the Regulations about the duties of the Senior Councillors who are remunerated under the Scheme, or to the structure within which they operate.

"However, remuneration of Members is recognition of the significance of the duties they have to fulfil, and is also designed to remove the financial obstacles that might otherwise deter people from seeking election. The roles of Senior Councillors have been assessed on the basis of Size/breadth of responsibility, Complexity, and Impact The recommended pay rates have been reached by considering the statutory constraints and the ranking of the roles and their relative responsibilities."

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Radical shifts in Borders employment patterns


The number of Scottish Borders workers holding down more than one job has fallen by 50% in the space of only two years, according to a raft of new statistics on Scotland's employment patterns.

While this was perhaps the most eye-catching result from the Scottish Government's 2016 population survey, a number of other trends are certainly worthy of mention.

For instance, the volume of employees wanting to work longer hours has also gone down markedly since 2015. The proportion of temporary jobs has also plummeted, but the number of part-time posts appears to be higher than it has ever been. And the split between public and private sector has not changed much despite well publicised staffing cuts in the local government sector.

The percentage of graduates in the Borders workforce is almost ten percentage points higher than it was in 2006, the total of over 16-year-olds with no qualifications is down by almost 2,000 in the same period while numbers who have never held a paid or unpaid job are 900 higher than ten years ago.

Back in 2014 the Scottish Borders Council area had a surprisingly large proportion of its workforce (7.5% or 4,000 in total) with two jobs or more. The statistic was partly attributed to the region's low wage levels. But the 2016 data shows just 2,000 (4%) with more than one place of work.

The national figure is even lower at 3.5%. Yet in neighbouring Dumfries & Galloway the total has increased from 5.5% (3,600) in 2014 to 6.9% (4,500) last year.

Under-employment - the official term for workers wanting to work longer hours - fell in Scottish Borders from 13.2% of employed people (7,100) in 2015 to 9.5% (5,000) the following year.

We took a close look at the figures for those employed in the public and private sectors within the Borders economy in a bid to establish what has been happening over the last few years.

In 2006 13,900 men and women were making a living in public services, representing 25.7% of the total workforce. By 2014, following an overall increase in the region's population, the numbers had swollen to 15,500 (27.4% of those employed). The most up to date statistics are 13,200 (24.2%) which represents a rise of 100 public sector posts since 2015.

Tables linked to education, qualifications and skills show the proportion of 25-64-year-old workers who are graduates has increased from 20% in 2006 to 29.3% in 2016. But the Borders is lagging behind the national average of 35.8% last year, up from 23.4% a decade ago.

At the other end of the attainment scale an estimated 8,500 (13%) of employable people in the Borders had no qualifications. Now the statistics stand at 6,400 (9.7%).

The numbers in the 16+ age bracket who have never had paid or unpaid work was a good deal higher in 2016 than it was in 2006. The respective totals were 4,000 or 4.2% and 3,100 or 3.5%.

Permanent and non-permanent jobs can also be a valuable indicator of business confidence and of regional economies. In the Borders case there were 2,900 so-called non-permanent jobs in 2006, 600 more than the 2,300 figure for 2016.

But the data for full-time and part-time jobs was less encouraging. Ten years ago there were 13,700 part-time posts in the Borders, well below the current total of 15,800.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

£23 million contract signed despite worldwide warnings


Councillors in the Scottish Borders sanctioned a £23 million project in 2012 to deal with the region's municipal waste several years after the publication of highly respected research which warned the technology was risky, potentially hazardous, and dangerous to health.

The Borders scheme, which was abandoned after at least £2.4 million of taxpayers' cash was lost, features in a recently completed research project by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) representing 800 grass roots groups in 90 countries.

It would appear members of Scottish Borders Council (SBC) either ignored separately produced strong criticisms of a process known as pyrolysis and gasification or were not made aware of the dangers before amending a deal with contractors New Earth Solutions to build a plant incorporating the technologies at Easter Langlee on the outskirts of Galashiels.

