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Innovation award: Staffordshire CC

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Rule books sometimes need to be rewritten. And Staffordshire CC had to grasp this philosophy with both hands to realise its ambition of sending zero waste to landfill.

The solution decided on was to develop a hi-tech plant to dispose of 300,000 tonnes of waste per year, converting the heat into enough electricity to power 30,000 homes.

The only way to raise the massive capital investment required – around £250 - was through a private finance initiative. The council also needed its regional partners on-board if the scheme was going to work.

But a quick review of similar projects elsewhere revealed they were not necessarily going well. The council therefore chose to take on the initial risk before selecting a contractor and handing over a project ready to hit the ground running.

Ian Benson, Staffordshire’s municipal waste strategy director, said: “The Defra guidelines at the time were essentially to transfer the risk to the private sector as soon as possible.

“In all previous cases this involved selecting a contractor and handing over site selection, purchase, land surveys and obtaining the all-important planning permission to them.

“But we could see this involved asking the contractor to take on risks that they may spend many years struggling to overcome.”

The council purchased a site at Four Ashes near Cannock. Land surveys were carried out and planning permission obtained. The project was christened Project W2R and as it progressed the council implemented an innovative approach in working with its partners.

“Walsall MBC, Sandwell MBC and Warwickshire CC wanted to use the site – the first two to dispose of virtually all their residual waste,” said Mr Benson.

“Traditional partnerships have the potential to quickly become a bureaucratic quagmire. These arrangements can also leave the contractor unsure who is really in the driving seat.

“We agreed with our partners that we would take the lead and they would trust us to keep them informed of all major developments. In return we trusted them to stay with the project and deliver the waste. At a stroke it minimised the opportunity for W2R to become an inter-regional political football.”

According to cabinet member for environment and assets Mark Winnington (Con) the decision to develop the project before selecting a contractor saved invaluable time and money for the authority and its partners.

He said: “It was contrary to Defra guidance, but after considerable negotiation was accepted as a potential way forward. Our principal aim was pragmatism – getting the job done.

“By the time the private contractor, Veolia, was selected there were very few uncertainties that could lead to major delays and cost escalations.

“The project received sign-off in under two years, which was described by Defra as ‘a phenomenal achievement’. Construction work is now expected to start on site in June 2011, with full operation planned before the end of 2013.

“The end result will be a saving to partner authorities of around £400m during the plant’s operating life, with waste that used to be poured expensively into holes in the ground instead going to power homes and businesses.”

The judges’ view

It was felt that the winning entry was simple, brave and truly innovative. The council had delivered a fast, innovative and pragmatic solution that proved to be excellent value to the tax payer.

Innovation award shortlist

  • Newham LBC (highly commended)
  • Barking and Dagenham LBC
  • Bexley LBC
  • Breckland DC
  • Lambeth LBC
  • South Hams DC and West Devon BC
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