Councillors ‘gagged’ from questioning incinerator operators

Our environment correspondent, PAUL LUSHION, on how what is supposed to be a public meeting at Croydon Town Hall tonight has banned questions about the fire at the Beddington Lane incinerator

The fire at Viridor’s incinerator site at Beddington Lane in July – but questions from the floor are off-limits tonight

Councillors elected to represent people living across four boroughs have been told that they will not be allowed to speak at a meeting tonight of the South London Waste Partnership, being staged at Croydon Town Hall, at which representatives of incinerator operators Viridor are expected to talk about what they insist on  calling “a small fire” at their Beddington Lane plant in July.

“We are being gagged,” said one councillor who was eager to hold Viridor accountable.

That the fire is on the agenda of the South London Waste Partnership joint committee at all is because Stuart Collins, the deputy leader of Croydon Council, insisted that it should be. Croydon is one of the four councils who comprise the SLWP, and who are paying Viridor £1billion over 25 years to operate the incinerator.

Each of the councils – the others are Sutton, Merton and Kingston – is allowed two representatives from the group which controls their local authority as committee members, and each council then takes it in turn to host the meetings and to chair them. The SLWP committee is currently comprised of four Labour (two each from Croydon and Merton) and four LibDem councillors (from Sutton and Kingston).

This is the first in the latest cycle when Collins is in the chair.

There has been a strong suggestion that Collins’s decision will have been taken for him by the council officials who manage the business of the SLWP.

But although Collins agreed to discuss the Beddington Lane fire at tonight’s meeting, he has ruled that other councillors who might attend the meeting will not be allowed to speak.

Stuart Collins: has banned other councillors from addressing the SLWP meeting

Collins’ own ward, Broad Green, is among those which border Sutton and where residents may have been affected by the toxic fumes from the fire at Beddington Lane on July 11. Inside Croydon knows that representatives from Merton, Sutton and Croydon are attending tonight and some wanted to put questions to Viridor’s representatives.

Yet while the formal agenda states, “This is a public meeting and attendance by the public is encouraged and welcomed,” it seems that Collins has been told to shut down any broader discussion and questioning from outside the committee.

Nick Mattey, the independent councillor for Beddington North in Sutton, wrote to Collins last week to seek permission to speak at the meeting. Collins only responded to his written request today, just hours before the meeting is due to take place saying that he would only allow written public questions “that can be followed up verbally…”, Inside Croydon assumes that Collins means “orally”,  “… at the first opportunity at the SLWP meeting at which the fire service report can be published”.

After tonight’s meeting, the SLWP committee will not meet again until December.

“We are being gagged,” Mattey told Inside Croydon.

“Our boroughs are supposed to be Viridor’s customers, but this shows that Viridor in fact dominates the unaccountable SLWP for its own advantage and considerable financial benefits.”

Gagged: Nick Mattey

Mattey is a long-time campaigner against the construction of the incinerator, which is in his ward. He is one of several local figures who has identified that Viridor’s preliminary report continues to push their party line that the fire was only a minor incident and which tried to fix the blame on the SLWP, rather than the company’s own practices. Councillors from Waddon ward in Croydon are also understood to have requested to speak on behalf of their residents.

Viridor has had 14 fires at their waste plants around the country since 2015.

The fire at Beddington Lane took four fire engines and 25 firefighters more than eight hours to get under control, while thick black plumes of noxious smoke hung over Sutton and Croydon for much of the day. The London Fire Brigade described the blaze as “a major incident”, and it is now subject to an investigation by the LFB and the Environment Agency.

Today, after being told that he would not be allowed to speak at the meeting, Mattey said, “I am disappointed at not being sent a copy of Viridor’s report into why a building supplying material for the incinerator caught light and burnt to the ground on July 11. I am also disappointed that as a local councillor, I was not invited to tonight’s meeting of the un-elected SLWP.

Why are the SLWP  so anxious to gag me and prevent me from speaking up for the 8,400 electors in the Beddington North ward? I believe that much of this desire to conceal the truth from residents and prevent  Viridor facing awkward questions stems from Viridor’s most ardent supporters and business partners, Sutton’s Liberal Democrats.

“I have constantly challenged the false claims put out by LibDem councillors and their local MP that by having the incinerator they will somehow, miraculously, reduce traffic in the area and improve air quality. It is, of course, complete nonsense, but this summer, following Viridor’s lead, we saw Sutton Council repeating the company’s line that what took place on July 11 was just ‘a small fire’.

“The incinerator, when fully operational, will be Sutton’s biggest single source of green house gases, carcinogenic particulates and oxides of nitrogen. I just wanted to put a few simple questions to Viridor.

“Why has Viridor such an appalling record of fires at its plants? Are lithium batteries, which they have blamed at Beddington even before any evidence was available, the sole reason why they have had so many fires at their plants over the last five years?

“If the July 11 blaze was ‘a small fire’, what would Viridor categorise as ‘a big fire’?

“When will their incinerator stop breaching the recommended emission limits? And Viridor was supposed to have the incinerator fully operational by August 2018 – when will their incinerator be operating properly?”

Oddly, the SLWP meeting notice and agenda has not been published on the Sutton Council website, as is supposed to be the case.

It is expected that the Viridor fire will be discussed under item (5) on the agenda, “Urgent business”, which is supposed to include “any business not on the agenda which in the opinion of the Chair, by reason of special circumstances, be considered as a matter of urgency”.

That really ought to include some discussion of the death of a worker in Thornton Heath, who collapsed while working one of the Veolia household rubbish collection rounds, and died later that day in St George’s Hospital, Tooting. Clearly, though, Collins won’t be allowing any questions from the floor about how SLWP’s contracts with Veolia have created a situation where the boroughs’ streets are filthier than ever, and yet their staff’s working practices may have created a situation where a man in his 40s has lost his life.

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
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