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Conservative councillors told to stay away unless they intend to back controversial incinerator plan

PUBLISHED: 08:17 07 April 2014 | UPDATED: 08:52 07 April 2014

Councillors have agreed to press ahead with talks over buying the proposed incinerator site. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Councillors have agreed to press ahead with talks over buying the proposed incinerator site. Picture: Matthew Usher.

© ARCHANT NORFOLK 2013

Conservative county councillors have been told to stay away from today’s meeting unless they intend to back the burner.

We were just following advice

The man who was leader of Norfolk County Council when the controversial incinerator contract was signed has defended agreeing to it – saying he acted on the advice of officers.

With the council voting today on whether to terminate the contract with Cory Wheelabrator, the decision three years ago to award it has been thrust back into the spotlight.

North West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham criticised council officers for the advice given to councillors over the Willows plant at King’s Lynn and chided councillors for pursuing incineration.

He said: “I think the officers gave very bad advice. Members were hellbent on pushing this [incinerator] through and ignored other alternative technologies.”

An independent report by Jonathan Acton Davis, QC,

last year concluded County Hall officers had followed proper procedures.

Mr Acton Davis stated in his report that he could have been instructed to consider the “political conduct of members then in the administration”, but as he had not been, he could not comment on that.

Derrick Murphy was leader of the Conservative-controlled council when the cabinet agreed to award the contract in March 2011.

He decided not to stand for re-election last year following a standards hearing where he was found to have brought the office of the leader into disrepute. At that standards hearing, former County Hall chief executive David White revealed he had secretly recorded conversations with the former leader.

Mr Murphy said of the decision: “When we made the decision, we did so on the professional advice of officers. They are the people who know their stuff and we did so in good faith. All the way through this members have decided on the recommendation of officers.”

When asked whether he felt he and his group had done enough to scrutinise officer advice, Mr Murphy said: “We did our level best.”

Mr Murphy said there had been two applications to the High Court for judicial reviews, while the aforementioned QC had looked at the process.

Members of the Labour, Lib Dem, UKIP, Green and Independent groups are being allowed a free vote at the end of this morning’s landmark debate.

But party sources say that Conservatives were told at Friday’s group meeting not to attend unless they intended to vote to press on.

Bill Borrett, leader of the 40-strong County Hall Tory group, said he could not comment on any discussion at the group meeting because it was private.

Asked whether people had been told to stay away if they intended to vote for the contract to be cancelled, he added: “I don’t know that, I’m not omnipotent, I don’t know what people are saying to each other, I can’t say what’s been said to everybody by everybody else.

“What I will say is that I’m expecting there will be people from both sides of the argument in the Conservative group like there were in October.”

One insider present at the meeting said it was agreed that Tories from West Norfolk should be allowed a free vote on the issue, which has caused deep divisions,

But the source said other members were told they would have to toe the party line and a councillor who queried this was told: “If you don’t like what’s happening, don’t turn up.”

Independent Alexandra Kemp, whose South Lynn ward lies next to the site of the proposed incinerator, said she had written to Mr Borrett to ask for an explanation but had not received a reply.

“I think it’s wrong, there’s a whole host of issues about stopping councillors representing their divisions,” she said. “People are elected to speak up. The power of party structures has got too strong.”

UKIP leader Toby Coke said its members were not “whipped”.

“We don’t have a whip, we don’t approve of that at all,” he said. “If you can’t make your own mind up you shouldn’t be in this game.”

Council leader George Nobbs, who heads the 14-strong Labour group on the authority, said: “I would have hoped that every party leader would have given their members a free vote.”

James Joyce, deputy leader and leader of the 10-strong Liberal Democrats said members were not told how to vote.

And Green leader Richard Bearman said: “Our members are never whipped.”

• EDP comment: Do the right thing - Crunch time comes for the fate of unpopular incinerator

• PODCAST: All you need to know about the incinerator debate

North West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham has said the county’s Westminster representatives will try to get financial help from the government if the plant is scrapped – so long as the county council asks them to.

But George Nobbs, leader of Norfolk County Council, has branded claims made by Mr Bellingham as “irrational”.

Conservative Mr Bellingham had previously raised the prospect of the council getting a loan to cover the compensation bill if the incinerator did not go ahead, which could be paid back over a number of years.

When asked why there might be a case for such help, Mr Bellingham said: “The penalty clause may have been signed under duress. The county council needs to be very reticent about paying anything until they have gone through every inch of that contract. Were the people who signed it competent? This administration needs to go through it with a fine-tooth comb.

“If it falls to be paid, let’s have a request from Norfolk County Council to the government and the Norfolk MPs will mobilise and push every inch of the way to do our best on their behalf.”

But Mr Nobbs, Labour leader at County Hall, said: “Henry Bellingham’s statements are becoming more and more irresponsible.

“Anybody who understands how the commercial world works or has a rudimentary knowledge of government contracts, will be shocked by Mr Bellingham’s bizarre and uninformed assertions.

“I feel sure his colleagues among other Norfolk MPs will be as alarmed as I am by the increasingly irrational turn his comments are now taking.”

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