Sheep jibes and the full force of Westminster - incinerator decision day at Norfolk County Council
06:30 30 June 2012
Archant © 2012
Security guards in orange jackets kept the crowd outside in line, while other burly men kept a sharp eye out for any trouble inside.
Even the police were expected to attend - just in case.
But rather than walking into a boisterous nightclub on a Saturday, this was the welcome to Norfolk County Council on incinerator decision day.
Preparations were in place just in case tensions ran high on an emotive issue.
The public gallery was packed, 70/30 in favour of the anti-incinerator campaigners, with many more who had travelled east from King’s Lynn sitting in a separate room listening to the proceedings.
Everyone present knew a big decision was forthcoming. They had seen the recommendation to approve the Cory Wheelabrator application and were 99pc sure the decision would follow suit.
But with 16 anti-incinerator campaigners receiving three minutes each, the opposing case would have its moment.
Maybe, just maybe, those in opposition could bring enough councillors onto their side.
Explanations on the burner were offered, arguments presented and questions posed by councillors from the planning committee.
Every strong point in favour of throwing out the plan was greeted with cheers inside and outside the chamber.
A smattering of applause welcomed the applicant’s view this was a thorough proposal which had to happen.
Two hours into proceedings and it was little different to the usual planning meetings, albeit a bit more detailed in talking through the proposal.
After all, the council was keen to show it was acting in a transparent manner.
Several councillors had earlier declared personal interests in the application followed by the point they were approaching this matter with an “open mind”.
But as the apparent “open minds” started to fill up with the respective arguments, it was perhaps one of the more unlikely sources that stirred the debate to life and brought to the fore the tensions at the heart of the matter.
Step forward North West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham.
Several appeals had been made to give Mr Bellingham, and other objectors, more time to make their points.
Each time they were knocked back by chairman John Rogers.
But experienced parliamentarian Mr Bellingham was not to be stopped. His grounding in the Commons shone as he battled on, urging Mr Rogers to allow democracy to rule.
In fact, Mr Bellingham didn’t care if the answer was no - what he had to say was far more important.
The Arab Spring, European uprisings - lessons of these events needed to be learnt, insisted the MP.
Chairman John Rogers, in the uneviable task of managing proceedings, tried to keep things in something resembling order.
He opened the meeting with a warning members of the public would be ejected if they shouted out and interrupted.
Mid-way through the debate, one did shout out to tell Mr Rogers to be more polite.
Tensions continued to simmer, with the security guards watching on albeit not required.
But as the hours ticked by, and after a strong case had been presented by the objectors, the proceedings enjoyed a couple of stranger moments as the finish line neared.
Cory Wheelabrator and supporters took their time at the microphone.
Incinerator supporter Pauline Johnson told those gathered she believed most people who had objected didn’t really understand the technology.
She added: “Norfolk people tend to follow like sheep.”
There ensuing sounds were not quite baas and bleats from the public gallery, yet the groans suggested they did not agree.
Talks swept the chamber the meeting could continue until 8pm, with Mr Rogers insisting a decision would be made on the day.
Suddenly, and unexpectedly, the pace of the meeting changed as the councillors moved onto debating the matter.
Labour’s George Nobbs was the first to strike, proposing the decision to be deferred. He lost.
But when Mr Nobbs asked for recorded votes, things became a little more confused.
Twice, maybe three times, councillors voted on whether they should have recorded votes - no-one was quite sure what was going on.
A second bid to defer the decision soon emerged, before Conservative Barry Stone pushed for a decision.
Within minutes the inevitable decision arrived and the application was approved, although the wait will continue as communities secretary Eric Pickles makes up his mind.
More than seven hours of talking and no certainty. But it was a time in which the full force of Westminster sat alongside sheep jibes. That isn’t normal, although yesterday always promised to be far from the usual mundane planning meetings.