No full Norfolk County Council debate on King’s Lynn incinerator after angry meeting

PUBLISHED: 18:57 16 January 2012 | UPDATED: 09:44 17 January 2012

The proposed incinerator site at Saddlebow. Picture: Ian Burt.

The proposed incinerator site at Saddlebow. Picture: Ian Burt.

Archant © 2010

The highly controversial proposal for an incinerator at King’s Lynn will not be debated by all 84 members of Norfolk County Council, after a motion calling for such a public discussion was defeated.

And a demand for an independent investigation into the behaviour of county council leader Derrick Murphy and his cabinet colleagues in agreeing to award a contract for the Saddlebow incinerator was also lost.

The Liberal Democrat opposition at County Hall had put forward both the motions, but the Conservative group defeated them at a tense meeting yesterday.

The fiery meeting included personal attacks on councillors, allegations of bullying, accusations of smear attempts, claims of political posturing and complaints the democratic process was being eroded.

The Lib Dems say the upshot of the rejection of their motions is that only 10 members of the council - the Conservative controlled cabinet - have had a voice in the decision to build a £500m incinerator, while the public’s trust in the council has fallen.

But the Conservatives said the motions amounted to little more than political posturing by a party “desperate for votes”, that a recent High Court decision not to grant a judicial review into the process showed everything was above board and that the 2000 Local Government Act meant the final decision rested with the cabinet, not the full council.

They said the incinerator issue had been widely discussed by various committees over the past five years and prolonging the debate would merely put other companies off investing in Norfolk - because it would give the county a reputation as being difficult to deal with.

The call for a independent inquiry was put forward by Lib Dem leader Paul Morse, who said: “We are concerned this council’s reputation has been tarnished by the behaviour of some of its members.

“In particular we are concerned the council leader may have manipulated the constitutional process and abandoned respect for other councillors and the public, who are thus in danger of losing respect for his office and the council.”

He said the probe should explore whether the decision on March 7 last year to award the incinerator contract to Cory Wheelabrator had been predetermined at a Conservative group meeting three days earlier.

He questioned whether members of the cabinet scrutiny panel looking at the issue had been “whipped” and why some West Norfolk members of that committee were substituted and did not attend a meeting in April last year.

He said: “I don’t know the answers to those questions, but a public inquiry would provide them.”

Tony Adams, Conservative councillor for Drayton and Horsford, said the issue had been thoroughly discussed by a number of panels and committees.

With reference to the number of times Mr Murphy had been reported to the council’s standards committee, Mr Adams said his leader had “passionate” views and opinions, but was no bully.

The cabinet initially withdrew from the debate, after legal advice. Because the motion originally suggested they should quit if a probe found they had misled the public or councillors, officers said they should not take part because their cabinet allowances meant they had a prejudicial interest in the matter of remaining cabinet members.

But they returned after Mr Morse’s group agreed to ditch that section of the motion and an angry Mr Murphy accused Mr Morse of a “McCarthy-esque” and “repugnant” attack on him.

He called for Mr Morse to quit and said it was the Lib Dem leader who was damaging the democratic process.

Mr Morse’s Lib Dem colleague Tim East’s motion called for a full council debate on the incinerator, while recognising the final decision rested with the cabinet.

Mr East said: “This contract stands to be the most expensive, controversial and longstanding procurement this council has ever made.

“There are 84 of us here representing all of Norfolk and its people...yet only 10 of us have a voice in this decision.”

Conservative Roger Smith, who represents Henstead, said the constant “wittering” was damaging the chances of investors coming to Norfolk.
He said: “They will get the impression in Norfolk that we cannot make our minds up on anything.”

Although the motions garnered support from Labour and the Greens, the one for an independent inquiry was defeated by 59 votes against to 20 for, with three abstentions.

The one for a full council debate on incineration was lost by 56 votes against to 20 for and three abstentions.

The council is still waiting to hear whether environment secretary Caroline Spelman will release £169m worth of Private Finance Credits to fund the incinerator, which the county says will save millions of pounds a year by reducing landfill.

Mrs Spelman is with-holding the money until evidence of ‘broad consensus’ of support for the council’s waste strategy is provided.

While a number of district council leaders had written in support, West Norfolk Council and Norwich City Council have both written to state they are not in favour of incineration, which anti-incinerator campaigners hope will cause her not to release the funding.

The council’s planning committee will decide whether to grant planning permission for the plant.

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