SCOTLAND’S public spending watchdog has rejected a call to launch an enquiry into Scottish Borders Council’s attempts to procure a £23m advanced thermal treatment (ATT) waste plant at Easter Langlee.

The probe by Audit Scotland was requested by retired Borders journalist Bill Chisholm MBE who, last month, completed a 43-page report, based on hundreds of documents which the council had been ordered to disclose by the Scottish Information Commissioner.

Compiled after an investigation spanning two-and-a-half years, his dossier focused on the 2012 deal between the council and Dorset-based New Earth Solutions (NES) – now in liquidation – for the provision of the ATT.

It was a contract finally scrapped in February 2015 at a cost of £2.4m to the public purse – with the council citing “technological and financial issues” for its demise.

Mr Chisholm claims the evidence he has gathered indicates council officers were made aware of shortcomings both with the technology and issues over how the ATT would be funded – from a now defunct offshore investment fund – on several occasions after the contract was signed and failed to pass on these concerns to elected members.

But having considered the Chisholm report, Audit Scotland has now confirmed it will take no action.

The organisation claims on its website to “give independent assurance to the people of Scotland that public money is spent properly, efficiently and effectively”.

Its response to Mr Chisholm states: “In relation to the decisions taken in respect of this contract, we remain content that audit work previously completed by the external auditor of the council [formerly KPMG] showed that the council had followed a reasonable process in the procurement of the waste management contract.

“We feel our assessment of this matter has been concluded. 

“Unless there are significant new areas of concern, we will not respond to any further communication regarding the waste management contract at the council.”

Mr Chisholm said this week that he was “disappointed but not surprised” that Audit Scotland, which has taken over from KPMG as the council’s paid external auditor, had rejected his calls.

“I would suggest Audit Scotland has made a gross misjudgement in refusing to look at what went wrong,” he said.

“A significant number of people who have read my report, including an eminent procurement expert, have expressed the view that there are many issues I have uncovered which would justify an investigation.

“Audit Scotland may have closed the file on this most blatant example of maladministration and mismanagement of public funds, but I have not.”
Scottish Borders Council has declined to comment on Mr Chisholm’s report.

Since the NES contract has been scrapped, the council’s hopes of meeting Scottish Government zero waste targets are now pinned on a £4.8m waste transfer station (WTS) at Easter Langlee from where around 40,000 tonnes of household rubbish will be transported annually outwith the region for treatment.

A planning application for that facility is due to be determined by the council’s own planning committee next month.