The £35m bill for the axed Norfolk incinerator: Who is to blame?
11:44 08 April 2014
Now that the incinerator has been ditched, costing taxpayers £35m, the question is: Who was responsible for Norfolk ending up in this mess?
If you listen to council leader George Nobbs, the chief culprit is communities secretary Eric Pickles.
Mr Nobbs said his delay in deciding whether the plant’s planning permission should go ahead, has meant the value for the money of the scheme has plummeted.
But that’s just one view.
There are others who argue the blame should rest variously with those officers who drew up the contract; with the councillors who agreed to award the contract; with those who decided to pursue incineration in the first place; with councillors who failed to scrap the incinerator sooner; with the government for withdrawing the waste infrastructure grant which would have helped pay for the plant or with MPs who lobbied the government to do so.
Here, we look at where the finger has been pointed:
Councillors - did elected members make a mistake in signing up for the burner?
Ultimately, the decisions over the incinerator have been made by county councillors. All have been taken after advice from officers.
As far as the contract goes, members of the then Conservative cabinet, who agreed to award it to Cory Wheelabrator in March 7, were:
Derrick Murphy, Bill Borrett, James Carswell, Harry Humphrey, Ian Mackie, Graham Plant, Ann Steward and Alison Thomas. David Harwood abstained.
At that meeting, a poll organised by West Norfolk Council, where 65,000 people said they did not want an incinerator, was rubbished by the cabinet as flawed.
However, critics suggest that their decision to award the contract was flawed – that the cabinet did not properly consider the risks of the £169m waste credits being lost if planning permission was
not obtained by June last year, and did not scrutinise the compensation clauses worked into the contract effectively enough.
Opponents branded the meeting where councillors agreed to award the contract “a pantomime”.
It sparked an attempt, led by campaigner Michael de Whalley, for a judicial review into the decision.
The court had heard that the March cabinet meeting was preceded by a Conservative group meeting of councillors, at which the party showed its “in principle support” for incineration.
Mr de Whalley claimed the Tory get-together meant the subsequent public meeting was “a sham” and “a stage pantomine”.
He argued the cabinet ignored a poll showing local objections and passed a “predetermined” decision. But the judge ruled this claim “unarguable”, finding Mr de Whalley had not shown that the councillors “fettered their discretion” or that their decision was one which “no reasonable authority could make”.
When the new Labour/Liberal Democrat administration formed in May last year, campaigners against the plant hoped for a fresh chance to bin the burner.
Labour’s manifesto had included a pledge to “use all legal means to suspend any plans for building any incinerators in Norfolk so that a detailed study of current, suitable methods of waste disposal can be undertaken”.
But, to the disappointment of campaigners, it quickly became clear the administration was not simply going to rip up the contract.
Mr Nobbs insists “the first thing” the new administration did was to seek legal advice on whether the council could withdraw from the contract and officers told them there was no easy way out.
But critics feel the spirit of that election manifesto pledge was not honoured. And the Conservatives argue yesterday’s ‘premature’ decision to scrap the contract was where the mistake was really made.
Officers - were they right to recommend the incinerator contract?
The signature on the contract is that of Joel Hull, Norfolk County Council project director, residual waste services. But the council is quick to stress the signing was “essentially an administrative task” after the cabinet had given approval.
Of more interest than whose signature is on the contract, is who drew it up. They were Mike Jackson (then the director of environment, transport and development), Victoria McNeill (head of law and monitoring officer), Harvey Bullen (corporate revenue manager), Mark Allen (assistant director, environment and waste, Paul Borrett (strategic waste manager) and the aforementioned Mr Hull.
The county council says there was additional support from other officers from environment, transport and development and the department of finance in the day-to-day delivery of the procurement process.
External advisers were Ernst and Young (finance), Sharpe Pritchard (legal), Marsh (insurance) and SKMEnviros (technical).
The council says the contract was developed and approved, throughout the entire process, by the government.
