A £1million ‘hush fund’ announced for community groups by incinerator operators is being used to try to subdue local opposition, according to one activist. BELLE MONT reports
Viridor, which has a £1billion public contract to operate the incinerator at Beddington Lane, is freezing out local environmental groups from a grants scheme which they had promised would help “mitigate” the effects of their industrial-scale waste-burning operation being built on what was supposed to be a wildlife reserve.
That’s the suggestion of one leading environmentalist who spent a decade trying to get Viridor to honour its legal agreements to improve the local wildlife environment at Beddington Farmlands and around the site of the incinerator.
“Mitigation” is the weasel word used by local authorities and multi-national corporations when they know that what they are about to do, often for vast private profit, risks damaging the environment and the health of people for miles around.
“Viridor want the local community to jump through hoops and wants to treat them like dogs,” said Peter Alfrey, a professional environmentalist who lives close to Beddington Farmlands. “I suggest that the local community give them the dogs they don’t want – ones that bite back.”
The South London Waste Partnership, comprising Croydon, Sutton, Kingston and Merton, will be paying Viridor for a quarter of a century to burn the boroughs’ rubbish, as well as rubbish trucked in by thousands of HGVs from across south-east England. To mitigate the pollution and damage caused by the operation, Viridor were obliged to promise a series of packages for local interest groups.
But with the incinerator due to be fired up and operational from 2018, having got the acquiescence of local groups by dangling the carrot of grants of a few thousand quid, Viridor is now telling some that they won’t be getting any grants. Some suspect that the message is that they have not been quiet enough in their grumblings about the incinerator.
Alfrey, who worked as a wildlife warden at Beddington Farmlands for more than a decade, has recently been “warned off” by Viridor from leading guided tours of what was supposed to become a public country park, before the incinerator scheme was pushed through.
“I have stepped down from my role in the neighbourhood development group so that I can speak freely about the community manipulation and abuse that is occurring by Viridor and the members of the community fund panel,” Alfrey told Inside Croydon.
Last November, Viridor launched the grants scheme, inviting “applications to share part of the funding pot worth over £975,000 spread across the 25 years of the partnership between Viridor and the South London Waste Partnership”.
To save you doing the arithmetic, that means a company receiving £40million a year from four south London councils to run an incinerator will be shelling out all of … £39,000 per year. Generous, eh?
“Viridor’s community fund is hush money, simple as that,” was the reaction of Nick Mattey, an independent councillor for Beddington North who has campaigned against the imposition of the incinerator on his residents.
The document shows how the panel which determines who receives funding is quietly dominated by Viridor. The panel’s quarterly meetings are at Viridor’s offices in Beddington Lane, the panel includes at least one Viridor representative and one Sutton councillor (a LibDem appointee, currently Beddington North councillor Pathumal Ali), plus one member each from Hackbridge and Beddington community groups.
“Membership of the BLGFP is by invitation only,” the terms of reference state, suggesting strongly that Viridor will ensure that only pliant representatives are given the role of prefect, doling out the crumbs from the Viridor table.
The area in which community groups qualify is also quite tightly focused, limited to those bodies within two kilometres – barely 1¼ miles – from the incinerator.
According to Alfrey, after months of work by volunteers from environmental and community groups on putting together three bids for funding from the panel, they have been told now that they will get nothing, and that they need to re-apply if they want to receive any of Viridor’s “community help”.
Alfrey says that Viridor’s “derisory mitigation package” is only an updated version of previous schemes for earlier planning applications (in 1995 and 2005). Alfrey claims that Viridor has failed to uphold some of those planning conditions, but has rarely been subject to any enforcement action by Sutton Council or the Greater London Authority over broken promises over habitat restoration, funding bonds and public access commitments.
“I met personally with Dan Cook, a Viridor director, and Andrew Turner (their communications chief), and following on from their glorious victory in the Judicial Review at the High Court allowing them to build a 300,000-ton-a-year incinerator in a nature reserve, they said that they were keen to try to build relations with the local community,” Alfrey said.
“I explained to them that there was a very active local community and both the Beddington North and Hackbridge communities were both preparing Local Neighbourhood Plans, plans which when implemented would be statutory documents and would be a strong reflection of local community aspirations.
“They agreed that there was no more robust platform to support local community aspirations and confirmed that the various objectives and projects within the plans were exactly what they wanted to support.
“Therefore the neighbourhood development group and also the Hackbridge Ecology Park Group submitted three applications to the community fund.
