Scottish Borders Council’s handling of a waste management contract and its decision to write off £2million already spent on the abortive project should be referred to the public spending watchdog Audit Scotland.
That is the view of Andrew Farquhar, the former councillor who last year led an unsuccessful campaign for the reinstatement of kerbside garden waste collections.
He was reacting to the news that SBC had terminated a deal, signed in 2011 with a firm called New Earth Solutions (NES), for the installation of a £23million advanced thermal treatment (ATT) plant at the region’s landfill site at Easter Langlee in Galashiels.
As reported in these columns last week, the contract was scrapped because of “project-specific issues in terms of technology and funding”.
Mr Farquhar is supporting the call from Hawick Independent Councillor Watson McAteer for an investigation into what went wrong.
When Mr McAteer went public with that demand last week, the council claimed the cash it had expended on technical, legal and financial advice and project management had been “properly spent”.
“Given the contractual obligations with NES, the money was used both appropriately and, we believe, effectively,” said an SBC spokesperson.
Council leader David Parker added: “There is absolutely no reason to believe the NES project was anything other than well managed throughout.
“I am sure, in closing the project, our officers will complete an appropriate review to ensure all learning opportunities are maximised.”
Mr Farquhar described that response as “totally inadequate”.
“At my petition hearing, the ATT at Easter Langlee was hailed as the panacea for all the council’s waste management problems and no fears about its delivery were voiced,” he told The Southern.
“Something has gone seriously wrong with £2million of taxpayers’ money down the drain, nothing to show for it, and all this happened on Mr Parker’s watch.
“In these circumstances, he should desist from making any further decisions on how this matter will be investigated and refer it to Audit Scotland for their consideration.
“His claims that the project was well managed throughout need to be substantiated and we need independent confirmation that proper risk assessments were carried out and due diligence exercised in assessing if NES possessed the technology or funding to deliver.”
Councillor Parker responded: “It was highlighted at the very beginning that, as the council was procuring a waste treatment plant at the cutting edge of technology and was one of the first rural councils in Scotland to be involved in this process, there was always a risk it might not be possible to achieve the outcome that was hoped for.
“Council officers have worked very closely with independent advisers and with NES, and the decision not to proceed was taken after significant officer and elected member scrutiny.
“I thus see no reason to refer this matter to Audit Scotland.”