Hinkley deal defended
West Somerset Free Press, Friday, 24 July 2009
WEST Somerset Council chiefs have defended plans to ask energy giant EDF to cover some of the costs likely to be incurred by the authority when proposals are submitted for a third nuclear station at Hinkley Point.
Anti-nuclear campaigners claimed the tie-up could be seen as a "bribe", although councillors were swift to point out the council would have no say on the planning application itself.
As reported in the Free Press back in February, the council gave the go-ahead for talks with EDF to investigate the feasibility of drawing up something known as a planning performance agreement.
The agreements were introduced in the Government's Planning Bill and allow local authorities to ask developers of major schemes for money to ensure their plans are dealt with efficiency by providing additional support.
At the time, Adrian Dyer the council's executive director said the agreements were solely about the planning process and not the decision itself.
He reiterated that at Wednesday's full council meeting but accepted some people might perceive the arrangement as something different.
But he said the Government had consistently refused to give the authority additional funding to deal with an impending application for a new Hinkley and the council had no other choice but to ask EDF for help.
He said: "We don't have the resources or the expertise to deal with this adequately in respect of our duty to the community."
Although the final decision on whether to grant permission for a new nuclear station would be taken by a national body called the Infrastructure Planning Commission, the district council would still be responsible for consultation at a local level and would have to formulate responses to a host of documents during the process.
"A planning performance agreement is not a guarantee or indication that any planning application will be approved," said Mr Dyer.
"It is a vehicle for the developer to contribute towards the cost of resources needed to deliver a project."
Cllr Simon Stokes said councillors had to accept they would have no influence on whether a third station was built at Hinkley but the authority would still have to bear substantial costs.
"Central Government has already decided there will be more reactors at Hinkley Point and we have to make sure it costs us as little as possible," he said.
But Cllr Jon Freeman said it was not mandatory for the council to simply "roll over and play dead" just because the Government was making things difficult.
He was concerned about the "closeness" of the proposed agreement with EDF, especially a suggestion that the developer could dictate what was and was not allowed to be released to the public under the Freedom of Information Act.
Cllr Freeman said: "If you do gown this route you can dress this up as whatever you like, but the public will see this as sleaze. It will destroy the reputation of this council."
Jim Duffy, of the pressure group Stop Hinkley, made similar allegations when he warned councillors there appeared to be a clear conflict of interests by taking money from a developer to deal with their application.
Speaking at the meeting he said: "If someone was building a house extension next to you and you found out they were paying thousands of pounds it would be puzzling.
"I think the spotlight will be on West Somerset . If you do this in haste you may repent this at your leisure."
But Mr Dyer said such agreements were not unusual and had already been used to good effect elsewhere in the country.
The council's planning committee chairman Cllr Tony Knight said his committee always made decisions based solely on the information before them: "Our records show we do not pay lip service to anyone. We make our own decisions."
Councillors agreed to forge ahead with an agreement and gave their officers delegated authority to finalise the document and recruit a strategic partner to help carry out the work associated with EDF's pending application.