Norfolk to investigate incinerator debacle

Artist's impression of Cory Wheelabrator's proposed 250,000 tonne Willows Power and Recycling plant in Saddlebow 

The Leader of Norfolk County Council, George Nobbs, has called for an investigation into the ‘political decision-making’ surrounding its abandoned incinerator contract.

Last week (7 April), Norfolk County Council’s Cabinet unanimously voted to abandon its King’s Lynn incinerator contract with Cory Wheelabrator, after it was found that for every day the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, delayed making a decision on the plant’s planning permission, it cost the council £140,000.

As Pickles had not revealed when a decision would be made, the council decided that breaking its contract now, rather than later, would protect it from future costs.

Norfolk County Council will now need to pay £20.3 million of capped compensation to Cory Wheelabrator, as well as public inquiry costs of £1.6 million, and exchange rate and interest rate related costs of £8.36 million, bringing the total to around £30 million.

These costs will reportedly be met through a £19-million contingency reserve built up for the purpose, £3 million left over from the council's 2013/14 budget, and £8 million from general reserves, on the basis that the council 'takes immediate steps to replenish those reserves'.

Investigation to centre on three areas

In a meeting on Monday (14 April), Nobbs said that he believed the people of Norfolk were “entitled to an inquiry into an issue which was set to cost the authority in the region of £30 million”.

However, as a full public inquiry is not in his power, he requested that former councillor Stephen Revell, an Independent Person to the Authority’s Standards Committee (who reportedly has experience in ‘scrutinising public bodies’), look at three ‘areas of concern’:

  1. How and why did the authority get itself into this situation in the first place?
  2. How and why was the decision to terminate reached?
  3. What was the effect of outside political involvement in helping or hindering the fulfilment of the contract?

Revell has now accepted the request, and is expected to start work on the investigation ‘shortly’. The council has said that it intends to publish his findings ‘in full’, once his reported has been submitted to the authority.

‘If I need to ruffle a few feathers along the way, so be it’

Nobbs said: “A full public inquiry is not in my power and, in any case would be vastly expensive and take years to complete. However, I do accept the public are entitled to further answers and I am delighted that Stephen Revell has agreed to take this task forward.

“I can’t think of anyone else in Norfolk whose integrity would be accepted on all sides and who already has thorough knowledge of the background of how these decisions are arrived at.

“I have already said that lessons need to be learnt, and I am determined that they will be learnt. We do need a ‘no fear or favour’ approach and I am pleased that Mr Revell has responded positively to my call.”

Revell added: “I’m well aware what a divisive issue this has been for Norfolk, and I hope I can have a constructive role to play in getting to the bottom of how the decision to proceed was arrived at. If I need to ruffle a few feathers along the way, so be it.

“I gave this challenge very careful thought before deciding whether to accept it. Now that I have done so, I will take account of all sides of the argument before reaching my own conclusions. I hope anybody that knows me will realise that I will carry out my duties in a fair but effective manner.”

Read more about Norfolk County Council’s decision to cancel its incineration contractwith Cory Wheelabrator.