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Norfolk incinerator inquiry sparks criticism from both sides

PUBLISHED: 10:44 15 April 2014 | UPDATED: 10:44 15 April 2014

The site at Saddlebow where the incinerator was proposed. Picture: Ian Burt.

The site at Saddlebow where the incinerator was proposed. Picture: Ian Burt.

Archant © 2010

Norfolk’s ill-fated incinerator is to be the subject of an inquiry, as the leader of the county council conceded there were still questions over the saga which needed answers.

While the man who will conduct the probe has warned he is prepared to “ruffle a few feathers”, the inquiry has been criticised as not being truly independent – by opponents and supporters of the burner.

The former council leader who led the authority when the contract for the incinerator was awarded, Derrick Murphy, has already said he will play no role in the inquiry – because he does not see the man charged with conducting it as “impartial”.

Norfolk County Council voted last week, by 48 votes to 30, to terminate the contract with Cory Wheelabrator for the plant at Saddlebow.

The axing of the contract for the £610m plant – and the compensation the council will have to pay Cory Wheelabrator – means taxpayers will have paid £35m.

At a meeting of the council’s controlling Labour/Liberal Democrat cabinet yesterday, council leader George Nobbs revealed he had asked for an inquiry.

The inquiry will be conducted by the council’s independent chairman of the standards board, Stephen Revell, a former Liberal Democrat councillor and one-time joint leader at County Hall.

It will look at three issues:

How and why the council got into the situation in the first place;

How and why the council reached the decision to terminate;

What the effect was of outside political involvement in helping or hindering the fulfilment of the contract.

Mr Nobbs said: “As we well know there have been many calls for a public inquiry. It is not in my power to order one, as that is a matter for the prime minister. If he did so, that would take months or years and cost millions, but that is a matter for him.

“But I do accept the public is entitled to further answers about the whole process. This has resulted in a bill of £30m taxpayers will have to pay.”

He said the inquiry would focus on the political process and Mr Revell would report back to the council’s head of paid services.

Mr Revell, a former Liberal Democrat group leader of the council, said: “I’m well aware what a divisive issue this has been for Norfolk and I hope I can have a constructive role to play in getting to the bottom of how the decision to proceed was arrived at. If I need to ruffle a few feathers along the way, so be it.”

But the nature and scope of the inquiry has been criticised by those who fought to stop the incinerator – and those involved in the decision-making process.

Richard Burton, an environmental consultant who has long opposed the incinerator, said: “To carry any credibility the inquiry needs to be fully independent. We need somebody who is independent, not connected to the council at all, and has the necessary expertise in the subject areas.”

And Derrick Murphy, former leader of the then Conservative-controlled council and a member of the cabinet which agreed to award the incinerator contract, said: “I do not regard Mr Revell as impartial and will play no role in this inquiry. I want a proper independent inquiry conducted by people with a legal background with no links to Norfolk County Council.”

But his successor as Conservative group leader took a different tack. Bill Borrett, who was also on the cabinet when the decision to award the contract was taken, said of the inquiry: “I think anything that helps increase understanding must be a good thing.

“I believe everything was done by the book and I’m sure the inquiry will say that. If it helps reassure people, I think it’s a good idea. If they want to talk to me I will make myself available.”

But Tim East, Liberal Democrat for Costessey and long-standing opponent of incineration: “This inquiry is the cheap option rather than a root and branch investigation into what really went wrong.

“The brief isn’t wide enough and it should be completely independent of County Hall. Whatever the outcome of this internal inquiry it will be perceived as a whitewash by the public.”

Yet Richard Bearman, leader of the Green Party group at County Hall, said: “I’m pleased that the Green call for an inquiry, made at the April 7 full council, has resulted in the inquiry into who, what and when decisions were made about the ill-fated incinerator contract.”

What do you think? Write, giving full contact details, to Letters Editor, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE.

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