£1bn incinerator deal and £275,000 “gift” back in the spotlight

The Beddington Lane incinerator site, on Croydon’s borough boundary – and the £275,000 “gift” from incinerator operators Viridor to a church much-used by Sutton LibDems – is high on the agenda this week, as Sutton Council stages a ward by-election.

The Holy Trinity, sponsored by Viridor: signs went up in the past week acknowledging the incinerator operators' largesse in Wallington

The Holy Trinity, sponsored by Viridor: signs went up in the past week acknowledging the incinerator operators’ largesse in Wallington

The vote on Thursday is being held in Wallington South, following the death of LibDem councillor Colin Hall.

The presence on the ballot paper of a single-issue independent candidate in Duncan Mattey seems unlikely to threaten the LibDem domination of Sutton Council.

But Mattey’s single issue is the Viridor incinerator, and how a company which provided a gift of hundreds of thousands of pounds to a local church ever came to get planning permission for the scheme.

Mattey is working together with the Stop the Incinerator Campaign, which has taken Sutton Council and Viridor to the High Court in recent months, in an ultimately unsuccessful challenge to the planning process.

“We continue to heap pressure on Sutton Council,” a campaign spokesman has told Inside Croydon. “The battle is far from over.

“There are serious questions to be answered about donations made to a local church (frequented by local party big-wigs), declarations that were not made by councillors sitting on the South London Waste Partnership when the contracts were awarded, coercion of councillors to change their votes from the first planning meeting to the second, and many other scurrilous activities.

“We have requested a full, independent inquiry be undertaken and will contact the Local Government Ombudsman if this is not forthcoming.  We are also considering the option of taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights.”

Mattey’s name on the ballot paper appears to have rattled Sutton’s leading LibDems. Council leader Ruth Dombey has finally started to refer to the Beddington incinerator as .. well… an incinerator, rather than using the Orwellian double-speak preferred by the operators, who tend to call it the less-incendiary (geddit?) “Energy Recovery Facility”, or ERF.

Former Sutton councillor John Drage: no role in the planning decision for the Viridor incinerator. Just best mates with the Viridor CEO

Former Sutton councillor John Drage: no role in the planning decision for the Viridor incinerator. Just best mates with the Viridor CEO

And John Drage, the Sutton LibDems chairman and former councillor, last week tried to pass the buck for the decision to award the contract to Viridor on to a dead man…

Dombey, Drage and Tom Brake, the last LibDem MP standing in London, have long used the Holy Trinity church in Wallington for meetings and as a canvassing centre. A year ago, shortly after Sutton Council pushed through planning permission for the incinerator, the church received a gift from Viridor’s public responsibility arm of £275,000. The maximum hand-out under this scheme is usually £250,000.

Sutton Council has also sought to establish a commercial partnership with Viridor, for the sale of energy generated from the Beddington site – which currently emits methane from the landfill there – and from any of the incineration plants planned for the area. Some estimate that Beddington Lane may soon be lined by up to a dozen incinerators.

The South London Waste Partnership, or SLWP, comprises four boroughs, including Croydon. Drage, when a Sutton councillor, had a seat on the board of the SLWP during the period the local authorities were discussing and negotiating a 25-year contract worth £1billion of public money to operate an incinerator. This was ultimately awarded to Viridor.

Drage’s wife, Elaine, was Tom Brake’s agent for last month’s General Election. The Drages are notable personal donors to Brake’s campaign funds. Elaine Drage is also active in her local church, Holy Trinity, Wallington. Yes, the very same church that is benefiting from £275,000 of Viridor’s corporate responsibility scheme.

Before he stood down as an elected councillor last year, Drage went to some lengths to give the impression that he had always been frank and open about his relationship with Colin Drummond, the CEO of Viridor, who Drage admitted he had know for most of his working life.

“When commenting in public on any matters to do with Viridor I declare a ‘non-pecuniary’ interest due to my personal friendship with Colin Drummond,” we reported him saying a year ago. “I did this at the development control committee meeting on April 24 [2014]. I first met Colin in 1975 when we were then working for the same organisation. Since then he has held many different positions prior to taking on his current role as CEO of Viridor.”

Then, Drage went to lengths to emphasise his lack of influence in the council planning process.  “I neither sit on the council’s environment and neighbourhoods committee which has responsibility for waste collection and disposal, nor on the development control committee which will decide whether or not to grant planning permission for the construction of the ERF.”

But last week, in an interview with the Sutton Guardian, Drage was asked why, during his years as a SLWP board member, he never once declared his personal interest as a lifelong friend of Viridor’s Drummond.

Drage now claims he had not had contact with Drummond for several years. “It was only after Mr Drummond made contact with me in 2012…” that is, after the SLWP had agreed to work with Viridor… “…and invited my wife and I to two purely social functions that we went to and I declared in the public register of gifts and hospitality that I then felt I should declare a non-pecuniary interest when speaking to any committees dealing with the ERF.”

The lack of any declarations by a senior councillor at SLWP meetings is subject to an investigation by Sutton Council. Drage says that he was no longer a member of SLWP when the contract was placed with Viridor in 2012 – though he had been on the board for many of the meetings which led to that decision.

And anyway, according to Drage, he never voted on matters at SLWP. “It was the then lead councillor on the environment, Colin Hall, who cast the Sutton vote, and not me.” Yes, the same Colin Hall who, now dead, is unable to account for himself.

This week’s by-election is unlikely to change the complexion of Sutton Council, where the LibDems hold 44 of the 54 seats. The “anti-incinerator” candidate can’t expect to get much support from Labour, Tories or Greens who oppose the incinerator, either, since all three parties are fielding candidates.

The clearly awe-struck Gill Hickson, the LibDem candidate in Croydon South, at yesterday's rally with Tom Brake. She didn't say whether she asked him for his autograph

The clearly awe-struck Gill Hickson, the recent LibDem candidate in Croydon South, with Tom Brake, the only LibDem MP in London. Is he for or against incinerators?

Hall topped the ballot at last year’s local elections, with 52 per cent of the vote, as the LibDems took all three ward seats on the council. The best Tory candidate was a well-beaten fourth, while the single-issue Keep Our St Helier Hospital Party candidate managed to beat Labour and the Greens.

Significantly, though, Mattey’s father is Nick Mattey, who was elected in a Beddington ward a year ago as a LibDem but has since been suspended by his local party for speaking out about the incinerator and for being a whistle-blower about the very generous “gift” from Viridor to the Holy Trinity Church.

At the weekend, Duncan Mattey issued an election leaflet stating, “Sutton LibDems care only about clinging on to power. The deception about their incineration policy has been exposed.” Voting LibDem, Duncan Mattey says, “will be an environmental and economic disaster”.

And the Matteys appear to have some support from the highest echelons of the Liberal Democrats for their opposition to the incinerator: “PFI is distorting the decision-making process because big incinerator plants are more attractive to investors than small-scale recycling projects,” a senior LibDem has said.

“We don’t know all the health implications that result from incineration, but the release of dioxins is clearly a serious problem. Toxic ash from incinerators has turned up in some weird and wonderful places, including on farms as compost-type material,” was the view of the LibDem figure.

Who was it who spoke such commonsense?

None other than Tom Brake, the MP for Carshalton and Wallington speaking when he was the anti-incinerator LibDem environment spokesman in the House of Commons. And long before Viridor came along offering large wodges of cash for local “good causes”.



About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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