The incinerator saga rumbles on

November 29, 2010 4:24 PM

Here is the story so far. Conservative controlled Norfolk County Council (NCC) chooses Cory Wheelabrator (CW) to construct and operate an electricity producing waste incinerator on a site that NCC purchased in 2008. The deal is to involve a twenty-five year PFI contract. NCC is coy about the cost to the taxpayers, but boasts that £169m in PFI credits will be paid by central government over the contract period. The local press then discovers that NCC will have to pay a penalty to CW of up to £20.5m, if for any reason the incinerator is not built. (Gulp!)

Some members of the Cabinet Scrutiny Committee decide that the decision to go ahead should be called in, but lose their nerve when officers argue that, unaccountably, the three-week delay involved would cost £600k in PFI credits. NCC also insists that it will determine the necessary planning application itself, causing Cllr George Nobbs, the energetic but cerebral leader of the Labour group (of three) at NCC, to point out that the public may just put two and two together on the issue of apparent bias.

What has happened since? Well, Mark Allen, Assistant Director of Environment and Waste at NCC was interviewed live on BBC Radio Norfolk. (Don’t groan. The Alan Partridge days are long gone.) When the presenter pointed out to him that local objectors were claiming that the total cost of the project would be between £525m and £668m, Mr Allen described their claim as “completely inaccurate” and “false”. However, when pressed, he grudgingly admitted that the total project cost was “roughly about £600m”.  (Gulp again!) What he should have realised was that NCC had previously answered a request from those objectors under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in which it had confirmed that these figures were the “affordability guidelines” set by NCC for CW to meet.

This will be the most expensive contract that NCC has ever entered into. To make matters worse, we who live in Norfolk have had a dislike of PFI contracts ever since the costs under the one for the building of the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital spiralled out of sight. No one is sure when the debt there will ever be cleared.

Now I know, like everyone else, that we cannot continue to tip so much waste into landfill, and that other solutions need to be found. But this particular project has caused some very bright minds to point out that there are still so many unanswered questions about the likely impact on health and the environment of an incinerator of this type, capable of processing 260,000 tonnes of waste a year. Pollution is bad enough, but paying the equivalent of about £25m a year under a PFI contract for the privilege of being the victim of pollution is hardly my idea of the icing on the cake.

But then, dear readers, the story took on a delightfully ironic twist. One of the objectors did some digging at H M Land Registry, and discovered that NCC had purchased the site for the incinerator subject to a comparatively recently imposed restrictive covenant prohibiting its use for the commercial production of electricity, an essential part of the project. Given that the site had once been in the ownership of Eastern Electricity, the presence of the restrictive covenant is not surprising. To make matters worse, it is quite likely that the benefit of the restrictive covenant is now vested in Centrica Energy. Even those who are not versed in the delights of commercial property law know that the terms “restrictive covenant” and “ransom” come out of the same stable.

What was the reaction of NCC when the local press broke the story? A spokesman for NCC said “this is not a showstopper” and “land covenants are not only very common, but they are also entirely negotiable”. Indeed they are if negotiation is backed by someone else’s money, namely the taxpayers’. What on earth was NCC doing in purchasing the site with this use in mind, knowing that it was burdened with the restrictive covenant?

All in all, you must agree that this looks a pretty sorry mess to date. And, of course, this is all against the background of NCC trying to make savings of £155m over the next three years, and in so doing cutting vital services like mad. Who is to blame for the mess? It seems to me that the ruling Conservative group has lost control of NCC’s officers, and given the amount of infighting within that group lately perhaps it is not surprising that eyes have been taken off balls. But that is for another time.Here is the story so far. Conservative controlled Norfolk County Council (NCC) chooses Cory Wheelabrator (CW) to construct and operate an electricity producing waste incinerator on a site that NCC purchased in 2008. The deal is to involve a twenty-five year PFI contract. NCC is coy about the cost to the taxpayers, but boasts that £169m in PFI credits will be paid by central government over the contract period. The local press then discovers that NCC will have to pay a penalty to CW of up to £20.5m, if for any reason the incinerator is not built. (Gulp!)

Some members of the Cabinet Scrutiny Committee decide that the decision to go ahead should be called in, but lose their nerve when officers argue that, unaccountably, the three-week delay involved would cost £600k in PFI credits. NCC also insists that it will determine the necessary planning application itself, causing Cllr George Nobbs, the energetic but cerebral leader of the Labour group (of three) at NCC, to point out that the public may just put two and two together on the issue of apparent bias.

What has happened since? Well, Mark Allen, Assistant Director of Environment and Waste at NCC was interviewed live on BBC Radio Norfolk. (Don’t groan. The Alan Partridge days are long gone.) When the presenter pointed out to him that local objectors were claiming that the total cost of the project would be between £525m and £668m, Mr Allen described their claim as “completely inaccurate” and “false”. However, when pressed, he grudgingly admitted that the total project cost was “roughly about £600m”.  (Gulp again!) What he should have realised was that NCC had previously answered a request from those objectors under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in which it had confirmed that these figures were the “affordability guidelines” set by NCC for CW to meet.

This will be the most expensive contract that NCC has ever entered into. To make matters worse, we who live in Norfolk have had a dislike of PFI contracts ever since the costs under the one for the building of the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital spiralled out of sight. No one is sure when the debt there will ever be cleared.

Now I know, like everyone else, that we cannot continue to tip so much waste into landfill, and that other solutions need to be found. But this particular project has caused some very bright minds to point out that there are still so many unanswered questions about the likely impact on health and the environment of an incinerator of this type, capable of processing 260,000 tonnes of waste a year. Pollution is bad enough, but paying the equivalent of about £25m a year under a PFI contract for the privilege of being the victim of pollution is hardly my idea of the icing on the cake.

But then, dear readers, the story took on a delightfully ironic twist. One of the objectors did some digging at H M Land Registry, and discovered that NCC had purchased the site for the incinerator subject to a comparatively recently imposed restrictive covenant prohibiting its use for the commercial production of electricity, an essential part of the project. Given that the site had once been in the ownership of Eastern Electricity, the presence of the restrictive covenant is not surprising. To make matters worse, it is quite likely that the benefit of the restrictive covenant is now vested in Centrica Energy. Even those who are not versed in the delights of commercial property law know that the terms “restrictive covenant” and “ransom” come out of the same stable.

What was the reaction of NCC when the local press broke the story? A spokesman for NCC said “this is not a showstopper” and “land covenants are not only very common, but they are also entirely negotiable”. Indeed they are if negotiation is backed by someone else’s money, namely the taxpayers’. What on earth was NCC doing in purchasing the site with this use in mind, knowing that it was burdened with the restrictive covenant?

All in all, you must agree that this looks a pretty sorry mess to date. And, of course, this is all against the background of NCC trying to make savings of £155m over the next three years, and in so doing cutting vital services like mad. Who is to blame for the mess? It seems to me that the ruling Conservative group has lost control of NCC’s officers, and given the amount of infighting within that group lately perhaps it is not surprising that eyes have been taken off balls. But that is for another time.

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