Revealed: Norfolk County Council anxiety over unpublished report into axed incinerator
- Credit: Archant Norfolk 2011
Former county coroner William Armstrong was approached to help revive a report into the scrapped Norfolk incinerator, but turned down the opportunity because of a string of concerns, it has emerged.
And documents obtained through the Freedom Of Information Act also reveal how the delays with the report prompted Norfolk County Council's head of law to visit the home of the man charged with putting it together to chase up its whereabouts.
In 2014, former Liberal Democrat Norfolk County Council leader Stephen Revell was tasked with investigating the canned incinerator scheme.
The contract with Cory Wheelabrator to build the incinerator near King's Lynn was ripped up by the council that year, costing the authority £34m.
That led then council leader George Nobbs to ask Mr Revell, who had served as chairman of the council's standards committee, to investigate the conduct of members over the contract.
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But the report was never published and, in June Mr Revell wrote to the current Conservative county council leader Cliff Jordan to say he would not be able to publish a report based on the information he had been able to obtain.
He said some 'key people' had not responded or did not agree to be interviewed, so any report would be based on 'incomplete and potentially biased information'.
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The failure to publish the report has infuriated some councillors, who have called for the council to revive the report, although Mr Jordan has said he believes it would be 'a complete waste of money if we pursue this yet further'.
With Mr Revell having been provided with a council email account to carry out his work, the EDP submitted a Freedom Of Information Request to Norfolk County Council, asking for all correspondence, including emails and letters, in relation to the Revell report.
That request failed to unearth any draft report, Mr Revell's notes or any of the correspondence showing who had not responded or refused to participate in the investigation.
But, in 40 pages of emails and letters, it does reveal how, over the months which elapsed since Mr Revell was tasked with penning a report, which Mr Nobbs said was needed so lessons could be learned, it was clearly a source of embarrassment and concern that it had not appeared.
Norfolk County Council has confirmed that Mr Revell was not paid for any of his work and did not claim any expenses.
A previous independent report into the conduct of officers over the incinerator, carried out by Jonathan Acton Davis, QC, concluded proper processes were followed.
A letter written in May last year, by then council leader George Nobbs to Mr Revell says he had not heard from him for 'some considerable time' and sought an answer on when the report might be published.
A month later the county council's head of law Victoria McNeill emailed Mr Nobbs to say she had gone to Mr Revell's home near Bungay to speak to him - having twice unsuccessfully tried to see him on previous occasions.
She emailed Mr Nobbs to say: 'I asked him what stage he was at with the independent report as you had not heard back on your chasing letters and he hadn't been into County Hall for some time.
'He said that he had been very busy on the farm, being a man down at the moment, had been planning to come to County Hall for several weeks to progress the report, but hadn't made it in.
'He said he thought he had all the information he needed for the report, but was having difficulty pulling it all together. However, he felt he could have the report finished by the end of July and would consider what help he might need with finalising it.'
The council's managing director Dr Wendy Thomson paid Mr Revell a visit. She emailed 'in confidence' to the council's head of law Victoria McNeil and democratic services head Chris Walton that he was 'committed to completing his report'.
She wrote: 'He seems to have a good idea about his conclusions. His notes are held mainly on the computer in County Hall and some are held at his home.
'He accepted that someone help with assembling the list of interviewees and the chronology of events, and other factual elements of his investigation.'
Dr Thomson wrote to Mr Revell again, saying the council was coming under pressure from 'numerous FOIs and media enquiries' for the report to be published.
She wrote: 'I am conscious that the deadline by which you thought you could produce the report has now long since passed. I fully understand that this is a particularly busy time for you on the farm, but you are clearly finding it a challenge to complete the report.
'We are continuing to be pressed to publish the report via numerous FOIs and media enquiries and I therefore really do need your help in finding a way to conclude the situation.'
Dr Thomson then suggested a number of options:
1. That Mr Revell make available all the notes of his interviews and documentary research so someone could help author the report and produce it under his guidance
2. That Mr Revell provide a 'realistic' deadline for the report's completion
3. That he confirm he was unable to complete the report
She did not get a response
On January 11, Dr Thomson sent an email to Mr Nobbs in which she said she had spoken to former Norfolk coroner William Armstrong about the incomplete report.
She said: 'He is willing to have a look at the transcripts that have been assembled, assess the feasibility of completing the report and let us know if he would be able to do it.
'I will inform/seek consent from SR, but proceed without if necessary'.
She said she would be seeking Mr Revell's consent but was prepared to 'proceed without if necessary'.
She sent an email to Mr Revell two days later outlining her plan for Mr Armstrong to be given access to the interview transcripts held on the County Hall computer and asking him to let her know if he had any concerns.
A week later, Dr Thomson emailed Mr Armstrong to say she had 'not received any objections' and set a tentative deadline of mid March for Mr Armstrong to complete his work.
She said: 'It is the council's intention to make public the report, however, I would ask that this work be undertaken in confidence until the timing of its release is agreed with elected members and me.'
Mr Armstrong email a note to the council to inform them he did not feel he could undertake the task.
He wrote that while 'such a course of action might appear attractive, it is fraught with potential difficulties'.
Those difficulties included that 'certain people' had refused to co-operate. He said: 'There is, of course, no legal obligation upon anyone to do so and it would be difficult to draw any inferences from their failure to co-operate'.
He said although copies of interview records had been produced, it was 'not clear' exactly what Mr Revell had done, what information he had obtained and what conversations had taken place.
And he said: 'The way in which some of the questions asked by Mr Revell have been framed does indicate that he may have had some pre-conceived ideas about certain issues and this adds to the difficulties'.
Mr Armstrong also said the passage of time had 'complicated the situation' and 'aggravated the problems'.
And he said: 'However objective I strive to be, there is a risk of my becoming involved in political controversy and reaching judgements which could be perceived as political rather than judicial.
'I therefore do not feel in the circumstances this is a task which I could undertake.'
In May, just a day after he became council leader, Cliff Jordan requested information on the progress with the Revell Report and Dr Thomson replied that an impasse had been reached.
A month later Mr Revell wrote to Mr Jordan saying he was unable to complete the report.
He said: 'Despite my best efforts, I have come to the conclusion that it will not be possible to produce a report based on the evidence that I have been able to obtain.
'The facts of the matter are that my investigation had no powers to require people to give evidence. Some key people either did not respond or did not agree to be interviewed, which means that any report would be based on incomplete and potentially biased evidence.
'I recognise the depth of feeling in the community about this project and I am sorry that it has not been possible to produce a more satisfactory outcome.'
Mr Jordan emailed the letter to councillors and said Mr Revell had tried his 'level best'.
He wrote; 'On balance, I think we'll have to draw a line under this before it does start costing the council money. It's over two years ago and I think it would be a complete waste of money if we pursue this yet further.'
A motion attempting to revive the report was tabled at last month's full council meeting, but was withdrawn in the midst of the debate. A revised version is due to be tabled when the council meets in October.