THE leader of Cumbria County Council today robustly defended the decision to rule the county out of a search to find a home for an underground nuclear waste repository.
Cllr Eddie Martin rejected claims his Conservative-dominated Cabinet bowed to pressure, and denied he had threatened to quit unless fellow Tories backed him in the vote.
Cllr Martin also told today’s meeting that the county council had a poor relationship with government and called on the county’s nuclear industry to contribute more money to solving west Cumbria’s social problems.
Last month’s no vote was being re-examined by a special scrutiny committee today after the authority’s ruling cabinet voted 7 to 3 to withdraw Cumbria.
Revealing publically for the first time that he does not intend to stand for re-election in May, Cllr Martin denied claims the decision had soured Whitehall relations.
“What relationship?” asked Cllr Martin. “We don’t have a relationship with Government. I go down there; I’ve written to and met with several government ministers and departments. Not once have we had a positive response.”
The meeting was told by a west Cumbria Labour councillor that Cumbria County Council is now regarded as a ‘spent force’ in Whitehall, as a result of the decision.
Since the vote last month, senior Labour councillor and former Sellafield employee, Tim Knowles quit his role on the county council cabinet in protest.
However, having heard from all sides in the debate, the 11-members of CCC’s Scrutiny Advisory Board unanimously agreed the original decision should stand.
Members had heard from three west Cumbria councillors who were behind the decision being ‘called in’ for closer examination.
One of the councillors, David Southward, told the meeting: “I know of no coherent reason why Cabinet took the decision it did.”
He said conditions and safeguards to overcome concerns should have been added, rather than totally withdrawing the county from the process.
“This has rendered Cumbria County Council a spent force in Government,” said Cllr Southward. “This is one last chance to rectify a colossal blunder. Please take it.”
Referring to the benefits package a ‘host’ community would have received, Cllr Southward said it would have ‘revitalised the economy of Copeland and Cumbria’ but was dependent on the ‘GDF ball remaining in play.’ In his response, Cllr Martin said: “This particular issue is not Copeland specific. It affects the whole of Cumbria and my responsibility is to the people of Cumbria, not Westminster. I’m not beholden to Westminster or David Cameron. The people of Cumbria elected me, not David Cameron.”
He explained the no vote was due to the ‘cumulative effect’ of a number of unanswered questions, and a failure to get proper reassurances from the government.
One of these concerned whether the county had a legal ‘get out’ clause if it agreed to take part in stage four of the process.
The government’s answer to this question had been analysed by county council lawyers, and then external barristers, said Cllr Martin.
Their conclusions were that while Cumbria could have “a legitimate expectation,’ to withdraw, it was not legally set in stone.
Calls by Cumbria to have the right of withdrawal made legally-binding by the government were also given vague answers, said Cllr Martin.
He suggested that not once had Cumbria been told the precise amount of money the county could expect as benefits package, Cllr Martin explained Energy Minister Ed Davey ‘did not have the authority’ to agree figures, and that it also required Treasury backing which was not apparent.
Cllr Martin said his position was: “If you want us to store the nation’s nuclear waste, Mr Government, for ever and ever and ever in perpetuity, it will cost you. There will be a price to pay. No price was ever forthcoming and we raised it time and time again. All we were promised was half-a-million for Lake District branding.”
Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Southward said it was important that the scrutiny committee had been given the chance to test the decision with fresh eyes.
Cllr Southward believes the likelihood of an underground nuclear waste store for Cumbria is now over ‘unless the government imposes it.’ Anti-nuclear campaigner, Ron Stirzaker, from Bowness, who turns 78 tomorrow, was among those demonstrating outside The Courts in Carlisle Mr Stirzaker described today’s ruling that the council upholds the original decision as ‘the best present’.