Yesterday it was announced that Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary, had caved into pressure from Norfolk County Council and the waste industry, granting £91 million of PFI credits for the construction of an incinerator near King’s Lynn. This was despite the necessity for a “broad consensus of support” to be shown before the money could be given and the opposition of two district councils in Norfolk, 65,516 people and most relevant agencies and authorities opposing the plan.
While depressing, it looked like yet another case of a senior minister ignoring the rhetoric of localism and democracy, and bowing to the wishes of her Conservative colleagues at County Hall. Today, however, the story has taken a rather more sinister turn.
Last week there was jubilation, after the Labour leader of Norwich City Council, Brenda Arthur, wrote to Spelman to re-emphasise the council’s position that it opposed all incineration, anywhere in Norfolk. No one, it was reasoned, could claim there was a “broad consensus of support” if the two largest second tier councils in Norfolk opposed incineration generally, and the Saddlebow plan in particular. For one short week Cllr Arthur was the hero of West Norfolk.
Now though a different picture has emerged. It appears that the letter to Caroline Spelman was only written after menacing letters from the Lib Dem and Green group leaders at County Hall which indicated that if she did not take action they may withhold support from Labour’s minority administration. While this incident is enough to raise questions about Cllr Arthur’s motives, the worst was yet to come.
It is rumoured that her intervention had influenced Defra to such a degree that it was preparing to refuse the application for PFI credits. However, before the final decision was taken Spelman decided to call Arthur and check that her position still stood. Obviously, no one knows exactly what was said, but Arthur was clearly less forceful in person than she was on paper. Whatever she did say apparently gave Defra reason enough to believe that there was enough support for the credits to be granted yesterday.
To be fair, the Labour party, especially at the Borough Council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk and Norfolk County Council have done a very good job of opposing the incinerator, in conjunction with Lib Dems and Greens. But to think a senior Labour councillor had such a great opportunity to end the whole saga once and for all is, to say the least, disheartening. To have done so while convincing Norfolk and the two parties she relies on for a majority that she was in fact doing the opposite is worse still. We can only hope that that one phone call doesn’t come back to haunt us.
Note: I have no hard evidence to support this post other than what I have been told by various different sources. It does, however, come from people I trust and has an undeniable ring of truth.