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Labour fury as MP Steve Barclay faces Ministerial Code probe over £450m Wisbech incinerator

‘The decision to approve the planning element of this flawed scheme is terrible news for our area’

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Environment Secretary Steve Barclay is between a rock and a hard place after finding himself at the centre of a major political storm over the fate of a £450m incinerator for Wisbech. And it is possible that between balancing the mood of his NE Cambs constituents who overwhelmingly oppose the incinerator but his own Government’s approval for it, he may have broken the Ministerial Code.

The code – the Government ‘bible’ – sets out strict guidance for MPs who become ministers and are then faced with issues that affect their constituencies. But his opposite number in Labour’s Shadow Cabinet fears he is likely to have already breached that code.

Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Steve Reed, has written to Mr Barclay asking for an explanation.

Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Steve Reed, has written to Mr Barclay asking for an explanation.

It is clause 6.6 of the Ministerial Code that may have influenced civil servants to complain since it clearly states “ministers are advised to take particular care in cases relating to planning applications in their constituencies or other similar issues.

“In all such cases, it is important that they make clear that they are representing the views of their constituents, avoid criticism of Government policies and confine themselves to comments which could reasonably be made by those who are not Ministers.

MP Steve Barclay on a site visit in 2020 to Algores Way, Wisbech. After the visit he said: ‘I remain strongly opposed to the proposals to build a waste incinerator in Wisbech. I have already flagged my concern to the relevant Minister and will continue to outline the problems with this scheme’

MP Steve Barclay on a site visit in 2020 to Algores Way, Wisbech. After the visit he said: ‘I remain strongly opposed to the proposals to build a waste incinerator in Wisbech. I have already flagged my concern to the relevant Minister and will continue to outline the problems with this scheme’

“Once a decision has been announced, it should normally be accepted without question or criticism.”

And it is that final sentence that Mr Barclay may have difficulty in reconciling with his public statement as recently as last month.

“The decision by the Planning Inspector and Secretary of State to approve the planning element of this flawed scheme is terrible news for our area,” he said.

“As both a Member of Parliament and a resident living just outside Wisbech I remain strongly opposed to this proposal and will continue to do everything possible to fight it.

“This is not the end of the application process as the developer also needs an environmental permit to operate, which has not yet been granted, and the planning decision may be subject to judicial review.

“We also have legally binding targets to halve the amount of residual waste going to landfill or incineration and making progress on this further undermines the case for new incinerators.”

Describing it as a “flawed scheme” and promising to “do everything to fight it” might have been overlooked had it not been widely known that the application required final sign off with an environmental permit – and that can only be issued by the department headed by Mr Barclay.

MP Steve Barclay hosting a WisWIN delegation to Parliament to re-iterate opposition from Wisbech to the mega incinerator

MP Steve Barclay hosting a WisWIN delegation to Parliament to re-iterate opposition from Wisbech to the mega incinerator

As a seasoned MP, and minister for many years across various departments, he would be fully aware that he could not take any position, publicly or privately, to imply he could influence the issuing of that permit.

Again, the Ministerial Code emphasises that “where ministers have to take decisions within their departments which might have an impact on their own constituencies, they must take particular care to avoid any possible conflict of interest.

“Within departments, the Minister should advise their Permanent Secretary, and, in the case of junior Ministers, their Secretary of State and Permanent Secretary of the interest and responsibilities should be arranged to avoid any conflict of interest”.

Last night’s news that civil servants had questioned a potential conflict of interest suggests some in Whitehall felt he might have crossed a line.

The BBC, surprisingly, were the recipients of civil service concerns and interrupted the10 o’clock news last night to break the news.

It reported that the concerns had been taken up with the Cabinet Office ethics unit.

And it was also confirmed that the environmental permit would be determined by Mark Spencer, his Minister of State.

A government spokesman said: “The secretary of state is recused from the decision. No decision has been taken. Mark Spencer is the minister responsible and would take any decision on this issue.”

It also prompted a response from Shadow Environment Secretary Labour MP Steve Reed.

He said civil servants had “raised serious issues”, and he too questioned whether there was a potential breach by Mr Barclay of the Ministerial Code.

Mr Barclay has been consistent in opposing the incinerator, and commissioned specialist reports from his own pocket to demonstrate the unsuitability of it in his constituency.

As recently as last September he said: “The incinerator plans are deeply flawed, and I have campaigned against the scheme from the beginning.

“It’s simply not suitable for an incinerator of this size in such a location with the accompanying impact on health, traffic, and the environment.

“I hope we will get the right outcome from the Planning Inspector and if not from the Secretary of State.”

The decision to approve it was made last month by the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero Claire Coutinho.

She approved the application by Medworth CHP to build the energy-from-waste Combined Heat and Power (EfW CHP) plant at Algores Way, Wisbech.

It is a decision that has dismayed the town of Wisbech which is struggling to come to terms with the long-term impacts.

Meanwhile Fenland District Council awaits legal advice on whether a judicial review is affordable, appropriate, or likely to succeed.

Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Steve Reed, has written to Mr Barclay asking for an explanation.

On @X (formerly Twitter) Mr Reed wrote: “Abusing your position as Secretary of State to prop up your constituency vote is a breach of the Ministerial Code.

“The public rightly expect ministers to serve the British people, and not themselves. The Environment Secretary needs to address these concerns immediately.”

 

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