Lead authors of the GAIA report Neil Tangri and Monica Wilson conclude that even in 2017 "the potential returns on waste gasification are smaller and more uncertain, and the risks much higher, than proponents claim". It surely begs the question what were the potential returns five years ago when Borders signed on the dotted line.

The new research uncovered the fact that over $2 billion had been invested in the projects listed in their report alone, all of which closed or were cancelled before commencing operations.

It is not entirely clear why SBC, which signed up for the development of a conventional compost producing plant in 2011, 'upgraded' to the completely unproven pyrolysis model just a year later by way of a so-called contract variation.

The decision to change horses in mid-stream may or may not become known after the authority releases confidential information relating to the disastrous saga on the orders of the Scottish Information Commissioner.

GAIA point out that in 2008 - just as SBC was starting their procurement process - a US study for a government agency surveyed a large range of gasification technologies and found the processes were unproven on a commercial scale for treating municipal solid waste.

It also found that solid and liquid residuals might be hazardous, and furthermore, that the technologies required pre-treatment of waste and were more expensive than conventional incineration or landfilling.

The new report also points out that in 2006 the UK Government's Department for Environment began a new technologies demonstrator programme to overcome the perceived risks of implementing new technologies in England and to provide accurate and impartial technical, environmental and economic data.

The programme was meant to spend £32 million on 10 projects. Resulting projects were subsequently evaluated and found to be largely unsuccessful. All four pyrolysis and gasification projects hit major snags; two of them did not even proceed to operational status. A third was unable to run long enough to study the process and was closed down while the fourth has not yet been completed.

Then in 2010 a report by the German development agency on the subject concluded that severe challenges were unsolved, specifically "There is no reliable technology readily available. High costs for technical development, repair and maintenance make it unprofitable. Dangerous threats exist to the environment and health due to carcinogenic waste".

GAIA say in their report: "Existing data does show that dozens of projects have failed for a variety of technical and financial reasons. These failures highlight a widespread inability to meet projected energy generation and emission targets, or to simply maintain consistent operation.

The document catalogues notable failed projects in Canada, USA and Europe, including the UK.

A section dealing with New Earth Solutions, the company selected as waste management champions by Borders councillors,points out the now bankrupt business was associated with six failed or abandoned gasification projects.

In 2016 NES disclosed that it would be unable to pay £9 million to unsecured creditors. It also had bank debts of more than £50 million.

GAIA add: "Local governments were also impacted financially: the failure of one of the New Earth Solutions projects cost the Scottish Borders Council at least £2.4 million."

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The egos have landed!

DOUGLAS SHEPHERD on the shake-up at Scottish Borders Council

Apparently there was more horse trading than you'd witness at the Doncaster Bloodstock Sales, but less than four days after the last local government result was announced in the counting hall at Kelso we have a brand new multi-coloured administration ready to take over the reins at Scottish Borders Council.

There seems to be fewer shades than last time when every political faction bar the Tory blue had a hand in running the multi-million pound budget which is supposed to deliver efficient, high quality local services. In fact the Conservatives did have strength in numbers after the 2013 polls but failed to seize power.

This time round their 15-strong group may have fallen short of an overall majority on the 34-member authority yet again. But the Independent Group - surely an oxymoron if ever there was one - has come riding to the rescue, ensuring decisions can be carried in the council chamber. More about the Independents later.

It must have come as a shock to many when it was announced that "rookie" councillor Shona Haslam (Con. East Tweeddale) would succeed David Parker (Ind. Melrose & District) as leader, Mr Parker had been at the helm for fourteen years, and after his re-election on Friday he made it pretty clear he was 'interested' in carrying on as SBC's top banana.

Instead, Councillor Parker is set to serve as Convener which commands a £25,000 salary and involves representing the authority at events and ceremonials. He will also be responsible for Health, according to a council statement.

Ms Haslam has succeeded to the leader's job - complete with £33,450 salary - even before dipping her toe into local government waters.

But the former national director of Asthma Scotland obviously has the support and confidence of her Conservative colleagues and those who prefer not to divulge their politics. She is certainly not afraid to speak her mind and express forthright views.

