The burning issue

This spring, by a vote of 20 to one with one abstention, Cornwall County Council’s Planning Committee denied an application for a massive incinerator.

SITA UK, which has a 30-year waste treatment contract with the council, had applied to build a £100 million, 240,000 tonne/ year energy-from-waste (EfW) facility near St Dennis in the heart of the Cornish peninsula. However, the subsidiary of the French waste giant encountered strong opposition from local residents, about 150 of whom greeted councillors with protest placards and chants before watching the proceedings.

Campaigners were especially angry that a draft report prepared by planning officers advising councillors to refuse the application had been replaced by a version recommending approval. Ken Rickard, Chairman of the grassroots St Dennis Anti-Incinerator Group (STIG), claimed the switch, which was discovered when the draft was leaked to the Western Morning News, “bordered on corruption”.

At the committee meeting, however, Phil Mason, who prepared the final report, highlighted both the benefits and harmful impacts of the proposed plant and repeatedly told committee members: “It is up to you what decision you make.”

Due to the ‘exceptional nature’ of the meeting, the council allowed speakers to address the planning committee before the vote took place. A SITA representative was the only voice defending the application, while emissaries from STIG, Cornwall Sustainable Waste Network, Cornwall Transition Network and local parish councils, as well as a local representative and two parliamentary candidates, spoke in opposition. Opposing arguments centred on the unsuitability of a central facility for a long peninsula with a dispersed population; health risks associated with incineration; the visual, aural and environmental impacts the plant would have on nearby villages; and the need to use alternative, green technologies. MP Matthew Taylor went so far as to dub incineration “a twentieth-century solution to a twenty-first-century problem”.

In the end, councillors refused the application on the grounds that: a single EfW plant in the proposed location would not be sustainable; the application contradicted several policies in the Development Plan; and the facility would have unacceptable impacts on ancient agricultural land and listed buildings, on users of public rights of way and on the landscape by virtue of its scale.

Only Les Hunkin, Lib Dem representative for Mevagissey, voted in favour of the application. He said: “It has been the policy of the council for the last eight years to have a single incinerator and I’ve not heard of a better option... The people of Cornwall are going to pay for this change of heart by the planning committee.”

And indeed, should SITA not appeal or lose its appeal, Cornwall will face the daunting prospect of formulating a plan from scratch to meet its 2013 Landfill Directive targets and avoid substantial fines. Before the vote, Chairman Roger Bonney explicitly told the committee: “There is no Plan B. It is only what is in front of you that is being discussed.”
Amidst jubilant protestors after the meeting, at least one campaigner soberly admitted the fight was not over.

Elizabeth Hawken, Chair of Cornwall Sustainable Waste Network, reflected: “This is not the end of the road; it’s a small victory in a very long war. They’ve turned down this application, but there will be other steps. SITA might be sensible and look at other technologies, but they’re so wedded to incineration that I suspect they will go to appeal.”
Whatever happens in Cornwall, the decision could have far-reaching repercussions around the country. Indeed, politicians in Plymouth responded to events in Cornwall by calling for a revision of their city’s own incinerator plans. Stephen Kearney, leader of the Lib Dems in South West Devon, said: “The Liberal Democrats have listened properly to the people of Cornwall and they have responded appropriately.”