Watchdog probe demanded as SBC defends £2M write-off

Bill Chisolm.
Bill Chisolm.

Scottish Borders Council is maintaining that the £2million it spent on an abortive waste management project was expended “appropriately and effectively”.

The council, however, is refusing to respond to specific claims made this week that it mishandled public money and that secret decisions taken by elected members had resulted in “financial catastrophe”.

That is one of the allegations levelled against the local authority by retired journalist Bill Chisholm from Jedburgh in a submission to Audit Scotland.

Mr Chisholm formally asked the public spending watchdog on Monday to probe all the circumstances surrounding a deal which was signed in 2011 between SBC and private company New Earth Solutions, and scrapped two months ago.

So far, the council, which says it will write off the £2million, has rejected calls for an independent investigation.

The dossier indicates the contract – for the provision of a mechanical biological treatment (MBT) composting facility at the Easter Langlee landfill site in Galashiels – was altered at a private meeting in October, 2012.

Mr Chisholm believes it was agreed then that an advanced thermal treatment (ATT) plant, to convert waste into gas and hence into electricity and originally planned to come on stream eight years after the tried and tested MBT was operational, was ordered to be constructed simultaneously.

“For some reason, councillors chose to have the ATT, complete with its untried technology, built at the same time as the MBT,” states Mr Chisholm.

“Why did the council choose to embark on such a potentially dangerous path which would eventually result in the entire project being abandoned and the £2million spent on it being casually written off without any detailed public explanation?”

Mr Chisholm’s intervention and his decision to circulate his dossier to local MSPs in a bid to trigger an Audit Scotland investigation has been welcomed by dissident Independent councillor Watson McAteer.

“It is surely in the council’s interests to encourage Audit Scotland to complete a full review of the circumstances leading up to this financial disaster and to ensure no impropriety took place,” said Mr McAteer.

“The loss of such a substantial amount of public money cannot simply be ignored”.

A spokesperson for SBC told us: “The council has considered the letter and report by Mr Chisholm and finds its contents not accurate and therefore its conclusions misleading. As such, the council will not be responding to it.

“The council has acted properly and appropriately throughout the waste treatment project and will continue to do so.

“Given the contractual obligations with New Earth Solutions, all monies spent were expended both appropriately and, we believe, effectively.

“As part of the closing down of this project, like any other, a lessons-learnt exercise will be completed.”