Following her resignation from her high profile role with the asthma charity because of 'interference from London' she told Third Force News: “Management (in England) think they know best and don’t listen to what’s happening in Scotland.
“It’s not so much they don’t understand devolution or how politics work north of the border; they don’t actually want to know. They believe Westminster is the pinnacle of politics and we should learn from them. They just totally miss the point.”
There had been speculation that members from the SNP, Liberal Democrat and Independent ranks might combine to keep the Tories at bay. But if there was such a plot then it must have fizzled out quite quickly.
Seven of the eight so-called Independents have decided to team up with the Tories, the exception being veteran Hawick member Davy Paterson, an executive member in the last set-up.
The presence of one of the newly elected Independents alongside the 15 Conservatives might raise a few eyebrows among local Labour supporters. Robin Tatler (Ind. Tweeddale East) stood as a Labour candidate in the same ward last time round, appearing at a campaign launch in 2012 with Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont.
In 2017 he ran for election alongside, and presumably against, Ms Haslam, and both were successful. Before polling day he told a local newspaper: "Independent councillors have held the balance on SBC in the last two administrations and although being elected as an Independent I would work with all like-minded councillors to achieve the best for Tweeddale and the Borders".
As one observer commented: "In the Scottish Borders it wasn't only Labour voters who were zipping straight across to the Tory fold".

Saturday, 6 May 2017

FAKE NEWS - if only it wasn't

DOUG COLLIE indulges in some wishful thinking

Hundreds of new jobs will be created in Scotland following claims that the Scottish Government is to set up a Commissioner For Secrecy to force public bodies to become more transparent.

Under a reversal of the Freedom of Information system local councils, health boards, government departments and other agencies funded by taxpayers would have to apply to the Scottish Commissioner For Secrecy [SCFS] if they wanted to keep information from public consumption and scrutiny.

Details of this unusual initiative have been leaked to Not Just Sheep & Rugby by a reliable source who wished to remain anonymous. Ironically, had the new regime been in place he would have had to seek permission to conceal his identity.

It has been estimated there would be thousands if not tens of thousands of requests each year from the public sector to keep reports, minutes, records of private meetings and inter-departmental emails hidden away. That is why the SCFS will need to be a massive organisation with an army of staff and tens of millions of pounds at its disposal to process a flood of cases.

Our source told us: "Wouldn't it be great if the boot was on the other foot, and instead of having to request information, private citizens were entitled to it unless the organisation concerned applied for and received an exemption from the Commissioner?"

There have been examples since the FOI system was introduced of authorities withholding material from requesters when refusal to divulge could not be justified. Many cannot understand why information should not be on public display as a matter of course. Why should an organisation which gets its money from long suffering citizens have the power to conduct business in private at the drop of a hat?

Indeed, only recently we reported on the Scottish Information Commissioner's investigation into secrecy at Scottish Borders Council following the collapse of a £80 million waste management contract and the loss of millions of pounds, including £2.4 million from the public purse.

When asked for copies of documents held in its files, SBC refused on grounds of commercial confidentiality. They argued that releasing the information would damage their contractor's business. It did not matter that the company in question was a debt-ridden failure incapable of delivering the project on both financial and technical grounds.

But much of the stuff the council was unwilling to produce - according to the Commissioner - did not even relate to the contractor but concerned the local authority's own deliberations and decision making. An apparent cover up to protect those responsible for the waste contract disaster?

In other words the requested material should never have been withheld.

Nevertheless, in a bizarre and seemingly misleading statement after the decision was issued SBC certainly did not concede that it had flouted Freedom of Information regulations.

The statement claimed: "The determination that the relevant information is no longer confidential means the council can now release that information without breaching its contractual obligations".

Laughable and ridiculous is how that assertion has been described by a good few who have read it.

Perhaps all this kind of nonsense will end when the SCFS is launched some time soon .However it seems highly likely that squads of specialist lawyers will be engaged to fight each authority's corner, and that will be a considerable drain on resources.

