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.

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