Defra must approve the final business case from each of the PFI credits before final award and in the case of Norfolk Defra have a number of concerns regarding the local accountability and acceptability of the proposed energy recovery facility in Kings Lynn.
This is a little late in the day, but who in their right mind wouldn’t have had concerns given the large local campaign against the proposed facility, the conflict between Kings Lynn and West Norfolk BC and the Norfolk Waste Partnership, and the on-going judicial review concerning the award of the waste contract to Cory-Wheelabrator by Norfolk CC.
In her letter to the waste partnership Ms Spellman asks that county take some time to provide evidence that a consensus has been reached on this solution and site, prior to reviewing her judgement, and offered to go and discuss the situation with them – scant comfort given the time and effort invested to date.
I know many of the stakeholders involved and have watched this situation develop over the last 18 months or so. All parties are passionate about their plans and proposals, all believe they are right in their stance and all are confident they are helping to ensure a suitable, appropriate and robust solution will be delivered that satisfies the needs of all local stakeholders.
A consensus is not going to be reached easily, even under pressure from central Government to do so. Clearly this situation is grave, and will result in a delay in proceedings in Norfolk, with the unintended consequences of increasing disposal costs, the need to build bridges between the different parties and the priority of finding a workable solution which will inevitably take time and money.
But what does it mean for other pipeline PFI projects? Could local opposition derail on-going projects in Essex, Merseyside, Tyneside and Warwickshire?
In some respects local opposition could have played a role in previous PFI credit awards - after all Cornwall and Surrey have been dogged by local opposition to preferred technologies and sites but still got their credits.
UK Government did not look at local consensus and public opinion as closely in the past, although it appears they intend to do so from now on. And just how does this link to the Localism Bill and its drive for more transparency and engagement in local decision-making?
Clearly, early engagement and consultation with a wide range of stakeholder groups can help to minimise the risk of proposals becoming the focal point for local opposition, helping to build understanding of the need for new infrastructure, the types of technology under consideration and the sites that may be acceptable. Getting local involvement in setting the criteria used to select preferred sites, the evaluation of strategic objectives and the priority themes for the technology contract procurement is vital.
The Welsh Government acknowledged this a number of years ago when they funded the development of a stakeholder engagement toolkit for waste infrastructure which was designed to look at all the ‘windows’ of opportunity for stakeholder involvement and engagement and the ways of doing this effectively throughout the lifetime of a project – from strategy to operation.
So what is the future for the remaining PFI projects, and all the other residual waste treatment projects not involving PFI credits? We have always known about the risks associated with community concerns and the pressure that this can bring to bear on locally elected members and politician, resulting in planning delays for new infrastructure delivery; from bring banks in London to major new energy recovery facilities in Cornwall, Oxford and Hampshire.
The Localism Bill is simply helping to fuel this tension and empower local campaign groups, which is not actually a bad thing as it will force the industry and local government to think much earlier about the need for community dialogue, the presentation of evidence and the need to create appropriate and suitable solutions.
So greater engagement is inevitable and is welcomed by the majority of us working in the sector, so long as there are sensible boundaries to process and the expenditure involved. However, and more worrying for me, is that the current stalling of credits from central Government in Norfolk could help to further undermine the sector in the eyes of project investors, bankers and other key partners in the delivery of new waste infrastructure.
If these major procurements are going to stall, face increasing local opposition and ultimately cost far more than planned before they become operational then will funders look to other markets like Eastern Europe, Australia, Latin America etc. in terms of investment? This would ultimately damage UK plc in terms of the green economy and with regards us meeting EU Directives.
The debate surrounding the need for, and location of, new waste infrastructure will continue for the foreseeable future, but with increasing market uncertainty, a continuation of the global recession, rising local concerns about decision-making, and worries about what is appropriate scale and technology choice, the UK waste sector looks set to face continuing and mounting stormy waters.
Dr Adam Read, Global Practice Director for Waste Management and Resource Efficiency at AEA