Many have questioned why the contract was agreed before planning permission was secured. The council’s explanation is that it was a requirement of the government’s waste infrastructure grant programme.
And there have been questions about why the contract has such compensation clauses and whether it was a standard contract.
The council has always insisted that it was – but acknowledged that in some parts the terms were not fully prescriptive.
The council said: “Cory Wheelabrator’s hybrid approach was recognised as being unusual, so HM Treasury and Defra gave it detailed consideration before they confirmed that the way it was addressed in the contract complied fully with their standard principles and requirements.”
An independent report by Jonathan Acton Davis, QC, last year concluded officers had followed proper procedures, but said he had “some difficulty” over whether officers had identified how to pay compensation should the plant not get planning permission.
He said he would have expected officers to have “at least considered” whether the council could pay that and identify the funds, but had found no evidence they had.
But, he said the officer explanation was that it had not been foreseen there might be a change of mind, that the risk of planning failure was low and that, before May last year, the council had sufficient reserves to pay compensation.
More recently, there was criticism of interim head of finance Peter Timmins, when, before the October vote, he warned the council could face bankruptcy if the contract was cancelled.
Information obtained from the Department for Communities and Local Government by North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb cast doubt on that advice, some councillors argued, but Mr Timmins stood by his advice.
Defra - has the government department cost us dear?
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs awarded the county council waste infrastructure credits to bankroll the running of the plant. That was worth £169m during the plant’s lifetime.
Environment secretary Caroline Spelman agreed in January 2012 to award the contract, after being convinced there was a general consensus in Norfolk in favour of the plant – a claim which has long been disputed by opponents.
In October last year, the waste credits were withdrawn –because planning permission had not been awarded by a specified date. The county council argued that was unfair, given the reason the planning permission had not been granted was because of another government department – the Department for Communities and Local Government.
The announcement came just days before an extraordinary meeting of the full council, where the council voted, by 40 votes to 38, to press ahead with the incinerator.
Eric Pickles - damaging delay or complicated case?
Leader George Nobbs blames communities secretary Eric Pickles, pictured.
Following last year’s planning inquiry, Mr Pickles had been given a recommendation from a planning inspector and was due to decide whether to ratify planning permission.
The date of January 14, when his department said the decision would be made, came and went and the council says it has still not managed to get an indication of when he will make a decision.
Mr Nobbs said: “Mr Pickles’ decision – or rather the total lack of it – has been the real game changer, and has made a nonsense of government rhetoric about speedier decisions on major infrastructure projects.
“What has been even more damaging has been his subsequent point-blank refusal to give us any idea
of when, if ever, he might make a decision.”
But Mr Pickles has insisted he has been deliberating “without political favour” on what was a complicated case, while Conservative John Dobson said, at yesterday’s meeting, that the delays should not have come as a surprise, given Cory’s only waste plant in this country – at Bexleyheath – took 18 years from conception to opening, including 12 years to secure planning consent.
MPs - was lobbying justified or political manoeuvring?
Conservative MPs Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk) and Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk) have been among the most vociferous opponents of the plant. While anti-incinerator campaigners celebrated their involvement, their actions have been criticised by members of their own party.
Senior Conservatives Ian Monson, former cabinet member for environment and waste, and
Cliff Jordan, former cabinet member for efficiency, both sent emails criticising MPs after the government cancelled the £169m in waste credits.
Mr Monson emailed Ms Truss saying she and fellow MPs had “kicked the people of Norfolk in the teeth” with “the worst type of political manoeuvring”.
Mr Jordan’s email, sent to fellow Conservatives, called for the county’s Tory MPs to stand for re-selection. In it he wrote: “They’ve done a disservice to the Conservatives and Norfolk in general. It’s absolute treachery. There are a lot of real Conservatives really angry with them.”
And yesterday, Mick Castle, Labour cabinet member for schools, said the MPs had acted “despicably” in lobbying for the waste grants to be withdrawn.