December 5 2013 Latest news:
Monday, October 28, 2013
Not since the fight for unitary status has an issue caused such deep divisions between councillors and councils in Norfolk.
The row over how to deal with the county’s waste – and specifically the use of incineration to do it – has rumbled on for years.
It has its roots back in 2005, when the county council revealed a site in Costessey, near Norwich, was the planned location for an energy from waste plant.
But the vigorously-opposed plans for an incinerator by waste firm WRG collapsed because the firm could not secure the land to build it on.
The authority had to go back to the drawing board again in 2009, when a multi-million pound contract with Sustainable Resource Management (SRM) for an anaerobic digestion plant – a form of industrial composting treatment plant – at Longwater business park, Costessey, was abandoned after costs shot up from about £400m to £800m.
What’s happening today?
At today’s meeting councillors will actually consider a whole raft of reports, but what it all boils down to is whether to recommend the cabinet agrees a revised project plan for the incinerator.
Rejecting that revised plan would break the contract - and that’s where the various claims of what compensation would have to be paid stem from.
How much would it cost to break the contract?
Figures vary. The council’s own officers say it would mean £25.9m would have to be paid to Cory Wheelabrator, and then money would have to be spent procuring an alternative.
The council’s interim head of finance, Peter Timmins, has warned it would leave the council facing bankruptcy and services would immediately have to be cut – putting the likes of libraries and children’s centres at risk.
But MP Norman said he had received e-mails from officials in the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) which suggested a proportion of the cost could be covered out of reserves.
What are the options?
The other way the contract could be broken is if the plant cannot be built because the secretary of state refused to ratify planning permission. According to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, that would lead to compensation of £24.7m.
Various other suggestions have been made over ways to stop any compensation payment hitting services, such as getting a loan from the government or asking the Treasury for special permission to capitalise the compensation, so it comes from capital budgets, rather than from revenue.
For and against?
There are 84 county councillors and some councillors have long nailed their colours to the mast when it comes to the incinerator. Conservatives John Dobson and Brian Long have been long-standing opponents. Labour’s Alexandra Kemp and Liberal Democrat Tim East have also vigorously opposed it. The new UKIP councillors have also spoken out against the plant.
What happens next?
Today’s vote will not determine the fate of the incinerator.
All the council can do is make a recommendation to the cabinet.
The cabinet meets tomorrow and could, if they so wish, ignore the full council’s recommendation, whatever it is.
That led the county council to insist it needed to find a way to deal with waste to avoid hefty landfill fines, switching its attention elsewhere to the so-called Contract B, which was where Saddlebow at King’s Lynn entered the equation.
Councillors visited a number of waste plants before deciding in 2010 that their preferred bidder to run a £500m plant at Saddlebow was Anglo-US firm Cory Wheelabrator.
That led to opposition, with worries over the health impact and concern that alternatives had not been properly considered.
Protesters also pointed to Wheelabrator’s record in the United States, where the company paid out millions of pounds to settle a lawsuit after whistle blowers alleged environmental laws had been broken, although the company never admitted any wrongdoing.
A poll organised by West Norfolk Council saw 65,000 people say they did not want an incinerator on their doorsteps, but in March 2011, the county council cabinet, then controlled by the Conservatives, agreed to award Cory Wheelabrator the controversial contract.
An attempt by anti-incinerator campaigner Michael De Whalley to force a judicial review into the process by which the contract was awarded failed at the High Court last December. The county council then found itself on tenterhooks over whether the government would award a Waste Infrastructure Grant for the incinerator.
Environment secretary Caroline Spelman eventually did, but questions over whether the “broad consensus” she sought was really proven, remain.
That money, previously known as PFI credits, was for the council to spend on an “agreed level of service” for 25 years from the plant.
The aim was for it to deal with 170,000 tonnes of residual municipal solid waste each year, which the council said would save it about £8m a year.
But the plant could take up to 275,000 tonnes of waste a year, with commercial and industrial waste also due to be dealt with there.
West Norfolk Council had sought a judicial review the award of the credits, having been unconvinced that she has evidence of a broad consensus of support for the Norfolk Waste Strategy. However, a judge rejected that judicial review.
The county council’s planning committee agreed to approve permission for the plant in June last year, although communities secretary Eric Pickles immediately prevented an actual decision notice being issued and ordered a public inquiry.
That inquiry was completed in May, the same month the balance of power at Norfolk County Council shifted, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats forming an administration, supported by UKIP.
Then, as calls for a debate on the plant intensified, came the government’s decision to cancel the waste credits.
Various figures have been published on the cost of compensation, which have been called into question by critics, who want to use today’s meeting to pull the plug on the plant by rejecting a revised project plan.