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How spin failed to deflect the heat on Norfolk's burning issue, as sparks flew over King's Lynn incinerator plans

Residents made their views clear in West Norfolk council's poll. Picture: Ian Burt.

Residents made their views clear in West Norfolk council's poll. Picture: Ian Burt.

Archant © 2011

Norwich didn’t want an incinerator. Nor does King’s Lynn. But spin doctors claimed their market research shows Norfolk’s in favour of the plan - as leaked documents revealed how they tried to undermine a council poll that delivered a resounding ‘no’ vote.

"If I’ve learned one thing from politics, it’s that the people are rarely wrong."

A senior West Norfolk councillor’s take on the poll result

Cory Wheelabrator knew it would have a mountain to climb when West Norfolk council published the results of its poll asking local people whether they wanted an incinerator to be built at Saddlebow.

Votes taken by a show of hands at public meetings in towns and villages from the Fens to the coast had been almost unanimously against it.

Cory’s messages were failing to stick, despite engaging PPS – a £140-an-hour PR firm to get the community back on-side.

On Valentine’s Day, many people in West Norfolk got more than a card in the post. Ballot papers were dropping onto their doormats asking for a simple yes or no vote – tick here if you want it, tick here if you don’t.

In an internal briefing paper, obtained by the EDP, PPS’s Paul Kelly explained how the referendum had moved the goalposts and what damage limitation would be needed when the result was announced.

Mr Kelly warned that Cory Wheelabrator’s response would be “critical to [the] overall credibility of the project” and even whether the incinerator planning application succeeded.

Until now, the paper went on, the PR strategy had been “open and measured”.

“The referendum has tended to complicate this approach by the simple reason that it cuts across the normal consultation process and simplifies the isssues involved to an unhelpful degree,” it said.

Cory had decided not to participate in the referendum, claiming the question contained within did not reflect the complexity of the issues at stake.

“We need to suggest that our absence from the referendum undermines the moral value of it and it carries no legal value in any event,” said Mr Kelly.

Instead of taking part in the council poll – by providing the arguments in favour to sit alongside the arguments against on the ballot paper – Cory would carry out its own market research, using its own questions.

“We need to publish the results of the survey and be unrepentant as to why we did it because the council gave us no choice,” adds Mr Kelly. “We might want to offer the borough council a chance to see our research results (depending how they look).”

Cory engaged the polling organisation ComRes to carry out its own survey. They contacted 1,751 adults between February 17 and February 22. Some of them complained that the questions were one-sided.

One woman who contacted the EDP said: “They were exceptionally leading, you didn’t have a choice really.”

When the EDP asked Cory for the questions, they refused to supply the wording.

Releasing its results minutes before West Norfolk published its figures, Cory said its research showed 65pc of Norfolk people were in favour of the incinerator, but 63pc of people living in Lynn were against it.

Meanwhile, just over 70,000 people took part in the council’s poll. Nearly 93pc – 65,516 of them – said they didn’t want the incinerator. West Norfolk council is Tory run, but doesn’t dance to County Hall’s tune. It led the successful campaign against a Norfolk super-council, harnessing the community’s anger at plans to rule the west of the county from Norwich.

There are similarities here. In private, senior councillors and officials say the incinerator is being railroaded through without the opinions of the community being taken on board.

“If I’ve learned one thing from politics, it’s that the people are rarely wrong,” one said yesterday.

The county council will make the final decision over the incinerator. But the feeling at West Norfolk’s King’s Court HQ yesterday was that the ‘no’ vote was so resounding that it cannot be ignored.

That may well be what its leader Nick Daubney has to say when he addresses the county council cabinet on Monday. Mr Daubney learned he’d be invited to address the meeting from yesterday’s EDP.

Monday is a potential milestone, as the council decides whether to award Cory Wheelabrator the 25-year contract to build and operate the incinerator.

Local MPs are calling for a rethink over Norfolk’s entire waste disposal plan. They say the results of the West Norfolk poll are too decisive to be ignored. Cory Wheelabrator’s PR advisors are angling for a “success bonus” if the incinerator plan goes ahead.

When asked about the leaked documents, Cory said: “We were very disappointed that private and confidential documents were sent to the media by an opposition group.

“This document was simply a draft for an internal conference call to decide a way forward. Some of the recommendations contained in it were adopted and some were not – this is to be expected from any recommendations and we stand by our consultants.

“The context for the draft document was that we were not happy about the poll. We have always said that we thought the poll was ill conceived as the question was neither accurate nor neutrally phrased and it was conducted before our planning and environmental permit consultations had been completed.

“We therefore felt that the moral value of the poll was undermined and faced with this we needed to decide how to respond, as the issues that needed to be communicated are very complex.”

North West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham said Tuesday was “an extraordinary day”. Monday could turn out to be even more extraordinary.

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