MULTINATIONAL waste firm Urbaser Balfour Beatty could be paid millions of pounds in compensation by Gloucestershire County Council if planning permission for the Javelin Park incinerator is refused.
The potential for the huge payout is written into the £500 million contract for the facility, which GCC’s Conservative administration intends to sign at a cabinet meeting later today (Wednesday September 12).
Details of the compensation clause have enraged anti-incineration campaigners and opposition politicians who say councillors on the planning committee will be under undue pressure to approve the incinerator because of the financial implications.
Campaign group GlosVAIN and opposition parties have demanded that GCC postpone signing the contract until after the committee has convened so councillors are able to judge the planning application on its merits.
Both say it would be impossible for councillors to objectively assess the application knowing that GCC would be forced to pay a huge sum in compensation if they rejected it.
Members of anti-incineration group GlosVAIN believe the main reason GCC has decided to sign the contract now is to exert pressure on the planning committee to approve the waste burner.
"By making the financial implications of failing to grant planning permission so punitive, councillors would have little option but to continue with this project, even though so many people do not want it," a statement issued by GlosVAIN said.
Although the exact amount of compensation GCC would be liable to pay has not been publicly disclosed due to commercial confidentiality restrictions, a contract drawn up for an incinerator in Kings Lynn saw penalty costs for planning refusal there capped at £20.5 million.
GlosVAIN says it expects GCC would be committing to paying a similar level of compensation if the planning application for the Javelin Park development was turned down.
In addition to placing pressure on the planning committee to approve the plans, GlosVAIN members also suspect the decision to sign the contract now is designed to tie the hands of any future administration.
Although the planning application for the incinerator is likely to be heard in December, if it is delayed it is possible that it will not be considered until after May’s local elections.
If the Conservatives were to lose power, any incoming administration might be unable to refuse planning permission because of the massive compensation costs.
GlosVAIN has accused GCC of ‘acting recklessly’ and putting local taxpayers money at risk by pushing ahead with the contract signing, while Green county councillor Sarah Lunnon (Stroud East) has branded the authority’s actions an ‘abuse of democracy’.
Defending the decision, Tory councillor Stan Waddington, GCC’s cabinet champion for waste, said: "The process we are following for this project is the one recommended by Defra and the one followed by projects up and down the country.
He added: "The procurement and planning for this contract are entirely independent of each other. The sooner we fix a price with a contractor, the better the value we get for local taxpayers. It protects us from rising costs, especially from any increase in interest and exchange rates."
GlosVAIN, however, said it could not see any advantage in signing the contract now.
The group pointed out that interest rates have been decreasing ever since the credit crunch in 2007 and are only likely to be cut further, potentially making the Javelin Park project cheaper if the contract is signed at a later date.
GlosVAIN said they are now considering legal action to halt the signing of the contract, while the SNJ understands that Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green Party councillors could join forces to delay the contract signing via a call-in.
At a meeting of GCC’s environment overview and scrutiny committee on Monday, councillors passed a motion proposed by Lib Dem councillor Bill Crowther which called on the cabinet to defer the signing of the contract.
Speaking afterwards, Cllr Crowther said: "It would put unfair pressure on members of the planning committee if the contract was signed because of the considerable compensation costs involved."
More than 1,000 residents have now registered their opposition to the Javelin Park incinerator with the county council.
Ahead of the cabinet meeting this morning, GlosVAIN members will stage a demonstration outside Shire Hall to protest against the contract signing.