The controversial Lynn incinerator project has been given a dramatic reprieve today after county councillors voted to re-endorse the project by a margin of just two votes.
Members voted by 40 to 38 to accept a revised project plan for the Saddlebow scheme, following a three-hour debate at County Hall in Norwich this morning.
The result, which was only confirmed after several minutes had passed, was greeted with applause from some councillors and cries of “Shame on you” from the packed public gallery.
The decision will now go before the council’s cabinet tomorrow, Tuesday, for final consideration.
But, with all but one of the cabinet members present voting to back the plan, it now means there is likely to be several more months of uncertainty before the issue is finally resolved.
Dozens of people, many of whom had travelled from Lynn on a specially chartered campaign bus, packed into the chamber to listen to the debate.
And emotions boiled over when Mick Castle, the council’s cabinet member for schools, described the 2011 referendum held in West Norfolk on the scheme as “dodgy” and branded North West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham as “nice but dim.”
Councillors and spectators reacted furiously to the jibes, with one person twice shouting at Mr Castle, a Labour councillor from Yarmouth: “You’re a liar” from the public gallery.
Members had been asked to consider whether they should accept or reject a revised project plan, submitted by developers Cory Wheelabrator, following delays in the planning process.
Officials had warned last week that a decision to scrap the contract would be a “financial step too far”, while an independent assessment concluded it would cost at least £25 million to cancel the deal.
And Liberal Democrat David Harrison, the council’s cabinet member for waste, said those warnings meant that cancelling the contract was a “non-starter”, because of the impact on council services.
He went on: “It would be an armageddon. We can’t do it.”
But his backbench colleague Brian Watkins said he did not believe the suggestion that rejecting the plan risked bankrupting the authority and told members: “The time has come to say no.”
Council leader George Nobbs asked members whether they wanted to do “massive damage” to services by scrapping the deal and criticised the government for axing a £169 million grant to the project because of delays in securing planning consent, which he said had been caused by ministers’ own decision to call the scheme in for a public inquiry.
“It seems very unfair to me”, he said.
But division councillor Alexandra Kemp told the meeting: “This is Nelson’s county and today Norfolk expects every councillor to do his duty.”
Opening the debate, UKIP group leader Toby Coke said the authority faced a “momentous” choice and warned that accepting the plan would show members had been “cowed into submission” by officers’ bankruptcy warnings.
Swaffham councillor Paul Smyth added that it was “illogical” not to take account of the changing context around the scheme.
But others expressed concerns that the independent assessors appointed to look into the issue had not been given full information about it.
One councillor, Emma Corlett, was reduced to tears as she said she felt members had been asked to “do the impossible” on the subject.
Conservative group leader Bill Borrett, who had earlier provoked laughter in the chamber when he claimed that the issue should have been debated before the contract was signed, insisted the authority should “get on” with delivering the scheme.
Backbencher Ian Monson, who last week lambasted MPs for their role in the axe of the government waste credits, insisted that the plant remained a good deal for the county, while former council deputy leader Ian Mackie accused objectors of pursuing a “vanity project” to stop the scheme.
But Green councillor Andrew Boswell said a decision to go ahead with the plant would be “madness”, asking: “Who in their right mind would sign up to this insanity?”
And Dersingham councillor John Dobson, a long-standing critic of the incinerator, urged members who had been elected on an anti-incinerator platform, to remember the pledges they had made to voters, telling them: “Show some leadership.”