Posted by Mark Broomfield, Consultant on 6 July 2012
I was privileged to participate in the biggest decision faced by Norfolk County Council’s Planning (Regulatory) Committee for 20 years. At stake was a decision as to whether to grant planning permission for a new waste incinerator at King’s Lynn. The irony of this decision being taken by a local authority 50 miles away in Norwich was not lost on those present.
The decision was taken over the course of an all-day committee meeting. During the course of the day, the committee members grappled with the often contradictory views expressed by Council officers, objectors to the scheme, and the applicant. The characteristics of the Committee members emerged as they questioned the speakers on their evidence, with some very incisive questioners alongside others who engaged much less in the discussion. Meanwhile, about 80 members of the public were in an adjacent room, and every so often we heard cheers and boos as they made their views on the points under discussion very clear.
My role was to provide advice to officers and committee members on air quality and health issues, including the difficult issues posed by the risk of impacts on protected habitat sites. The committee members had 500 pages of documentation to read, but in a forum like this, only the big issues get debated and there is no opportunity to go into matters of detail. Often the same issues were raised repeatedly as those addressing the Committee each had their say. Can you monitor dioxins continuously? Is the site in a high risk flood zone? Do fine particles affect health? Will the facility emit sufficient quantities of particles to be a concern? Have in-combination effects been considered? Should the project be put on hold until the Health Protection Agency has completed its research into the health effects of waste incinerators?
At the end of the very long day, it was local democracy in action. From a barnstorming 5 minutes from the MP to some very emotional testimony from local residents, from detailed discussion of carbon footprint calculations to a comedy interlude when some members didn’t realise that they were repeating the voting on the vote before the vote they’d just voted on. It felt like a very English way to go about things – slightly shambolic at times; giving serious attention to serious questions; and mostly carried out in a polite and respectful way.
And at the end of the long day, the Committee decided to grant permission for the development … but the Communities Secretary may decide to call in the application. If that happens, there will be a public inquiry – and maybe it’ll be a bit closer to King’s Lynn.