The decision to award a £670 million PFI contract for Norfolk’s waste incinerator has been made, reports TPA supporter John Martin somewhat glumly.

Monday 7th March dawned bright, and the sun shone down on an impressive but peaceful protest outside County Hall against the proposal to build Norfolk’s first waste incinerator. But storm clouds were looming. As I rolled up to do my brief interview with BBC Radio Norfolk, I had no idea what was in store.

The Norfolk County Council (“NCC”) Cabinet meeting began with a record number of public questions about the incinerator, many of which attracted flimsy answers. (This tends to be the norm.) Then, the proposal that NCC should enter into a PFI contract costing £670 million over twenty-five years with Anglo/US consortium Cory Wheelabrator (“CW”) was considered. The proceedings began with Cllr Nick Daubeny, the leader of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council (“KLWNBC”), addressing the Cabinet. He was there by invitation to present the result of the referendum held by KLWNBC.

(Regular readers will recall that the referendum attracted a 61% response, larger than the turnout in many a general election.  The vote against the incinerator was 65,516 or over 92% of those who responded. The vote for was a mere 5,173. The vote against totalled more than Henry Bellingham and Elizabeth Truss, the local MPs who have both spoken out forcefully against the incinerator, together polled in the last general election.)

Cllr Daubeny made a simple but impassioned plea for the NCC Cabinet to drop the proposal altogether. He argued that the sheer scale of the referendum vote was proof that politicians should listen to the voters. In democracies, he said, you have to take your mandate from the people, and they had made it clear that the NCC Cabinet did not have one in this case. He urged that, as a minimum, the decision should be put on hold and then passed to the full NCC Council to make with a recorded vote being taken. This all fell, dear readers, on totally deaf ears.

The debate then ensued. Well, it was less a debate, more a drive-by shooting. The NCC Leader, Cllr Derrick Murphy, from his position as chairman orchestrated an all-out assault on the objectors, Henry Bellingham MP and KLWNBC. In the role of a grand inquisitor, or a newly appointed chairman of a House of Commons Select Committee, he spoon-fed obviously well-rehearsed questions to the panel of officers present encouraging them to trash the objectors’ arguments. He chose himself to attack Henry Bellingham MP aggressively, and left his colleagues to challenge the way in which KLWNBC had conducted the referendum. Someone sitting close to me ventured the suggestion that the whole spectacle was being stage-managed. I was already thinking that I had seen performances of an equal quality when attending local amateur dramatic productions in our village hall. As a member of NCC commented to the press later, “He was acting like a man possessed”.

There was never any doubt as to the outcome. The NCC Cabinet voted unanimously for the proposal, with one member – Cllr David Harwood – abstaining. Cllr Harwood had been an advocate for the incinerator. However, as a member of KLWNBC himself, he is facing re-election in May and the referendum result may have brought about a damascene conversion on his part.

(Ironically, of course, all the parties on the stage – save possibly some of the objectors, for whom politics seems academic – are Tories. So also is David Cameron, whose “localism agenda” took quite a hit by the refusal of the NCC Cabinet to listen to 65,615 voters.)

The likelihood, of course, is that the decision to go ahead was taken the previous Friday when the sixty-strong Tory group on NCC met in the same room in which the NCC Cabinet meeting took place. (I suppose that the choice of venue at least gives it a modicum of added authority.) This would explain the spectacle of the NCC Cabinet meeting, the like of which I have never witnessed before.

It was Henry Bellingham MP who described this as “A dark day for democracy – a dark day for Norfolk”. And he is correct. At worst, the residents of Norfolk are faced with a PFI contract that will no doubt prove to be eye-wateringly painful in time. At best, they will face a huge compensation bill from CW if the project fails to get through the planning and environmental permit application stages. This leaves out of the equation the potential risk to health and the environment, if the incinerator is built. All that is certain for now is that there will be fewer Tory twin-hatters around after the May elections.

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