New correspondence reveals “risks” of Norfolk incinerator project
17:18 07 July 2014
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Newly-released documents have revealed how government officials feared Norfolk County Council officers were “overly optimistic” over the timetable for the aborted King’s Lynn incinerator securing planning permission.
The plug was pulled on the £600m burner at Saddlebow in April following a vote by councillors, after county council officers said the project no longer offered value for money.
That left the council with a £35m bill, including compensation to Cory Wheelabrator, the company which would have built the plant.
The council had awarded itself planning permission for the plant in June 2012 but secretary of state Eric Pickles ‘called in’ the decision, sparking a public inquiry.
The council had been told that it would be told in January this year whether the secretary of state would rubber-stamp that permission, but the date came and went with no decision made.
That led to council officers saying the delay meant the plant, which the government had withdrawn waste credits for, no longer offered value for money, so the scheme was scrapped.
But correspondence between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and County Hall officers has revealed how the government had long-standing concerns over the potential for such a delay.
A two-page planning report drawn up by Defra was released by the council today. Among the “risks” it had highlighted were the poll by West Norfolk Council, in which more than 65,000 people said they did not want the burner.
The report stated; “Having regard to the volume of opposition that has so far been expressed, the authority’s confidence that the planning application will still be approved by February 2012 could prove to be misguided.”
The officials also stated: “As far as potential “call-in” by the Secretary of State is concerned, this again is not expected by the authority which has provided copy of a letter from the Minister for Decentralisation which states that the Secretary of State ‘is very sensitive about calling in applications and will only do so if they raise issues of national importance and those issues need to be decided by him rather than the local planning authority’.
“This may indeed prove to be the case, but the recent case experience of the Nottinghamshire call-in suggests that this is a risk that should still perhaps be countenanced.”
As it turned out, the plan was called in, which was a key factor in the delay which led to the plug being pulled on the contract.
The issues around the burner were discussed at a public accounts committee meeting last month and, following that, council leader George Nobbs ordered other correspondence be released.
Among them were letters which showed that in September 2011. Defra official John Burns wrote to then Norfolk County Council chief executive David White to raise “risks” of getting planning permission.
Mr White, along with then council leader Derrick Murphy were away when the letter was received, but Mike Jackson, the director of environment, transport and planning replied.
In his letter, Mr Jackson, who has since left Norfolk County Council, said: “Whilst we do not share the same assessment of the future prospects for the planning process I can confirm that the decision to award a contract was based on a thorough understanding and examination of the contractual implications of using standard contract provisions approved by Defra and the Treasury for breakage in relation to planning.
“Despite our more positive analysis I can provide you further reassurance that the authority has taken action to mitigate the concerns that you raise.
“As a consequence the draft Credit Agreement has been modified to ensure that, were there an unexpected delay to achieving a satisfactory planning permission beyond the planning long stop date of June 2013, then this would not constitute an event of default should the authority request that a revised project plan be provided.
“It should be recognised that this would therefore mitigate the risk of significant cost being incurred to bring in a new funding package should this unexpected scenario arise.”
The actions of councillors during the incinerator saga are currently being investigated by former council leader Stephen Revell and the documents will form part of his probe.
But a separate report by Jonathan Acton Davis QC had stated: “I can find nothing to lead me to conclude that any undue risk was taken. I can identify no areas in which I can see potential scope for the holding to account of officers.
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