THE INCINERATOR BECOMES A BURNING ISSUE

January 27, 2011 10:13 AM

With a sense of impending doom, TPA supporter John Martin brings us up to date on the Norfolk incinerator project.

At the risk of repeating myself, when – figuratively speaking – I last set pen to paper Norfolk County Council (NCC) remained hell bent on acquiring itself an incinerator. It much preferred terms like “energy from waste plant”, but on a good day its officers emerged sufficiently from the closet to use the i – word. Nevertheless, problems were starting to appear.

NCC chose a contractor, the US arm of which was soon to be reported as attracting the eye of the Massachusetts’ attorney general in relation to environmental violations on her patch. The deal was to involve a costly twenty-five year PFI contract, something of which we in Norfolk already have had a bad experience. Expensive penalty provisions were to be included in the contract, sheltering the contractor if the project failed to get clearance. Research uncovered the fact that the land in King’s Lynn that NCC had already acquired as a site was burdened by a restrictive covenant preventing its use for the commercial production of electricity. And NCC unwisely took the view that it could be judge in its own cause and determine the necessary planning application itself.

(On this last point, even the NCC Cabinet Scrutiny Committee took fright and asked the Cabinet to request a call-in by the Secretary of State. This merely prompted an internal statement to the effect that NCC would be doing nothing wrong if it granted planning permission itself. This caused steam to erupt from the ears of Cllr George Nobbs, the flamboyant but concerned leader of the Labour group (of three) at NCC.)

The enemy – sorry, the objectors – then put forward some extremely convincing technical arguments to demonstrate that the incinerator was very likely to have a disastrous impact on health and the environment over a wide portion of Norfolk, albeit not including the site of County Hall. Even I started to understand how difficult it can be to ensure that there are no unacceptable levels of dioxin emissions. However, NCC resolutely refused to answer those arguments, and announced that it was satisfied with what it had read on informed websites.

King’s Lynn Borough Council, no doubt encouraged by the tenor of the Localism Bill, agreed to hold a referendum on whether the incinerator should be built, and that is shortly to take place. NCC professed itself unwilling to give weight to the result. A concerned resident made a formal complaint to NCC about misleading statements on its website, but that was summarily dismissed. Private Eye, in its Rotten Boroughs’ feature, reminded its readership of the disastrous experiences in Derbyshire, Shropshire and Cornwall – I would also have thrown in Neath Port Talbot – but despite the feature being circulated to members, nothing changed.

Now, dear readers, you possibly understand the reference to a sense of impending doom. With some like-minded chums in support, I thought that it was time to put a few formal questions to the NCC Cabinet.

First of all, we asked whether any members or officers at NCC had inspected an incinerator of exactly the same design and capacity as that intended for King’s Lynn, and talked to both local occupiers and the pollution control authority. The answer? “No. The layout and design are specific to the site.”

Then we asked why NCC was unwilling to analyse the expert opinion put in front of it by the enemy – oops, the objectors – before the PFI contract is entered into, and so at a time when the penalty provisions are not in operation. (If this is left until the planning application and environmental permit application stages, and the project falls through, NCC could face a bill of up to £20.5m from the contractor.) The answer? “It is conventional for the procuring authority to award a contract before planning permission and permitting are secured as this approach represents the best value for money outcome and transfers some of the risk of failure onto the private sector.”

Finally, we asked whether Counsel’s opinion had been taken on the likelihood of success of a third party claim for judicial review on the ground of apparent bias, should NCC grant planning permission. The answer? “It is our job as elected members to determine a range of matters, sometimes contentious, which affect Norfolk and the people of Norfolk. We follow well-established practices and procedures to ensure that we do so lawfully. We do not take such responsibilities lightly and please be assured that we take the legal advice we need in each case.” Was that a “yes” or a “no”? Search me.

So there you have it. Who knows what will happen next. But this one is likely to run and run. I fear for the outcome.

With a sense of impending doom, TPA supporter John Martin brings us up to date on the Norfolk incinerator project.

At the risk of repeating myself, when – figuratively speaking – I last set pen to paper Norfolk County Council (NCC) remained hell bent on acquiring itself an incinerator. It much preferred terms like “energy from waste plant”, but on a good day its officers emerged sufficiently from the closet to use the i – word. Nevertheless, problems were starting to appear.

NCC chose a contractor, the US arm of which was soon to be reported as attracting the eye of the Massachusetts’ attorney general in relation to environmental violations on her patch. The deal was to involve a costly twenty-five year PFI contract, something of which we in Norfolk already have had a bad experience. Expensive penalty provisions were to be included in the contract, sheltering the contractor if the project failed to get clearance. Research uncovered the fact that the land in King’s Lynn that NCC had already acquired as a site was burdened by a restrictive covenant preventing its use for the commercial production of electricity. And NCC unwisely took the view that it could be judge in its own cause and determine the necessary planning application itself.

(On this last point, even the NCC Cabinet Scrutiny Committee took fright and asked the Cabinet to request a call-in by the Secretary of State. This merely prompted an internal statement to the effect that NCC would be doing nothing wrong if it granted planning permission itself. This caused steam to erupt from the ears of Cllr George Nobbs, the flamboyant but concerned leader of the Labour group (of three) at NCC.)

The enemy – sorry, the objectors – then put forward some extremely convincing technical arguments to demonstrate that the incinerator was very likely to have a disastrous impact on health and the environment over a wide portion of Norfolk, albeit not including the site of County Hall. Even I started to understand how difficult it can be to ensure that there are no unacceptable levels of dioxin emissions. However, NCC resolutely refused to answer those arguments, and announced that it was satisfied with what it had read on informed websites.

King’s Lynn Borough Council, no doubt encouraged by the tenor of the Localism Bill, agreed to hold a referendum on whether the incinerator should be built, and that is shortly to take place. NCC professed itself unwilling to give weight to the result. A concerned resident made a formal complaint to NCC about misleading statements on its website, but that was summarily dismissed. Private Eye, in its Rotten Boroughs’ feature, reminded its readership of the disastrous experiences in Derbyshire, Shropshire and Cornwall – I would also have thrown in Neath Port Talbot – but despite the feature being circulated to members, nothing changed.

Now, dear readers, you possibly understand the reference to a sense of impending doom. With some like-minded chums in support, I thought that it was time to put a few formal questions to the NCC Cabinet.

First of all, we asked whether any members or officers at NCC had inspected an incinerator of exactly the same design and capacity as that intended for King’s Lynn, and talked to both local occupiers and the pollution control authority. The answer? “No. The layout and design are specific to the site.”

Then we asked why NCC was unwilling to analyse the expert opinion put in front of it by the enemy – oops, the objectors – before the PFI contract is entered into, and so at a time when the penalty provisions are not in operation. (If this is left until the planning application and environmental permit application stages, and the project falls through, NCC could face a bill of up to £20.5m from the contractor.) The answer? “It is conventional for the procuring authority to award a contract before planning permission and permitting are secured as this approach represents the best value for money outcome and transfers some of the risk of failure onto the private sector.”

Finally, we asked whether Counsel’s opinion had been taken on the likelihood of success of a third party claim for judicial review on the ground of apparent bias, should NCC grant planning permission. The answer? “It is our job as elected members to determine a range of matters, sometimes contentious, which affect Norfolk and the people of Norfolk. We follow well-established practices and procedures to ensure that we do so lawfully. We do not take such responsibilities lightly and please be assured that we take the legal advice we need in each case.” Was that a “yes” or a “no”? Search me.

So there you have it. Who knows what will happen next. But this one is likely to run and run. I fear for the outcome.

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