It has suddenly got very heated in Sutton over the Beddington Lane incinerator.
The Liberal Democrats, who control Sutton Council, have today suspended one of their councillors, Nick Mattey, after he dared question their plans to allow incinerator operators Viridor to build an industrial plant to burn waste in his ward.
Meanwhile, it has been reported that a Wallington church with strong links to Sutton’s LibDems – including erstwhile MP Tom Brake – has received generous funding of £275,000… from Viridor.
That’s not the sort of small change normally dropped into the collection box after evensong on a Sunday.
Mattey, an established local businessman who was elected to represent Beddington North ward last May, claims that his party’s leadership locally has refused to answer his questions about the incinerator scheme, and since last summer have referred all his correspondence to… Viridor.
He says that was threatened by a senior Sutton council official that he would be subject to ruinous legal action by Viridor if he is seen to “derail” the current legal challenge to the incinerator – a case which Sutton and their commercial partners appear likely to win. Mattey also claims that he has been warned to withdraw official emails that question the propriety of Sutton’s planning process for the incinerator.
Earlier this week, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, was forced to scurry away from a LibDem rally at St Helier when confronted by protestors, including many from the Stop the Incinerator Campaign. But Clegg did not leave empty-handed, as he was given an anti-incinerator leaflet before he got into his official car… by Mattey.
“Everything about the incinerator runs contrary to what’s in the LibDem manifesto,” Mattey told Inside Croydon today.
In the letter to his LibDem colleagues on Sutton Council, which can be read in full here, Mattey says, “When the cause is just, no amount of pressure from Viridor or from within the council will stop me fighting for the people who have entrusted me to look after their interests.”
Mattey is not the first Sutton councillor to rebel over the incinerator: his predecessor, John Keys, defected to Labour over the issue. And at the original planning meeting for the incinerator two years ago, LibDem Stephen Fenwick voted with the Tories to block the Viridor scheme, only for council officials to hastily reconvene the planning committee within weeks. On the second occasion, Fenwick had changed his mind and voted in favour of the incinerator, his vote enough to give Viridor planning permission.
Mattey harbours serious reservations over the incinerator scheme, which will include a 300-foot-tall smoke stack built close to a highly populated residential area in Sutton and Croydon, which could affect the health of generations to come.
Mattey suggests that consultation work done on important matters such as traffic projections has not been independent enough of Viridor: for example, Sutton Council has accepted a consultants’ report that there will be less traffic in Beddington once the incinerator is built, despite the need to ship-in thousands of tons of commercial waste to the plant daily.
“We’re being played for fools”
He also suggests that in total, due the current landfill use of some of the site, there could be as many as 12 incinerators along Beddington Lane, operated variously by Viridor, Thames Water and other commercial concerns – “each one sending out plumes of toxic gases”, Mattey said.
“I think that the council’s support for Viridor and its subservience to the demands of the South London Waste Partnership is wrong,” Mattey wrote in his letter. “Why are Liberal Democrats spending tax-payers’ money to defend Viridor’s right to burn other people’s rubbish in our borough?
“We are being played for fools,” he wrote.
“We must realise that this unconditional backing for the Viridor incinerator must end today. Another more environmentally sustainable solution to dealing with waste must be found. Allowing Viridor to burn 7.5 million tonnes of waste over 25 years irrespective of improvements in recycling is unjustifiable and an environmental catastrophe.”
There are powerful commercial pressures at play over the Viridor deal, which is worth £1billion of public money from the four south London councils – including Croydon – over the quarter-century term of the deal.
Leading LibDems in Sutton have been shown to have long-term connections to the company.
John Drage, the chairman of Sutton LibDems and until last May a councillor, has admitted that he has been a lifetime friend of Viridor’s chief executive.
Drage has also in the past declared as an interest the Holy Trinity Church in Wallington.
The church has also been used for LibDem councillor surgeries and as a meeting point for canvassing sessions on behalf of Tom Brake, who was the Deputy Leader of the House in the previous ConDem coalition government.
It was this same suburban church which has received the benefit of Viridor’s largesse – the £275,000 grant being the third largest donation to religious buildings by the company. Only Canterbury Cathedral and Glastonbury Abbey have received more from Viridor.
According to a report in the Sutton Guardian, shortly after planning permission was granted, Drage and councillors Margaret Court – who was a member of the planning committee – and Paddy Kane, together with MP Brake, published a special edition of their party’s free newspaper to extol the benefits of having an incinerator belching out pollution in their borough. Viridor must have been so grateful.
The incinerator issue has already proved toxic to local politics in Croydon, one of the four SLWP boroughs.
Before the 2010 local elections, Croydon’s Tories campaigned saying that they would oppose “any incinerator in or on the borders” of the borough. Within weeks of being returned to power, the Croydon Conservatives voted in favour of the Viridor scheme.
Labour in Croydon spent the next four years opposing the incinerator. Stuart Collins, Labour’s deputy leader and a councillor for Broad Green which borders Beddington, even spoke against the scheme at the Sutton planning meeting.
Collins is now in charge of making Croydon London’s “cleanest and greenest borough”, according to Labour’s 2014 council election manifesto. He also sits on the South London Waste Partnership committee which works so closely with Viridor, and he has resisted all calls for Croydon’s now Labour-controlled council to cancel its contract for the incinerator.
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