Norfolk County Council leader: I’d have quit if incinerator vote had gone the other way
A decision will be made this morning to press ahead with the controversial incinerator proposed for Norfolk, but campaigners have refused to give up the battle to stop the plant.
Norfolk County Council’s cabinet is to decide whether to accept a revised project plan for the King’s Lynn incinerator - and the full council yesterday recommended that it should.
After three hours of sometimes stormy debate, councillors voted by 40 votes to 38 to recommend to the cabinet that a revised project plan for the burner, submitted by Cory Wheelabrator, should be agreed.
That recommendation was a blow to campaigners who hoped to pull the plug on the plant, which the government withdrew waste credits for earlier this month.
Afterwards, County Hall leader George Nobbs revealed he would have resigned rather than agreed to scrap the contract, saying it would have had a devastating impact on services because of compensation triggered.
Campaigners against the incinerator said a golden opportunity had been missed, but, buoyed by a narrow margin of defeat. said the war against the burner would continue.
Councillors were allowed a free vote at yesterday’s meeting and, other than UKIP, whose members all voted against the incinerator proposed for King’s Lynn, there were divisions in parties.
The vote was for a recommendation to make to the council’s cabinet, made up of Labour and Liberal Democrat portfolio holders.
That cabinet will meet this morning and are likely to agree the revised project plan – essentially keeping the incinerator project on course.
Labour leader Mr Nobbs spoke of his relief that they had recommended the cabinet take that course of action and said had the outcome been different he would have considered quitting as leader.
With reports placing the possible compensation payable to Cory Wheelabrator had the council terminated the contract between £20m and £100m, there had been warnings, described as scaremongering by critics, that the authority would have to make immediate service cuts.
And Mr Nobbs said: “I had decided that it would have been impossible for me to have defied the democratic wish of the council if they had voted to cancel, but that I could not have inflicted such damage to council services.
“I would have had no option but to resign and leave others to make that decision.
“It would have been devastating had the vote gone the other way. What people have been asking for they have got - a free vote, a council debate, a public inquiry and two independent reports at cost to the taxpayer.
“I do not see what more they could ask for, but I fear they will not accept this result. I fear there is nothing they would accept if it is not in total agreement with their point of view.”
Mr Nobbs said the incinerator issue had “poisoned” Norfolk for years and that it was “time to move on”.
A decision to award Cory Wheelabrator a contract to run the £596m plant was made in March 2011 by the former Conservative administration. But the full council had never debated the incinerator until yesterday.
The incinerator had been awarded £91m in waste credits by the government, which would have been worth £169m over the lifetime of the plant.
However, the government withdrew that funding earlier this month and, with the council needing to agree a revised project plan for the plant, councillors demanded the right to vote on whether they should push ahead.
Toby Coke, UKIP leader, kicked off the debate by rubbishing claims that the council would face a compensation bill of up to £100m if it broke the contract by refusing to accept a revised project plan.
He said: “We have been told that rejecting the plan will lead to financial armageddon, but we dispute that and believe we must have the courage to bring this hugely divisive project to an end.”
He said reports he commissioned showed it would be cheaper to export waste to be burned in Amsterdam than sent to Saddlebow.
Labour leader Mr Nobbs said he was not convinced by that argument and warned “massive damage” would have to be inflicted on services if the contract was cancelled.
His argument was echoed by former Conservative deputy leader Ian Mackie, who said rejecting the contract would leave the county council staring into a “financial abyss”.
Others, including Green councillor Andrew Boswell and Liberal Democrat Tim East, disagreed, arguing a way could be found, whether through using reserves or asking the government for permission to capitalise the compensation payments.
But, ultimately it came down to 40 votes recommending the cabinet sticks with the project, compared to 38 who wanted it to be stopped.
About 75 people were packed into the public gallery at County Hall in Norwich, many bussed in from King’s Lynn, to listen the debate, which included cries of outrage from the public gallery and tears from a councillor torn by the decision.
Afterwards. Mike Knights, vice-chairman of the campaign group King’s Lynn Without Incineration (KLWIN), said he was disappointed but had expected the plan to be approved – although he had not expected it to be so close.
He said: “Anyone who thinks this draws a line under the issue is mistaken. I will be continuing to oppose it.
“There are still opportunities ahead that mean it could be stopped.”
Campaigner Joy Franklin, who has long opposed the proposal, said the defeat was “expected – but what was surprising was how close it was”.
And Henry Bellingham, North West Norfolk MP, branded “nice but dim” by Labour’s Mick Castle during the debate to the fury of the public and some fellow councillors, said: “There were 10 councillors who either didn’t vote or who voted for it who were elected on a personal or a party manifesto to stop it.
“A golden opportunity comes along to stop it, cut our losses to an acceptable level and they fail to grab it.
“The danger now is by signing the revised project plan they’re going to remain committed, more costs and liabilities will arise and the secretary of state will turn it down and leave the council liable.”
But Bill Borrett, leader of the Conservative group and one of the cabinet members who agreed to award the contract back in March 2011, said the right decision had been made.
He said: “Although the loss of the waste infrastructure credits is a significant blow, the project will
still deliver savings of several million pounds a year which will be used to protect front-line services.”