Norfolk incinerator project could be back in the balance, as a new vote looms

The proposed incinerator site at Saddlebow. Picture: Ian Burt. The proposed incinerator site at Saddlebow. Picture: Ian Burt.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014
12:17 PM

Campaigners against the proposed Norfolk incinerator have declared they are “back in the game” after it emerged another vote is pending on whether to push ahead with the plant.

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In October, Norfolk County Council voted, by 40 votes to 38, to agree to a revised project plan for the burner at King’s Lynn.

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But, with a further break point in the contract coming up in May, another decision will have to be made on whether to continue.

And, at today’s cabinet scrutiny meeting Conservative John Dobson, a longstanding opponent of the Saddlebow plant, said that would lead to an extraordinary general meeting of the council - with the prospect of another vote on the plant.

The council has already agreed a contract with Cory Wheelabrator to run the plant and had awarded planning permission for it.

But that was called in by communities secretary Eric Pickles, who has yet to make a decision on whether to allow that permission.

Meanwhile, the government has cancelled waste credits which would have been worth £169m over the lifetime of the plant.

The cabinet scrutiny meeting was triggered after six councillors ‘called in’ the cabinet’s decision to recommend a revenue budget to the council.

In the cabinet papers it was stated that the possible compensation payable to Cory Wheelabrator if planning permission is not secured would increase by £5m, from £26m to £31m after May 1.

A number of councillors had claimed they had not been made aware of that, ahead of the vote in October.

The council had said, in the report to full council, it stated that “the actual contract price at the time of financial close could increase or decrease”.

They said, in the cabinet report for the following day’s meeting, it stated that the compensation figure would “have to be revisited” if the project continued to be delayed beyond spring this year.

The council said those details were available before the full council meeting, where the vote was taken and that group leaders were briefed ahead of the council debate, with more details in ‘pink papers’.

The spokesman said a report to cabinet in November also referred to the compensation payment increasing from May 2014 onwards.

They added putting a figure on the potential size of the increase was not possible at an earlier stage and that the £31m was an indicative figure used for budget setting.

But, at today’s cabinet scrutiny meeting, Mr Dobson said councillors would get another chance to reject the incinerator.

He said: “What we know now is there is another decision to be made. What has emerged is that the cabinet has to make another decision in April to confirm implementation of this project.

“We will get a second bite of the cherry. There will be another vote, so we are back in the game.”

Steve Morphew, cabinet member for finance, corporate resources and personnel, told the committee that he would investigate the circumstances over what information was supplied.

But he said the £5m figure was an estimate in the increased compensation, needed in order to plan a budget.

He said: “As far as I am concerned, everything we can put out in the public domain, we have.
“I understand that, at a briefing in October, councillors were made aware that the compensation cap would run out in the spring and there would be a financial consequence.

“What we had to do was quantify the consequence and put that into the budget papers as a risk.
“I don’t think anyone was anticipating what consequences were likely to be come May time. I think everyone was anticipating a decision [by the secretary of state] by January 14. There was no intention to keep anything hidden.”

He said he did not believe information had been withheld, but would investigate further.

The scrutiny committee decided, on a suggestion by Conservative Cliff Jordan, to ask the acting managing director Anne Gibson and leader George Nobbs to review the decision the cabinet had made, with no time to send the matter back to cabinet before the budget is set on Monday.

A second recommendation, from Green Andrew Boswell, was for a review to be carried out into how information is communicated to councillors.

At the meeting, Labour’s Alexandra Kemp, who was one of the six cross-party group of councillors who triggered the call-in, claimed her party were “coming after” her for speaking against the incinerator.

She said: “I represent the division where the incinerator would be built and I stated on my manifesto that I would take all legal means to stop it.

“But my party’s structure means I cannot speak to cabinet scrutiny without having my party coming after me. My position has become untenable in the party I am in.”

Mike Sands, Labour’s whip on the county council was sitting on the committee and Miss Kemp had questioned whether that was appropriate.
But he said, while Miss Kemp was subject to processes within the Labour party, it was not a whipping campaign relating to cabinet scrutiny.

Leader George Nobbs was not at yesterday’s meeting, despite a request for him to attend. He said he had not been at the cabinet meeting where the revenue budget decision had been made so “no possible purpose could be served” by him being called as a witness.

He added, in a letter circulated to the cabinet scrutiny committee: “I regard this call-in as mischievous and malicious, coming at a time when the authors know that it is constitutionally impossible for the cabinet to reconsider this matter before it is required by law to set the budget to which the call-in specifically refers.”

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