A spokesman for the Association of Really Secretive Entities [ARSE] said in a confidential statement: "-------------!".

Friday, 5 May 2017

Borders spinning industry just grows and grows!

Guest columnist CHEVIOT CHARLEY with a message for the new administration at council HQ

Some of our readers may be old enough to remember the days when members of town and county councils in the Scottish Borders spoke for themselves, could be contacted at virtually any time of the day or night by journalists and members of the public, and were responsible for promoting a positive image for their local authority.

It meant each councillor could be judged on his or her contribution over four years. There was little opportunity to escape the wrath of the voters if they 'got it wrong', and there was no lucrative salary to persuade candidates to stand for election. They were in it for the love of the game, and maybe even to serve the public by improving local services in their communities.

A local councillor was very much on the front line. The likes of Roxburgh County Council or Hawick Town Council - plus the region's other three county councils and ten town councils - did not have a single press officer between them to shield their elected members from awkward questions. Yet quality of service was arguably superior to the level being delivered nowadays.

During those heady local government days of the 1960s and early 1970s when the bins were emptied every week the Borders economy leaned heavily on spinning and weaving for its well-being. A job at the local mill was a job for life even if the wages were low so that bosses could prosper.

The labour intensive yarn and cloth making businesses may have virtually disappeared from the Borders valleys, but a completely new version of spinning and weaving has developed in recent years.

Scottish Borders Council, which will soon be back in business following this week's municipal elections, can claim the credit for the growth of the reconstituted Borders spinning (or should that be spin doctor's) trade.

A recent Freedom of Information request produced a response which showed the authority's so-called communications and marketing department, which did not even exist a couple of decades ago, now has "14.43 Full Time Equivalent" members of staff and an annual budget of £505,000.

In its reply the council told the requester: "this includes Communications, Digital Media, Graphic Design and Print Service staff". A well-equipped unit capable of covering up the misdeeds and errors of its employers.

Some of the job descriptions outlined in the FOI might convince the public that their councillors are no longer required to sell their plans, ideas, or decisions to the voters. The work is done for them.

Listen to this.It is the remit of two Senior Communications and Marketing Officers:

"To manage and co-ordinate the effective operational delivery of a special customer-focused internal and external communications and marketing service which aims to actively promote a positive image of the Council, and the Scottish Borders region and the people and communities we serve. To co-ordinate the agreed programme of work in order to support Elected Members and Departments to deliver their corporate performance objectives."

Above those two members of staff sits one Corporate Communications and Marketing Manager. The job description "To lead and manage a corporate customer-focused external and internal communications function, including design, print, web and digital media services, that will enable the efficient and effective delivery of the Council's corporate and departmental public relations objectives.

"To work proactively in partnership with senior management and elected members to identify, plan and deliver professional communications solutions to meet business needs and to ensure that communications is fully integrated into Departmental business strategies".

If you're having difficulty in interpreting all of that, then join the club. It probably means that your local councillor had better not go off message by criticising a decision or challenging some dubious policy idea. We're all customers of a business nowadays. How sad.

There was certainly a distinct lack of meaningful opposition during the previous administration's reign. No-one seemed prepared to put their head above the parapet even if they disagreed with what was being done in the public's name.

Some may wonder where are the mavericks like Haig Douglas or Rory Hamilton who used to grace the Borders council chambers, getting under the skin of pompous conveners and provosts, and even challenging scowling town or county clerks? They certainly did not suffer fools gladly.

It is to be hoped our newly elected band of local representatives - unfortunately many of them will be hamstrung by their respective political party stances - are not finely tuned robots. May they have the guts to speak out when necessary and actually represent the views of taxpayers by sticking an arm up and voting against a silly notion. Mind you it might be difficult with both hands tied behind their backs.

If at least some of them can escape the clutches of the growing band of spin doctors working on those "fully integrated business strategies" and promote their own thoughts and ideas then perhaps the image of Borders local government will improve. But don't hold your breath!