King’s Lynn Incinerator

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:16 pm on 16th January 2013.

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Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk 4:16 pm, 16th January 2013

Although there is overwhelming consensus in favour of diverting waste from landfill, support for incineration is rapidly diminishing around the world. Increasingly, it is seen as yesterday’s technology—old technology that is going out of fashion. In spite of that, Norfolk county council has opted for incineration to sort out Norfolk’s waste, in the face of massive public opposition, which I will come back to in a moment, and the opposition of the local borough council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk and all of Norfolk’s MPs.

In March 2011, the county council awarded a contract to Cory Wheelabrator to build a huge 268,000-tonne plant at Saddlebow, near King’s Lynn in my constituency. In spite of opposition from so many quarters, the council tried to give itself permission at a planning committee in June 2012. I am pleased, however, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government issued a holding notice and called in the application, for which I and Norfolk’s other MPs are grateful. The hearing before Norfolk county council’s planning committee was a total farce, and no one received a fair hearing. I am confident that at the public inquiry, though, we will be treated with great respect; I have every confidence in the inspector.

The Saddlebow site, which is to the west of King’s Lynn, is totally unsuitable for a county-wide facility. If we are to put such a facility in Norfolk, we should not put it in the far west of the county, not least because of the number of vehicle movements necessary along already stretched roads. Furthermore, the site is upwind of Norfolk’s third largest community—I will come back to the health risks—and of the internationally renowned Wash, famous for its shellfishery and as a breeding ground for many other species. It is upwind of numerous sites of special scientific interest and areas of outstanding natural beauty, including Roydon common and the Dersingham bog on the Sandringham estate. It is also on a floodplain so, frankly, the county council could not have picked a more unsuitable site.

The figures in the contract signed by Norfolk county council with Cory Wheelabrator are huge, amounting to £596.9 million over 25 years. I understand that the runner-up was AmeyCespa, which had a bid total £46 million more favourable than Cory Wheelabrator’s. Norfolk county council must explain why it went for the more expensive solution. We must see some transparency and the evaluation results made public. Furthermore, why did it switch to Cory Wheelabrator at the last moment? The council also negotiated a £20 million penalty clause and an agreement to pay Cory Wheelabrator’s legal fees beyond a figure of £100,000, which I find staggering. The contract surely represents an abject and total failure by the county council to protect Norfolk’s hard-pressed council tax payers. As my colleagues are aware, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs issued private finance initiative waste credits about a year ago. At the time, our view was that those waste credits were not a good use of money and that DEFRA’s own criteria, which demand a broad public consensus, were not met. The contract, however, was signed, and the PFI credits signed off.

Palm Paper has a large paper-mill near the proposed site and, at the time of the planning application, Cory Wheelabrator claimed that it was in detailed, advanced and ongoing negotiations with the mill for the offtake of heat. That claim was repeated in DEFRA’s waste infrastructure delivery programme report that was issued in October 2011. The WIDP report is the transactor monthly report, which is more of a technical document, and one was published the other day—again, there was talk of links with Palm Paper and the offtake of heat. Palm Paper, however, has denied that talks were taking place or that they were at an advanced stage, so we need to know what was going on. What was happening? Can the county council and Cory Wheelabrator clarify things?

What do the public think of all this? During the consultation process I chaired some public meetings, and both sides of the argument were made vehemently and strongly. Nearly 2,000 people voted, having attended those meetings, and 99% voted against the incinerator. The borough council then carried out a borough-wide referendum covering all my constituency and most of the constituency of my hon. Friend Elizabeth Truss. It was run by King’s Lynn and West Norfolk borough council under Electoral Commission rules, and the result was remarkable—65,516 people voted no on a turnout of 61.3%, so a total of 92.68% voted no. Compared with the recent police and crime commissioner elections, when the turnout was around 12%, that must be one of the most decisive, if not the most decisive result in British electoral history.

Neither Norfolk county council nor Cory Wheelabrator took part in the referendum. They could have done, but they refused to do so on so-called legal grounds. They could have accepted the result and looked for a compromise, or at least held discussions, but they did not. Cory Wheelabrator’s advisers, PPS, an independent communications consultancy, said in a document at the time that,

“we need to suggest that our absence from the referendum undermines the moral value of it and that it carries no legal value in any event,”

That was cynical and shabby.