Independent report into Norfolk incinerator finds proper process was followed

The sun sets over the King's Lynn Incinerator site near Saddlebow. Picture: Matthew Usher.

The sun sets over the King's Lynn Incinerator site near Saddlebow. Picture: Matthew Usher. - Credit: Matthew Usher

An independent report into the way the hugely controversial contract for an incinerator in Norfolk was entered into has been published - and concluded proper processes were followed.

Norfolk County Council's decision, in 2011, to award a contract to Cory Wheelabrator to run the £600m plant at Saddlebow in King's Lynn has long been under scrutiny.

The council's cabinet, in June, commissioned an independent report investigating the process of the contract award.

Jonathan Acton Davis, QC, was selected by anti-incineration campaigners to carry out the review, and his report was published today.

Questions had been asked over whether officers did enough to mitigate the risk of the Saddlebow proposal not getting planning permission and if the controlling cabinet, rather than full council, had the authority to award the contract.

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Mr Acton Davis said: 'I can find nothing to lead me to conclude that any undue risk was taken. I can identify no areas in which I can see potential scope for the holding to account of officers. I have found nothing which would enable me to conclude that the cabinet exceeded its authority in authorising the contract.'

Mr Acton Davis acknowledged he had 'some difficulty' over whether officers had identified how to pay compensation should the plant not get planning permission.

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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 it had not been forseen there might be a change of mind, that the risk of planning failure was low and that, before May this year, the council had sufficient reserves to pay compensation.

He said: 'Ultimately, it is a matter for the current administration whether they accept that explanation as adequate.

'For my part, although I found this aspect difficult, it seems to me that in circumstances where there were sufficient funds available, officers cannot be faulted for not identifying a problem which did not exist.'

The issue of the availability of funds for compensation has become a political hot potato in recent months. The county council voted by 40 votes to 38 in October to agree a revised project plan for the incinerator, ensuring it remains in the pipeline, despite the government cancelling a PFI grant worth £169m, which would have helped pay for its running.

Some councillors were unhappy officers had presented advice that the council, had it terminated the contract, would have had to quickly find compensation of £20m plus and that services would suffer as a result.

George Nobbs, leader of Norfolk County Council, said: 'We accept Mr Acton Davis's conclusions and expect everybody else to do the same.'

• Click here to read the report by Jonathan Acton Davis, QC, and here to read the appendix.

• See tomorrow's EDP for a special investigation into the 11th hour change of mind on the incinerator and how unelected officials were given votes in behind closed doors meetings.

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