The people have spoken – and we can tell what they said

Against the background of more twists and turns – and no small amount of spin – TPA supporter John Martin goes back to the Norfolk incinerator saga.

Tory controlled Norfolk County Council (“NCC”) is still determined to see an expensively PFI funded incinerator built at King’s Lynn, and very shortly the NCC Cabinet is due to meet to award the contract to Anglo-US consortium, Cory Wheelabrator (“CW”). But, there has been a remarkable turn of events. Some months ago, King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council (“KLWNBC”) took the brave decision to spend £53k of public money on a referendum within its district to ascertain how many residents approved of the project, and how many didn’t. The result has just been announced.

The referendum, in which CW declined to take part, 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. That, you may think, is the end of the matter. I fear not. There is no indication yet that NCC will take any notice of what the people of King’s Lynn have said, despite the additional fact that Henry Bellingham and Elizabeth Truss – the two local (Tory) MPs – have both spoken out forcefully against NCC’s proposals.

Some time before the referendum vote was due to be announced, CW – advised by £140 an hour PR consultants – commissioned its own research by telephone. Publishing the results of that research shortly before the referendum vote was declared, it argued that 65% of Norfolk residents generally were in favour of the incinerator. One newspaper reporter said afterwards, “This is a level of denial not seen since Colonel Gaddafi told the world that the people of Libya love him”. I had to agree with him, when it emerged that only 1751 residents had been canvassed, and some pretty weasily worded questions had been put to them.

Then more emerged. Papers leaked to the media demonstrated that there was clearly a PR-led campaign in place to devalue the result of the KLWNBC referendum. One of CW’s consultants advised; “We need to suggest that our absence from the referendum undermines the moral value of it and that it carries no legal value in any event”. (How is that for spin?) He went on to add; “We might want to offer [KLWNBC] a chance to see our research results (depending on how they look) in detail. We might extend this to the local MPs”. In a covering e-mail, another of the consultants apparently said; “We’d be more than happy to discuss a success-related bonus for this work going forward, if that is of interest”.

NCC is clearly acting very much in concert with CW. The same leaked papers also disclosed details of pleas by members of the NCC Cabinet to CW for help in rebutting arguments being put forward by anti-incinerator campaign groups, and for assistance in public meetings. Does that matter, you may ask. Well, this is the same NCC Cabinet that has argued all along that NCC, wearing its parallel hat as the local planning authority, is perfectly capable of determining CW’s planning application for the incinerator in an objective and unbiased way! It is the same NCC Cabinet that is proposing to accept provisions in the contract with CW that will oblige it to pay CW compensation of up to £20.5m if planning permission is not forthcoming!

What will happen now? On 7th March the NCC Cabinet will meet to make its final decision. (Despite the fact that this will be the most expensive contract ever entered into by NCC – should it go ahead – this is not a matter for the full council. That seems to me to be wrong.) Will it listen to the people of King’s Lynn, or will it ignore the referendum vote, suggesting that it is the product of mere nimbyism? To my mind, however much the people of King’s Lynn don’t want an incinerator in their back yard they probably don’t believe that incineration is the best answer to the landfill problem. Equally, they probably resent the idea of Norfolk being saddled with a second disastrous PFI contract.

Why might the NCC Cabinet back down? Well, KLWNBC is a Tory controlled district council, and the elections are due in two months’ time. If it does not back down, it seems inevitable to me that the Tories will lose control of KLWNBC. Already two Tory members of KLWNBC have stated publicly that they feel unable to offer themselves for re-election because of their association with a political party that has sought to force an incinerator on King’s Lynn. Such is the way in which our fate may well be decided.

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