Documents now released by Scottish Borders Council offer “compelling evidence” that its deal with a private firm to bring a £21m waste treatment plant to Galashiels should have been scrapped long before it actually was, according to retired journalist Bill Chisholm.
Mr Chisholm, of Jedburgh, has been seeking disclosure, via freedom-of-information legislation, of all reports relating to a contract finally abandoned in February 2015, forcing the council to write off £2.5m.
The council maintained that doing so would cause the now-defunct New Earth Solutions (NES) “commercial and reputational damage”, but following a series of decisions in Mr Chisholm’s favour, most recently in June, Scottish Information Commissioner Margaret Keyse ordered full disclosure, ruling that to be in the public interest.
“I received a CD from the council containing around 100 separate documents at the weekend,” said Mr Chisholm.
“There’s a lot of information to process, but I can say that it provides further compelling evidence that the deal with NES should have been scrapped long before the council dumped the firm at great cost to the public purse.”
The saga goes back to March 2011, when the authority contracted NES to deliver a conventional mechanical biological treatment (MBT) plant at Easter Langlee, near Galashiels, capable of dealing with 40,000 tonnes of household rubbish a year.
Just nine months later, NES told council officers that such a facility without an incineration-based advanced thermal treatment (ATT) element to convert gas from waste into electricity could no longer get bank funding.
In October 2012, councillors met in private and agreed to legally vary the contract in those terms – a month before trials of the ATT technology had even started at the company’s research and development centre in Dorset.
The newly-released documents reveal that NES told the council in December 2012 that “technical issues” had necessitated a shutdown of the plant during these trials.
“That was the first of a catalogue of hitches and delays involving misfiring technology which were reported in monthly updates to the council’s project team and which are laid bare in these documents,” said Mr Chisholm.
“Alarm bells should also have been ringing in respect of repeated excuses from NES over the non-appearance of cash to bankroll the job.
“There is not a shred of evidence that any of the potential investors touted by NES ever had any intention of bankrolling the Easter Langlee project.”
It is seven years since consultants warned that to do nothing was not an option for the council if it is to meet the 2021 Scottish Government’s zero-waste deadline for a total ban on all biodegradable refuse going to landfill.
After the NES contract was scrapped, the council agreed that a waste transfer station, from where rubbish would be transported outwith the region, was the best solution.
However, plans for that £5m facility, also at Easter Langlee, were rejected in April by the council’s own planning committee after it determined that the traffic generated by such a site would have an adverse impact on road safety nearby.
With the landfill site at Easter Langlee due to be decommissioned next year, the council declined to comment this week on its plans for a waste transfer station.
There is speculation, however, that the council is preparing another planning bid for the same site.