Sedgemoor Council's 'unethical' request for £750,000 from nuclear firm

Western Daily Press, Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A council secretly asked nuclear energy firms for a £750,000 handout as they prepare to submit plans for a controversial new power plant in Somerset.

Sedgemoor District Council has been branded "unethical" after it asked energy giants to help it cover the costs of taking a "lead role" in dealing with plans to build a new reactor at Hinkley Point.

Details of a letter from one of the authority's corporate directors, Doug Bamsey, to British Energy and EDF have been released, showing he asked them to consider handing over money to cover the cost of investigations into a new reactor - Hinkley Point C.

The council says it was trying to avoid burdening local taxpayers.

In the letter, made public following a Freedom of Information request, Mr Bamsey said: "Sedgemoor District Council is willing to provide a lead role and work with adjacent councils to provide the process with strategic and coordinated responses to local issues through the agreed Nuclear Energy Board.

"It is however unable to bear the financial burden of this.

"I therefore request that you consider making funds available to help us create an energy policy/planning officer who would be the key coordinating point, with admin capacity and a working fund for meeting rooms and so on.

"I estimate this to be in the order of approx £100k pa [per year] over the next five years."

The revelation has exposed the council to allegations of unethical practice from anti-nuclear campaigners and neighbouring authorities who say Sedgemoor is over-stepping its jurisdiction.

Independent planning consultant Hugh Richards said: "It clearly conflicts with the ethical and professional standards of the Royal Town Planning Institute. There is a procedure for legitimately levying a fee on planning applicants, and it is this procedure that should be followed."

Following discussions with the industry, Mr Bamsey made the formal request in July.

He also asked for money for a technical and consultancy budget which he estimated would cost between £200,000 and £250,000 over a two-year period.

Critics say the proposals were not discussed with the Somerset Nuclear Energy Board, a consortium of three councils with an interest in Hinkley issues.

One of those is West Somerset District Council, which said Hinkley fell into its boundaries and it knew nothing of Sedgemoor 's requests.

West Somerset councillor Jon Freeman said: "None of us knew anything about this, we were all shocked and horrified. It is West Somerset District Council which is the planning authority covering Hinkley, not Sedgemoor ."

The companies say they did not solicit the request and have not agreed to it.

But anti-nuclear group Stop Hinkley spokesman Jim Duffy said: "It's easy to imagine nuclear companies expecting a smoother passage for Hinkley C had they paid this premium.

"Sedgemoor made a bad mistake here, not least in doing this behind the backs of its own and West Somerset councillors."

Sedgemoor says the Government has since agreed to put up the cash as it will be Westminster that decides on any future planning application, not the district.

A spokesman said: "The suggestion of resources from the nuclear industry was made in July 2008 and pursued by Sedgemoor District Council.

"Since that time, Sedgemoor District Council together with West Somerset Council and Somerset County Council have made direct approach to the Government seeking resources.

"It is the view of council that it is right and proper, with robust safeguards, to seek other resources to fund this assessment and challenge."

In a joint statement EDF, which has recently signed a deal to buy British Energy, and British Energy said: "EDF Energy and British Energy have not entered into any agreements in relation to these proposals. EDF Energy and British Energy believe the planning process to assess new build projects must be robust, fair and open and serve the interests of the local community."


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Page Updated 17-Jul-2009