“One application was for a wildlife gardening project, another for improving the green spaces and parks in Hackbridge and another was for developing plans for the visitors’ centre in Hackbridge for the regional park.
“All the projects had a strong public engagement element, to develop stronger local community and develop an improved and vibrant neighbourhood. All applications were policies or projects within the neighbourhood plan. All applications were also about furthering projects that already had a strong grounding with pilots, detailed plans and detailed implementation strategies. The applications tooks several months to prepare and were submitted accordingly with the encouragement of Viridor communications.
“Then last week, we heard from the community fund panel. All three applications had been rejected. The visitors’ centre application had been rejected in its entirety and the other two had been requested to be completely re-submitted, both on grounds of minor details. A re-submission would involve going to the back of the queue again and starting the process from the beginning, with no guarantee that the new applications would be accepted.
“The panel claims to encourage discussion with applicants. So surely if that was true the panel could have asked the applicants to meet and discuss to finalise the minor details so the applications could keep moving forward?
“Rejecting them totally or sending them back to the drawing board is an outrageous insult to all the effort and background work that applicants carried out – applicants that include the founder of the Sutton Community Farm, the chief executive of Bioregional and other experts and professionals within the neighbourhood.
“As far as I am concerned the rejection of all three applications sends out a very strong and worrying message.
“The community fund is being used, falsely, to entice the local community into hope to achieve community objectives but in reality are being drawn into a game of prolonged jumping through hoops and being given the run around for as long as possible.
“It’s a callous strategy being used to draw attention and focus away from activism about the threats that the incinerator presents to the local community and also to draw effort away from the issues where Viridor are still in breach of conditions to develop a public regional park.”
Inside Croydon approached Viridor’s press office and Andrew Turner, the former Viridor employee now hired as a consultant from Newgate Communications, asking for a full roster of the members of the panel and for details of the awards made by the community fund in the eight months since it was launched.
Turner replied saying, “The Beddington Community Benefit Fund have [sic] successfully awarded funding to a number of applications.”
But Turner was unable, or unwilling, to divulge to what causes those awards had “successfully” been made. “The panel intend [sic] to issue a press release once the projects have been completed – this will include information about the projects and photography,” he said, adding that the announcement will come “in the coming months”.
Turner was also unable or unwilling to answer the question about the make-up of the fund’s awards panel, instead directing us to a webpage which does not have that information.
Inside Croydon understands that as well as Turner himself, and Councillor Ali, the award panel meetings have been attended by David Goymour from the Hackbridge and Beddington neighbourhood development group, Dennis Philpott of the Beddington Farmlands community liaison group, and Mike Stafford, formerly Viridor’s site manager at Beddington Farmlands.
Turner never mentioned why such information is regarded by Viridor as top secret.
Alfrey is unimpressed. “Presumably the community fund will take on a similar role to the landfill tax fund, where instead of empowering communities into achieving local aspirations, public money from tax breaks was taken by Viridor and given to established organisations like churches who will re-fit pews that are hardly ever sat upon, using money that should otherwise be spent on empowering modern communities.”
Notoriously, Viridor Environmental Credits, a charity funded by tax breaks handed over to Viridor, made a £275,000 “gift” to a church in Wallington.
Coincidentally, that church happens to be used for political campaigning by the local LibDems, led by Tom Brake, the MP for the area since 1997, and it is where one of the senior members of the congregation happened to be chair of the South London Waste Partnership at the time the incinerator contract was awarded to … Viridor.
“It seems that Viridor would like to keep the local community in the Dark Ages so they can continue destroying the local environment. The last thing Viridor wants is a strong and vibrant local community, and they certainly don’t want too much trouble when the incinerator fires up and the public really starts to notice the damage that is being done to their environment, the air that they and their children are breathing.”
Local community groups have already begun to fund independent air quality monitoring for the area, in Croydon as well as in Sutton, to be able to compare the situation before the Viridor incinerator starts to operate, and what the air quality is like once it is burning waste on an industrial scale.
“Quite rightly, it’s not wise to trust the statutory bodies considering the breaches of current environmental conditions on the Beddington site,” Alfrey said. Alfrey highlights how a Local Government Ombudsman investigation in 2015 led to Viridor being instructed to fulfil its planning conditions without delay.
“Viridor remains in breach of those conditions to this day, two years later,” Alfrey said.
“It’s time for local community groups to start biting back at Viridor,” he said.
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