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Norfolk incinerator: political analysis

PUBLISHED: 11:00 29 January 2011

Understanding the politics behind the King’s Lynn incinerator is a bit like watching smoke rising from a chimney stack and trying to guess which direction it might go in – you think you know where it’s going, but you’re still not sure where it will end up. Particularly when the political winds keep changing direction.

Of course, we have read the claims and counter-claims about the science, but what do we make of the politics? Well, the question is “At what level do you want to start?”.

Maybe it is with the EU, whose landfill tax directives mean that we cannot keep burying our rubbish in the ground – or rather we can, but will be heavily fined for doing so.

Or perhaps our own government, in the shape of Defra, which has awarded Norfolk County Council £169m of PFI credits to progress the incinerator idea?

Or is it our own elected county councillors, who have plumped for the Cory Wheelabrator plans after months of deliberation, firstly through a project board and then review panels to the cabinet and council, to get to where they are today?

The county council probably would not have been here at all had its previous hopes for an incinerator at Costessey all gone to plan. But the so-called contract A project fell to pieces, not because of the vigorous and effective campaigning of local Lib Dem and Green councillors, nor the well-organised NAIL2 (Norfolk Against Incineration and Landfill), but because the-then contractor wanted to build on a site which, legally, it could not.

The political pressure cooled down when a second option to build a plant, this time a form of industrial composting known as anaerobic digestion, was next proposed for Costessey. The scheme was to be the first of two sites built in the county, with the second to be in either east or west Norfolk.

It was in this atmosphere that local leaders in both Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn expressed an interest in having a second, and crucially, smaller, plant in their backyard.

But when that proposal fell because of rising costs, ultimately taking with it the-then county council cabinet member for the environment Ian Monson, who paid the political price for the failure, all the chips were were then placed on the second scheme, which became the Saddlebow proposal.

And some of those initially favourable views started to alter when the proposals became larger in scale to what some of those initially keen on the idea expected.

The Lib Dems and Greens are less of a force in West Norfolk, though they’ve given the fight a go, but the politics behind this incinerator are markedly different, and a lot of the power tussles seem to be taking place among the local Conservatives.

The Tory-run county council has opted for the incinerator. Yet there are tensions with the Conservative group at West Norfolk council, a fact made even more remarkable by the presence of so many twin-hatters sitting on both authorities.

North West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham has spoken out against the plans, and the borough is organising a referendum to gauge local views on February 14. Some Tories have even spoken privately of trying to get the site shifted to Breckland. Yet are these differences real or imagined?

There is another date which is concentrating minds – the local elections on May 5, and the palpable fear that the borough elections could turn into a single issue anti-incinerator contest, when the incinerator decision is nothing to do with the borough council.

We have already had the first suggestion of anti-incinerator candidates putting themselves forward.

Some county councillors have suggested asking if the government could make the incinerator planning decision, but that request appears to have been rebuffed by the cabinet, following legal advice from the council’s head of law.

So with the threat of EU fines looming, and the prospect of up to £20.5m in compensation if the scheme fails to get past the planning hurdle, it is hard to see how the county council has left itself any political alternative other than to stay the course and see where it takes them.

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