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Norfolk - 'a precedent for democracy, not the waste industry'

Richard Burton is managing director of Burton Environmental Consulting and an IEMA accredited environmental auditor. He has been advising campaigners opposed to the incinerator scheme in Norfolk and argues that Caroline Spelman MP was right to intervene in this case and should be “commended” for her actions.


Caroline Spelman MP wrote to Norfolk County Council (NCC) stating she is still not satisfied they meet the criteria for award of PFI (waste infrastructure) credits. This reasserts the Secretary of State’s earlier June statement. NCC wishes to use PFI credits of £169m to part finance a moving grate, mass burn energy-from-waste incinerator at King’s Lynn. 

NCC has presented this as a u-turn, claiming DEFRA had previously indicated it met the criteria. Cabinet member Bill Borrett labelled the decision “irrational” and claimed this sets a precedent for other waste PFI projects, and the waste industry as a whole. However, a closer look at the evidence shows NCC’s claims are not justified. 

Richard Burton: “This most certainly does not set a precedent for the waste industry. It suits the County Council’s purposes to try to elevate this to a national issue, but other authorities need fear only if they have claimed public support where there is widespread opposition, or if like Norfolk their project also undermines their ability to meet recycling targets, another key PFI criterion.”

Each application for PFI funding is assessed on its own merits. Norfolk’s application fails to meet three of these criteria:

(1) Recycling Criteria Are Not Met

One criteria is that schemes should “contribute to or complement longer-term national targets for recycling and composting” and also a requirement to demonstrate, “that there is no future barrier to meeting reduction, reuse and recycling targets.” However, the most recent predictions from NCC show a municipal waste recycling (and composting) rate of 47% in 2020, below the National Waste Strategy target of 50%. (See attached evidence of recycling rates.)

RB: “The County Council claimed this project will increase recycling rates by 20%. In fact, evidence obtained under the Freedom of Information Act shows if it proceeds the County will fail to meet the 50% recycling target in 2020; a clear conflict with PFI criteria. This is an 8.5% downwards revision throughout the time that the PFI project has progressed; evidence that the criteria are not fulfilled.

(2) Broad Consensus Criterion Not Met

Another PFI criterion is that, “Proposals should demonstrate that other relevant authorities, the public, and interested parties have been consulted and that there is a broad consensus supporting a recognised long term waste management strategy which is reflected in the proposed solution.”

However, opposition from both local authorities and the public is long-term and county-wide; 

DEFRA refers to the results of a 2008 ‘Future of Waste in Norfolk’ consultation as demonstrating a broad public consensus - 7,831 residents responded to this consultation. There were no direct questions about waste technologies, but in an open question 39 stated a preference for incineration, and 99 opposed it.  When asked to rate their most important factor the most popular by a wide margin was ‘recycling and composting.’  Asked to identify the ‘least important’ factor, the ‘production of heat and steam’ came out on top. 

RB: “The consultation showed the public didn’t support ‘production of heat and steam’ and yet the Council’s (OJEC, April 2009) tender stated its preference for this very technology.” 

Mike Knight of the campaign against the incinerator said: “This isn’t about minor localised opposition; there has never been a broad consensus of support in Norfolk. The ‘evidence’ that NCC officers cited to DEFRA was the 2008 consultation, which does not support incineration. Apart from 65,500 votes against it in the referendum, both local MPs oppose it, the Borough Council has put aside funds for Judicial Review, and the planning consultation highlighted opposition form numerous interested parties across Norfolk. The Secretary of State is well aware of this. NCC’s Cabinet cannot even claim the support of Norfolk County Council, since it has always resisted any attempt for a full Council vote.” 

RB: “The poll to which Councillor Borrett refers to as showing 65% in favour was criticised as having leading questions…

“The 2008 report in no way demonstrates public support for a moving grate mass burn energy-from-waste plant. There is nothing to lead to this interpretation.  If DEFRA maintains otherwise, I would question whether they have read the report.” 

The referendum in which 65,516 West Norfolk residents voted “no” was the culmination of long term opposition to the scheme. Numerous public meetings were held throughout the Borough. Of 1,440 votes cast, 99.8% (1,437) were against the development, only three (0.2%) were for it. Of 16 events, NCC or the developer spoke at 12, with cases for and against delivered in 30 - 45 minute presentations, public questions, and cross-questioning. 

