Leaks can be a good thing

November 09, 2010 3:11 PM

In a further missive from Norfolk, TPA supporter John Martin explains why County Hall at present bears resemblance to a large sieve.


For some time now, the Conservative controlled Norfolk County Council (NCC) has wanted to acquire for itself a large incinerator, though only recently has it actually used the i – word. The chosen site is Saddlebow, just outside King’s Lynn and nicely remote from County Hall.


The stage has just been reached when the identity of the “preferred bidder” has been revealed. It is Cory Wheelabrator (CW), a joint venture consortium formed between Cory Environmental Services Ltd and Wheelabrator Technologies Inc, a US corporation. The deal will involve a twenty-five year PFI contract at a cost to residents of Norfolk that at the moment is far from obvious. Like all PFI contracts, however, it will no doubt turn out to be eye-wateringly expensive.


Now, what I know about incineration on this scale, together with four cents, would not buy me a haircut. But already, some pretty persuasive arguments are in circulation here in Norfolk that suggest to me it is not a good thing from the point of view of people’s health. That is as it may be, and perhaps one day I shall very much regret not doing some research, but it is recent events that are perplexing me.


Three days before the NCC Cabinet was due to confirm the appointment of CW, our worthy local rag, the Eastern Daily Press (EDP), carried a front page story announcing that it had seen documents that made it clear that once a contract with CW had been entered into, if for any reason the project did not go ahead, NCC would pay compensation of up to £20m to CW. Such a reason might, for instance, include the failure of CW to obtain planning permission for the incinerator. The compensation would cover bid development costs, bank arrangement fees, planning costs and “sub-contractor breakage costs”.


(Here I interpose. At present, NCC is trying to work out how to save £155m over the next three years, and its best idea so far is to cane the young and the elderly. Please bear that in mind, if you are still with me.)


Now, NCC just happens to be the local planning authority for the purposes of the planning application. As such, it falls under the duty to determine the application strictly in the light of development plan policies and other material planning considerations. Put conversely, it is not allowed to take into account considerations of a non-planning nature – such as being clobbered for compensation running into the millions should it refuse planning permission. But it will certainly be sorely tempted to do so, and the result could well be a planning permission that should never have been granted. How could any authority get itself into such a mess?


Within hours of the EDP’s revelations being published, all eighty-four members of NCC, together with some senior officers, received an e-mail from the prim but interesting Ms Victoria McNeill, NCC’s head of law and monitoring officer, threatening them with every sanction known to man (and woman) if further leaks occurred. Yes, you have guessed it. The e-mail was then immediately leaked to the EDP, and on the morning of the NCC Cabinet meeting the EDP had its second scoop! Cllr George Nobbs, the charismatic but thoughtful leader of the Labour group (of three) on NCC, was quoted as saying: “This is clearly the action of a very rattled council”.


To make matters worse, the Cabinet turned up to County Hall to find a very impressive and well-organised demonstration going on, with some placards demanding that the compensation provision be dropped. Others urged that planning permission should be free from financial blackmail. In attendance were Anglia News and Radio Norfolk.


Dispirited though I feel by these events, two things do comfort me. First of all, the public is increasingly now prepared to make itself heard when attempts are made to keep it in the dark about the ways in which its money is being put at risk. Secondly, there is at least one member or senior officer at NCC who believes in the need to be open and transparent, and this means that County Hall will continue to leak like a sieve until NCC mends its ways.


John Martin, Norfolk


In a further missive from Norfolk, TPA supporter John Martin explains why County Hall at present bears resemblance to a large sieve.


For some time now, the Conservative controlled Norfolk County Council (NCC) has wanted to acquire for itself a large incinerator, though only recently has it actually used the i – word. The chosen site is Saddlebow, just outside King’s Lynn and nicely remote from County Hall.


The stage has just been reached when the identity of the “preferred bidder” has been revealed. It is Cory Wheelabrator (CW), a joint venture consortium formed between Cory Environmental Services Ltd and Wheelabrator Technologies Inc, a US corporation. The deal will involve a twenty-five year PFI contract at a cost to residents of Norfolk that at the moment is far from obvious. Like all PFI contracts, however, it will no doubt turn out to be eye-wateringly expensive.


Now, what I know about incineration on this scale, together with four cents, would not buy me a haircut. But already, some pretty persuasive arguments are in circulation here in Norfolk that suggest to me it is not a good thing from the point of view of people’s health. That is as it may be, and perhaps one day I shall very much regret not doing some research, but it is recent events that are perplexing me.


Three days before the NCC Cabinet was due to confirm the appointment of CW, our worthy local rag, the Eastern Daily Press (EDP), carried a front page story announcing that it had seen documents that made it clear that once a contract with CW had been entered into, if for any reason the project did not go ahead, NCC would pay compensation of up to £20m to CW. Such a reason might, for instance, include the failure of CW to obtain planning permission for the incinerator. The compensation would cover bid development costs, bank arrangement fees, planning costs and “sub-contractor breakage costs”.


(Here I interpose. At present, NCC is trying to work out how to save £155m over the next three years, and its best idea so far is to cane the young and the elderly. Please bear that in mind, if you are still with me.)


Now, NCC just happens to be the local planning authority for the purposes of the planning application. As such, it falls under the duty to determine the application strictly in the light of development plan policies and other material planning considerations. Put conversely, it is not allowed to take into account considerations of a non-planning nature – such as being clobbered for compensation running into the millions should it refuse planning permission. But it will certainly be sorely tempted to do so, and the result could well be a planning permission that should never have been granted. How could any authority get itself into such a mess?


Within hours of the EDP’s revelations being published, all eighty-four members of NCC, together with some senior officers, received an e-mail from the prim but interesting Ms Victoria McNeill, NCC’s head of law and monitoring officer, threatening them with every sanction known to man (and woman) if further leaks occurred. Yes, you have guessed it. The e-mail was then immediately leaked to the EDP, and on the morning of the NCC Cabinet meeting the EDP had its second scoop! Cllr George Nobbs, the charismatic but thoughtful leader of the Labour group (of three) on NCC, was quoted as saying: “This is clearly the action of a very rattled council”.


To make matters worse, the Cabinet turned up to County Hall to find a very impressive and well-organised demonstration going on, with some placards demanding that the compensation provision be dropped. Others urged that planning permission should be free from financial blackmail. In attendance were Anglia News and Radio Norfolk.


Dispirited though I feel by these events, two things do comfort me. First of all, the public is increasingly now prepared to make itself heard when attempts are made to keep it in the dark about the ways in which its money is being put at risk. Secondly, there is at least one member or senior officer at NCC who believes in the need to be open and transparent, and this means that County Hall will continue to leak like a sieve until NCC mends its ways.


John Martin, Norfolk


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