Watchdog defends £2.4m Galashiels tip deal write-off

The Easter Langlee landfill site near Galashiels.
The Easter Langlee landfill site near Galashiels.
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Scottish Borders Council did the right thing by scrapping a deal for a £21m waste transfer plant at Easter Langlee near Galashiels even though that cost the public purse £2.4m, according to Audit Scotland.

If it hadn’t pulled the plug on that controversial contract in 2015, taxpayers could have been left footing an even bigger bill, the spending watchdog has ruled.

The audit body has also cleared the council of embarking on a deliberate cover-up of the decisions leading to its deal with private company New Earth Solutions Group (NESG) being scrapped and £2.4m in public funds having to be written off.

The watchdog was responding to last month’s decision by Scottish Information Commissioner Margaret Keyse to order the council to release 86 hitherto-secret documents relating to the bungled deal.

The council has been given until Monday, August 14, to release that paperwork, having previously claimed disclosure would breach a confidentiality agreement with the now-insolvent NESG.

As reported in the Southern, that was the second time this year that the authority had been ordered to release documents requested by retired Borders journalist Bill Chisholm under freedom-of-information laws.

In April, a batch of previously-withheld reports revealed that councillors had, in October 2012, agreed to sanction the delivery of an advanced thermal treatment plant from NESG before a programme of technological trials had even begun.

The commissioner’s latest decisions were sent to Audit Scotland by Mr Chisholm, and he is now calling for a full independent inquiry to establish what councillors were told about the plant’s financing and technology before and after the signing of the NESG contract.

“We believe the key judgement for the council was whether continuing with the contract would have seen even more public money lost,” states Audit Scotland in its response to Mr Chisholm.

“It is our opinion that the council came to a reasonable judgement in terminating the contract when it did.”

The watchdog refers to its previous response to Mr Chisholm in the wake of the commissioner’s disclosure order in April.

That letter states that the council “followed a reasonable process in the procurement of the waste management contract”, adding: “In your correspondence, you state your view that the Scottish Information Commissioner’s findings represent clear evidence of a deliberate cover-up.

“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.”

Audit Scotland replaced KPMG as the council’s external auditor last year for a quoted fee of £270,000.