In June Caroline Spelman MP asked NCC to show a “broad consensus.” In response NCC asked all Norfolk’s Parish Council’s to comment on the Planning Application; an unprecedented step. This approach demonstrated Norfolk-wide opposition to the scheme. NCC’s online record of planning responses shows 64 Parishes from across Norfolk stated opposition, with nine in support. Some 22 Parish responses are classified as ‘comments.’  In total a record 2,524 objections (97%) were received, with 27 letters of support (1%), and 2% comments.

RB: “NCC sought to use the Planning consultation to show a broad consensus. In this they  failed. The record-breaking number of objections served as yet another demonstration of the overwhelming opposition throughout Norfolk as a whole.” 

(3) Two-Tier Local Authority Consensus Absent

As well as consensus from public authorities the PFI award criteria require that in ‘two-tier’ local government areas both authorities should contribute to the goals of a local Waste Strategy. The Borough Council is threatening to leave the Waste Management Partnership and has allocated funds for Judicial Reviewing the planning decision. 

DEFRA’s Role

RB “Clearly something is wrong within DEFRA, and Caroline Spelman has had to take control. Officials have either failed to sufficiently scrutinise the County’s claims, or at worst they have turned a blind eye to their own PFI criteria.

“There are a number of questions I would like to see answered? Why did NCC proceed with this project when it knew it didn’t meet the criteria? Why did DEFRA ignore its own guidance? How close is the relationship between NCC and DEFRA? To what extent will NCC’s approach to public engagement tarnish the industry as a whole?” 

NCC’s Approach to Public Engagement

Chris Bishop in the Eastern Daily Press reported: “spin doctors claimed their market research shows Norfolk in favour of the plan as leaked documents revealed how they tried to undermine a council poll that delivered a resounding ‘no’ vote”.

RB: “The Borough referendum produced the most decisive result in modern British electoral history. At a waste conference I revealed NCC’s basis for dismissing the result. I was much encouraged by their response, with the audience agreeing that the dismissal was on a false basis. You simply can’t claim the referendum was invalidated by the use of the words ‘mass burn.’  My feeling is, the more the spotlight is turned upon this; the more the industry will wish to distance itself from what has been going on.

“In Norfolk we have had a senior council director tell the press that ‘emissions are so low that they are not measureable.’  When asked to retract his statement he refused. This example of misinformation is but the tip of the iceberg. Caroline Spelman is fully aware of what has been happening in Norfolk, and this is why her response differs from those in the waste industry.

“The County Council stated the ‘no’ campaign’s referendum flier was wrong and invalidated the referendum. I audited the flier and it was correct. For example, NCC claimed reference to ‘mass burn’ was incorrect, which is unjustified with even NCC’s own Business Case using this term to describe the technology.   When campaigners claimed the incinerator was upwind of the town, NCC attacked this. Yet the planning application acknowledges this is true. The basis for dismissing the referendum does not stand up to scrutiny. 

“NCC claim they could not participate in the referendum for legal reasons, but have failed to disclose these reasons even when compelled to do so by the Freedom of Information Act Commissioner. 

“The residents of West Norfolk were well informed before the referendum and both sides had every opportunity to put their arguments across. The applicant sent promotional material to 47,000 households, and the County Council made even greater efforts. Numerous debates were held, and for weeks there was almost daily news coverage. A well informed public sent a very clear message, which has been ignored by the Council. To her credit, Caroline Spelman MP has taken a more objective stance. She should be commended for it.

“Those campaigning against the Norfolk mass burn waste PFI agree with ‘responsible localism.’ This is why when an MBT plant was proposed it drew absolutely no opposition. The opposition groups endorse the waste hierarchy. Mass burn is not the best waste option, nor the optimum form of incineration, and campaigners have advanced sophisticated economic, environmental and democratic arguments against this proposal. No one should not assume that just because the County Council is a local authority that it is infallible.

“I would urge the ESA to investigate this issue more fully before drawing conclusions. This is no policy change from the secretary for state; the ESA should know each PFI application is judged on its own merits; and Norfolk has never met the criteria. Erroneous statements from a county council about this setting a precedent for the industry are akin to scaremongering, and are dangerous in that they could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.” 

For more information about Burton Environmental Consulting visit

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