8 January 2017
With Gloucestershire County Council's (GCC) Constitution Committee due to debate Open Contracting next week, we've been looking back over the saga of the closed Javelin Park Incinerator contract. The case demonstrates why a commitment to Open Contracting is so vital.
Open Contracting is based on the simple ideal that you have a right to see how taxes are being spent. Clear, accessible information on contracts is key to make sure decisions are accountable. Yet in the case of Javelin Park, information about the process is scattered, and in many cases, heavily redacted.
The original business case for the project is hidden away on the Recycle for Gloucestershire website - yet the crucial elements of 'sensitivity analysis', showing how the value of the project is affected by reduction in waste, or improvements in recycling rates, are redacted.
Some of the planning information is over on GCC's website, with other documents to be found on the national government site, or district authority planning portals.
Contract documents - the crucial information that sets out the 25 year deal between GCC, Urbaser Balfour Beatty, and the investors, have only been made (partly) accessible after Freedom of Information requests.
GlosVain have been keeping a record of the various copies of the contract released in response to FOI request, although the latest copies, still covered with black boxes over all the key figures, are to be found in the Gloucestershire County Council FOI Disclosure Log, released in August 2016.
Those latest contract release can be hard to find on the site, so we've made them available in a zip file (download here, 22MB), including the Contract, Schedule 4 on the pricing, and Annexe 4 on Value for Money.
But as you can see, the key figures that we need to really understand this contract are covered over. GCC are still hiding the key details.
Image: Annex 4 – Value for Money Analysis. With this – how can citizens know if the project is really value for money?
We need Open Contracting so that:
The full text of council contracts and business cases are public – showing the impact on the public purse, and the environmental and social impact of each contract;
Information on each process is brought together in one place: giving a clear view of decisions over time
When contracting information is so scattered, and the contracts themselves continue to be redacted, we do have to ask: what are they hiding?
Javelin Park: A short history
Here’s an overview timeline we’ve pulled together from the documents we could track down. At each point – if decisions had been made in the open – not in secret – there would have been opportunities to rethink this white elephant project.
In 2007, GCC examined different technology options to manage 'residual waste': waste currently sent to landfill. They approved a set of technology options that would be considered, and developed plans for a 'Public Private Partnership' project in which a contractor would build, finance and run a facility.
In 2008, Gloucestershire County Council put a business case to DEFRA to apply for a £92m Public Finance Initiative credit that would subsidise the running costs of a facility by c. £7m a year. The case presents 60% recycling by 2020 as an optimistic scenario, and contains a number of redactions, including the sensitivity analysis that shows how the value for money is affected if waste is reduced faster, or recycling increased faster, than GCC estimates.
Over 2009-2011, a procurement process took place, with an initial open tender, shortlist of suppliers, and then 'competitive negotiation' with the selected suppliers.
In 2010, the PFI credit from DEFRA was withdrawn. A 2011 Strategic Reappraisal by GCC Cabinet continued to support the project, in spite of shifting assumptions about waste volumes.
In December 2011 Urbaser Balfour Beatty was announced as the preferred bidder, with a proposal for a vast incinerator.
In February 2013, prior to planning permission for the Incinerator, GCC signed a contract with Urbaser Balfour Beatty. Requests for the contract under the Freedom of Information Act were met with heavily redacted versions.
In March 2013 planning permission for the incinerator was refused. In January 2015, Eric Pickles, the then Secretary of State, over-ruled local decisions and granted planning permission. Because of cost increases from the delays, GCC poured at least £13m council reserves into financing for the project - even though the original case for a PPP was to save the council's capital spend.
In October 2015 the Information Commissioner ruled that the Contract between UBB and GCC should be published in full. GCC appealed against the decision and that appeal is on-going.
In July 2016 ground was broken at the Javelin Park site - yet local citizens, and even councillors, are still to be told what the contract says about the project costs, how much waste is destined to be burnt, and how it will affect efforts to improve air quality, tackle climate change and incentivise recycling.