It may not sound the most interesting of committees on Midlothian Council, but Audit committee has has a habit of unearthing the most interesting information. Chaired by the able Peter Smaill (we may not see eye to eye politically, but he does the job extraordinarily well), Audit is the guard that guards the guards, so to speak, and as members we are encouraged to be as probing as possible. And so we are.
It was this committee which probed the fallout of the Bonnyrigg Rose car park fiasco and ensured we should have no repetition. It has dealt with council fuel mysteriously disappearing, inaccurate recording of performance indicators and keeps a close eye on how the council manages its finances. This is not a committee to fall asleep in if you want to keep tabs on what's really going on behind the scenes.
So it was with particular interest that I noticed this month's meeting had an item entitled 'Carbon Management Reduction/Energy Saving', in its words 'aimed at providing assurance that the Council fully complies with the CRC ESS which was introduced by the Government in 2008'.
The audit was carried out by East Lothian Council (a reciprocal arrangement where we also carry out an audit on them). The report was presented to the committee by the council's Risk and Audit Manager who said it was a very positive report. I beg to differ.
Amongst the few 'strengths' are "Appropriate Council officers on the certificate", "Billing downloads and automated meters were found to be accurate", "Energy saving targets appear achievable" and "Various energy saving initiatives are in place".
Weaknesses include that the Carbon Management Plan is still in draft form (since 2008?), no Carbon Management Board is yet in place, no reports presented to the Corporate Management Team, a lack of transparency and audit trail to be able to verify data, no independent checking of figures, all expertise and knowledge vested in a single officer, and basic procedures not even developed. Very positive? I don't think so.
That Midlothian Council pays only lip service (if even that) to carbon reduction has been a depressing and common theme for years. In 2007 the council signed up to the Climate Change Declaration. In the same year it produced a Landscape Capacity Study for wind developments which determined that nowhere in Midlothian is suitable for large scale wind generation. I argued the case at a recent Planning Committee meeting, where one such development was being considered, that it is simply not acceptable to state that 'they can't go anywhere' and was tantamount to producing a local plan which stated no houses could be built anywhere. As a result, I won a commitment to have the Landscape Capacity Study reviewed.
All well and good, but that 'review', contained within the Midlothian Local Development Plan, is considered briefly in the Main Issues Report, now out for consultation, and which states (paragraph 8.16) "the Council’s preferred approach is to roll forward its current policy stance on large-scale wind energy development into the MLDP." So much for a review.
Midlothian Council is building a state-of-the art high school in Bonnyrigg. State-of-the art in all respects except for not having a single watt of renewable energy, despite the cost of solar PV installation halving in the last year. The second phase of new council housing is being built, again with solar panels not even being considered. In contrast to Dumfries and Galloway's plan to replace 24,000 street lights with low energy bulbs (reducing energy costs by three quarters and greatly reducing maintenance costs), Midlothian is reducing its annual replacement from 200 to 100.
Whilst we have a Scottish Government dedicated to building an economy on oil, we have a Midlothian Council which harks back to the golden days of coal and refuses steadfastly to move on. And so long as its Audit committee is asked to endorse a 'very positive' report which says we're doing nothing, and a local plan which recommends a future just like the past, our councillors need to be leading from the front and not just following what council officials come up with if anything is going to change.