Scottish Borders Council has been ordered to disclose secret documents revealing how its doomed deal with a private waste management firm to build a £21m advanced thermal treatment plant near Galashiels ended in disaster.
Former Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew has given the local authority six weeks to reveal documents it had wanted to keep under wraps.
The council’s deal with New Earth Solutions Group (NESG) to have the plant built at the Easter Langlee landfill site was scrapped in February 2015, forcing it to write off £2.4m in procurement costs.
The company has since gone into administration.
Ms Agnew’s nine-month investigation was triggered by retired Jedburgh journalist Bill Chisholm invoking freedom of information laws in a bid to discover what went wrong.
Mr Chisholm wanted sight of five reports presented in private to councillors between March 2011, when NESG was contracted to build a conventional waste treatment system at Easter Langlee, and October 2012.
It was in October of 2012 that the original contract was radically amended and the delivery of an advanced thermal treatment plant, despite being untried and untested commercially, was commissioned by the council.
However, the paperwork Mr Chisholm sought last year was either withheld or released only in much-redacted form, with the council citing a confidentiality agreement and claiming financial and technical information in the documents could damage the commercial interests of NESG and its successors.
The report published last Friday by Ms Agnew, now Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, challenges that position, however.
“There is comparatively little information in the five reports about the financial status of NESG or details of the technology it was developing,” states the report.
“Much of the information withheld relates not to NESG and its financial assets but to the council’s own financial or administrative matters.
“There is a strong public interest in understanding the measures the council had taken in order to limit financial exposure in a project which had been ongoing for four years and had involved substantial sums of public money.
“In the commissioner’s view, disclosure of the withheld information would serve the public interest in informing the public about the actions and decisions taken by the council, the basis for those actions and decisions and the reasons why the project failed.”
Ms Agnew has given the council until Monday, June 12, to disclose the withheld information.
A spokesperson for the authority said: “The council welcomes the decision by the Scottish Information Commissioner and will comply with its requirements.
“As the commissioner has noted, the council is bound by commercial confidentiality, but the determination that the relevant information is no longer confidential means the council can now release that information without breaching its contractual obligations.”
Mr Chisholm said he also welcomed the ruling, adding: “This shows the council has been hiding behind commercial confidentiality when, in fact, the information it was concealing was about its own flawed actions and decision-making.
“With this smokescreen about to be lifted, the public will have the chance to find out the real reasons behind this project’s abject and costly failure.”
The council’s troubles in resolving the future of the Easter Langlee site show no sign of abating either as its own planning committe last week rejected proposals to build a £5.2m waste transfer station there, as reported in last week’s Southern.
That leaves it facing a tight timetable for coming up with an alternative solution for disposing of the waste currently dumped there as a Scottish Government ban on biodegradable waste going to landfill is due to come into force in 2021.