Belfast City Council defenestrates incinerator despite £100,000 consultation…

Last year when we launched the Slugger Awards, we included a category for best public consultation. Surprise, surprise, we got one maybe two nominations. Last night Belfast City Council sat in plenary to vote on whether to approve of a large modern waste incinerator to built on the northern foreshore of the Belfast Lough. The incinerator was to built to modern specifications allowing for much lower emission of toxic waste into the local environment. Despite a running public survey (details of the findings below the fold), at a cost to the public purse of some £150,000 £100,000, which gave high public approval ratings, the council voted it down:The findings are as follows:

o A large majority of all respondents (93%) supported either proposal, ie making the land at the North Foreshore available for either an MBT or an EfW facility.

o Almost 9 out of ten of all respondents (88%) expressed the view that the Council should make the land available for an EfW incinerator.

o Just over three quarters (77%) felt that the land should be made available for an MBT plant.

o The level of support for the proposals, although still a significant majority, was lower in North Belfast (BT14 and BT15) – 67% supporting making the land available for MBT and 76% for EfW.

So far as we can discern the survey was one for the whole of Belfast, and there were some interesting differentials in its return rate. It elicited 8,000 responses overall, but in one postcode, Slugger understands there were as few as 35 responses. And, Slugger, also understands, the disaggregated disapproval figure for BT15, where the incinerator is to be built stand at something between 30/40%. Factoring in a differential in response rates which correlates directly to the distance from the proposed site, some local councillors took the view that, since the area extends as far as the North Circular Road, the objection rate would likely increase exponentially the closer you get to the Shore Road.

There were three prime reasons why the motion fell. One, Sinn Fein is opposed nationally to the use of such incinerators on the basis of their long term as opposed to their short term effects. The SDLP was convinced by local feeling in the Whitewell area that the incinerator would not go down well with the people there. And some of the DUP’s North Belfast councillors took a similar view that the opinions of the people close to the shoreline should be weighted most heavily, and consequently voted against it.

The report also contains costs that cannot be verified because they are commercially sensitive. But one that is beyond dispute is there penalties under the NILAS scheme (which the report pegs at approximately £3.7M) if the Council, along with 11 others, which are trying to buy into the Arc 21 scheme, continues to breach allowances. Other councils are seeking to ameliorate their dependency by aggressively pursuing recycling policies.

It’s the individual view of some local councillors that this breach of Belfast’s landfill allowance could continue to be paid for out of further efficiencies to be found in the council’s administration. The advantage of the incinerator is that it would allow Belfast to easily push under current target, and generate energy at the same time. Although there is no toxic waste disposal in Northern Ireland, so whilst in normal service the facility should be clean enough, the highly toxic ash would have to be exported elsewhere.

At the heel of the hunt though, you’d have to ask: was this is a failure of this political leadership that’s been the talk of the media over the last few days, presaging a corporate collapse into NIMBYism? Or is it a case of council officials profoundly misreading the sentiment amongst its councillors and in the process foisting a flawed consultation on a democratically elected body that had little intention of going down that route in the first place?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty