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A protestor against the incinerator outside of the King's Lynn Town Hall. Photo: Matthew Usher

The people of West Norfolk have finally seen victory in their campaign against the building of a mass burn incinerator two miles upwind of King’s Lynn

On 7 April 2014 Norfolk County Council (NCC) voted 49 to 29 with one abstention to recommend termination of the contract, and the cabinet voted unanimously in support of this recommendation. Conservative councillors were ordered (‘whipped’) not to support termination, even though some of them – and their constituents – opposed the project. The abstention was a Tory councillor who added “I’m whipped”.

The campaign

In 2010 it was proposed by the Norfolk County Council to build a mass burn incinerator two miles upwind of King’s Lynn. This incinerator had already been refused by people in Costessey, just outside Norwich, yet the County Council decided to build it just two miles upwind of King’s Lynn. Early in 2010 – four years ago – not many people knew about the proposal to build it, and still fewer knew that such incinerators could bring health hazards and pollute the agricultural land, the fishing grounds and the sites of Special Scientific Interest that surround King’s Lynn.

The campaign, King’s Lynn Without Incineration (KLWIN). was started by Michael de Whalley in May 2010. Scientists and doctors among the campaigners were particularly concerned about the health implications. Campaigners found that the neighbouring county of Cambridgeshire recycled 70% of its waste and was planning to increase this to 90%, whereas the incinerator was based on projections that Norfolk would recycle only 55% of its waste, and so it would act as a block on improvements in recycling. Suspicion grew that the hidden plan was that waste would be brought in from outside Norfolk, and possibly outside England. The plant was also to have been built on a flood plain, and there were concerns about what might happen if there was a fire at the site.

Not “too dumb”

KLWIN leafleted the town centre from the summer of 2010 and invited Paul Connett, an American expert on incineration and waste recycling, to speak a packed meeting at King’s Lynn Arts Centre. The audience heard that these incinerators had been found to be hazardous to health in the USA and in Germany and were no longer being built in those countries. He told the audience that “What this is about, is finding a community that is too dumb, too preoccupied, too desperate for jobs, or too corrupt to resist them.”

In November 2010 a demonstration of 400 outside a packed meeting of the Tory-led King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council forced the councillors to accept that their constituents were angry and wanted them to fight against it.

King's LynnThe referendum

In February 2011 the Borough Council organised a referendum on the issue in West Norfolk. 65,516 people (92.68%) voted against the incinerator. Norfolk County Council had been offered the opportunity to put its side of the case, but had refused to do so. After the result was announced, the council cynically claimed that the referendum was not representative, because the council’s case had not been presented. Local paper, the Lynn News, had by now been won over to the campaign. KLWIN continued to leaflet and to raise money, and there have been two attempts to end the project through judicial review.

Artists and musicians

In 2011, a group of musicians and poets made a CD, Smoke on the Wash, to raise money for the campaign. They raised £300 but more importantly they raised awareness and they gave free concerts in the centre of King’s Lynn, in local living rooms, and at the opening of the public inquiry. The GMB union supported the campaign, and the GMB nationally now opposes incinerators wherever they are built.

The public inquiry

The level of protest caused Eric Pickles MP (Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government) to order a public inquiry. Local groups, including StoptheWar, gave evidence at this enquiry about how the incinerator would impact on the environment. The gathering of information was completed in May 2013, and the Secretary of State was due to announce his decision about the planning application on 14 January 2014. However, he has not done so, nor even given a date when he would do so. This failure to announce a decision has led directly to the NCC decision.

King's LynnThe penalties

The contract signed by the Conservative-controlled NCC included a penalty clause requiring the council to pay £20 million if it pulled out of the contract before May 2014. Campaigners knew about this clause before the contract was signed, and they argued that it was only there to stop the project being cancelled later, and other councils have negotiated contracts without such a penalty. Ironically, it is the penalty clauses which actually brought the project down. In May 2014 the penalty was set to increase by £5 million to £25 million, and then to increase by £400,000 per month afterwards.

Without any decision by the Secretary of State, the council was threatened with an open-ended increase in costs. Already the government had withdrawn £169 million in funding for the project, and since the contract was limited to 25 years from the date of signing, the delays were eating into any potential earnings. Council officers reported that continuing with the project could no longer offer value for money, and that it should be terminated. At the same time, the project was going to be considerably more expensive than already existing alternatives, so cancellation could actually save NCC up to £200 million over the 25 year term.

Hypocrisy

The Conservative Party had controlled the council when the contract was signed, but lost its majority as a result of the issue. Despite the public opposition, it had made no provision for cancelling the contract, putting the new council in the position of having to find the money on top of the other cuts being demanded by the ConDem government. With incredible hypocrisy Conservative councillors argued that the contract should not be terminated because it would mean further cuts in council services, even though they had made significant cuts when the council was under their control. The question now is whether payment can be avoided or laid at the door of the government. Many people in West Norfolk feel that the people who should pay are the councillors who signed the contract against the expressed wish of local people.

You can win too!

This campaign was a grass roots campaign started by local people and it has won. As Michael de Whalley said in the video interview, "if we can do it in West Norfolk, a disadvantaged and poor area, you can do it too, in your area. Anywhere."

King's Lynn

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