The national information watchdog has ordered Scottish Borders Council to release yet more previously withheld documents relating to its doomed deal with a private company to deliver a £21m waste treatment plant at Galashiels.
In February 2015, that contract with the New Earth Solutions Group (NESG) was scrapped, forcing the council to write off £2.4m it had spent on the procurement process
Since then, retired Borders journalist Bill Chisholm has repeatedly used freedom-of-information legislation in an attempt to discover the truth behind the costly misadventure.
The council’s position has been that disclosure of the paperwork requested by Mr Chisholm, of Jedburgh, would cause NESG “commercial and reputational damage” despite the firm becoming insolvent last year.
In April, then Scottish information commissioner Rosemary Agnew ruled against the council and ordered the release of six key documents.
Although heavily censored, these revealed that councillors had agreed in private to sanction the delivery from NESG of an advanced thermal treatment plant at Easter Langlee in October 2012 – before a programme of trials at the company’s research and development site in Dorset had even begun.
Last week, Margaret Keyse, Mrs Agnew’s successor as commissioner, ordered the council to release a further 86 documents.
These relate to Mr Chisholm’s request for disclosure of monthly updates sent to councillors between October 2012 and the scrapping of the contract in 2015.
Ms Keyse has given the council until Monday, August 14, to comply.
In an 18-page determination, she states: “There is significant public interest in understanding what steps the council had taken to ensure the project was robust.
“There is a strong public interest in understanding the measures the council had taken in order to limit its financial exposure in a project which had been ongoing for four years and had involved substantial sums of public money.
“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 of those actions and decisions, and the reasons why the project failed.
“It is legitimate for the public to seek to understand what happened and in the public interest for this understanding to be as complete as possible.”
Mr Chisholm was delighted by that finding, saying: “For the second time in a matter of weeks, the Scottish Information Commissioner has completely demolished the council’s desperate attempts to cover up bad decision-making which has cost taxpayers millions of pounds.
“She found their attitude confusing and unjustifiable, yet the council continued to cling to commercial confidentiality like a sinking life-raft.
“It has taken more than two years to reach this point – two years of negotiating the obstacles placed in my way by the council’s steadfast refusal to release information surrounding their disastrous waste contract. So much for an open and transparent regime
“Now that the council’s contractor and all of its funding partners are out of business, it is time they published every document associated with this fiasco on their website.
“One wonders how much it has cost in terms of staff time and effort to process hundreds of documents during the course of various Scottish Information Commissioner investigations and to censor them before sending redacted copies to me.”
A spokesperson for the council told the Southern: “As always, we will fully consider the findings of the commissioner’s report.”