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Update: Council bosses quizzed over potential bill for pulling plug on Norfolk incinerator

PUBLISHED: 12:20 04 June 2013 | UPDATED: 08:52 05 June 2013

The proposed incinerator site at Saddlebow. Picture: Ian Burt.

The proposed incinerator site at Saddlebow. Picture: Ian Burt.

Archant © 2010

Councillors and officers have locked horns over who is to blame for potentially landing Norfolk taxpayers with a £90m bill, should a multi-million pound incinerator be scrapped.

The costs of Norfolk County Council withdrawing from the controversial energy from waste project at Saddlebow, near King’s Lynn were also disputed in fiery exchanges between councillors and the council officers who have worked on the proposal.

With a number of councillors on the new-look council keen to pull the plug on the plant, set in motion by the former Conservative administration, passions ran high at yesterday’s meeting.

Finance, environment and waste chiefs were put on the spot by councillors sitting on the cabinet scrutiny committee at County Hall.

And the meeting concluded with councillors passing two motions, recommending that the ruling council cabinet orders independent inquiries, to be conducted by QCs or top legal firms, into the costs of withdrawing from the incinerator contract and whether the council was given the right advice when entering into the contract with Cory Wheelabrator.

Council officers warned that scrapping the contract could lead to external auditors having to be parachuted in to sort out the authority’s finances, if ditching the incinerator left the council unable to balance the books.

In a heated three-hour debate in which one councillor later apologised for comments made to officers, UK Independence Party leader Toby Coke accused council officers of “scaring” the public by suggesting a £90m bill come up with when Cornwall County Council looked at pulling out of a similar scheme was comparable to Norfolk.

“It (the £90m) was taken completely out of context,” he said.

But director of environment, transport and development Mike Jackson said the figure was merely used as a “useful indicator”.

Council chiefs looked into both the costs of voluntarily scrapping the project and the costs to the council if planning permission is not given next January by secretary of state Eric Pickles following a public inquiry. That cost was estimated at £35m.

Head of finance Paul Brittain told the committee the costs of scrapping the incinerator would have to be found from the council’s reserve funds and budget.

He added that could see £50m cut from the budget which he said would “inevitably” have an impact on the front-line services and could rack up further costs to the council by cancelling other contracts to make the savings.

The £50m equates to the cost of the fire service and the entire cultural services budgets, he said.

And Mr Brittain said it would lead to “ad-hoc” decisions to find the savings.

It would also mean that if the council’s budget could not be balanced then external auditors would have to come in from Ernest and Young to sort the council’s finances out.

Mr Jackson suggested compensating Cory Wheelabrator for their loss of profits from breaking off the £596m project could be “significantly higher” than the £90m in the “worst case scenario”.

But Liberal Democrat councillor and anti-incinerator campaigner Tim East accused the council of coming up with the £90m figure to “frighten everyone.”

Calling for an independent assessment of the costs of withdrawing, he said: “The figure is no more than conjecture, based upon the Cornish incinerator contract.

“What the report...hasn’t indicated is that an independent expert assessment concluded Cornwall would actually save up to £200m if they withdrew from the contract.”

Liberal Democrat leader Marie Strong asked Mr Jackson if the costs of withdrawal had been known at the time the contract was signed, but the environment chief said it was not something that would normally have been calculated.

Meanwhile, Conservative councillor Shelagh Gurney asked why the contract had been signed before planning permission had been given - something Dr Chris Edwards from the University of East Anglia described to the meeting as “extraordinary”.

Alexandra Kemp, Labour councillor for Clenchwarton and King’s Lynn South, also told council chiefs they should have waited for planning permission to be granted.

But Joel Hall, project director of residual waste services, who signed the contract with Cory Wheelabrator, said it was “the norm”.

He said signing the contract had helped to secure the £169m in waste credits credits from the government, which would go towards the cost of the multi-million pound project.

Under pressure to explain the advice given to the council before signing the contract, he said Defra, who award the PFI credits, and the treasury had examined the contract and approved it.

Mr Jackson said: “There is an expert national team that has overseen all the contracts and look at everyone one of these contracts across the country.

“They satisfied themselves that the deal we have got is value for money.”

Councillors have so far only been allowed to see a redacted version of the contract, leading to accusations that the council, which has so far spent around £3m on the process, has not been transparent over the incinerator.

Victoria McNeill from the council’s legal department, NP Law, agreed at the meeting to let the party leaders on the scrutiny committee, as well as committee members who requested it, see a less redacted version of the contract.

But she added: “I have to make a judgement first about what is necessary and relevant.”

Conservative councillor John Dobson, a long-standing anti-incinerator campaigner, quizzed council officers on whether they had been given “negligent” advice in signing the contract.

Mr Hill said all the advisors hired by the council were “very well regarded”.

But Mr Dobson, who was taking the place at the meeting of the absent former council leader and cabinet member for waste Bill Borrett, retorted: “This was anything but a standard contract, going into contract with a firm who had colossal problems with an incinerator in Bexley. It astonished me that this council chose such a controversial firm.”

But some Conservative councillors on the scrutiny committee supported the council officers.

Beverley Spratt said he was “concerned about the Norfolk taxpayer” and compared cancelling the contract to a young driver passing their test, buying a new car, writing it off but having to keep on paying for it.

And Cliff Jordan, former Conservative cabinet member for efficiency, accused his fellow members of going on a “witch hunt”.

“I’m finding this a bit distasteful,” he said.

And UKIP deputy leader Stan Hebborn later apologised for comments made to officers which accused them of providing “biased” information over the incinerator, while Liberal Democrat Dr Strong clarified comments which she said were not intended to cast doubt on the integrity of officers.

She said: “The reputation of this council regarding this incinerator is in a bad way.”

The county council has argued the incinerator would deal with the county’s waste and save millions of pounds a year. But in a poll organised by West Norfolk Council, 65,000 people said they were against it.

• The scrutiny committee passed two recommendations on the incinerator, which will now go to Norfolk County Council’s cabinet.

The first, proposed by UKIP leader Toby Coke and seconded by Lib Dem leader Marie Strong, below right, called for cabinet to appoint an independent firm to give a cost on withdrawing from the contract with Cory Wheelabrator and to provide a report identifying other potential costs or savings from terminating the contract.

It read: “The brief will be to identify ways how this council could extract itself from the Willows incinerator contract while keeping the cost of doing so as low as possible.”

A second motion, proposed by Conservative John Dobson, picturd left, and seconded by Lib Dem Tim East, recommended cabinet appoints a QC to review the process of how the contract was entered into.

It said: “A resulting report should be a critical examination whether the correct advice was given at each stage, whether the council took undue risk in signing the contract when it did, whether the council’s advisers could be held to account, and whether cabinet was acting within its authority in authorising the contract.”

Speaking after the meeting council leader George Nobbs said cabinet would take the recommendations “very seriously”.

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