Council makes £5m profit from farm virus clean-up

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The Independent Online

The county worst hit by foot-and-mouth disease has earned more than £7m – representing a profit of about £5m – by assisting with the Government's chaotic attempts to deal with the disease.

The county worst hit by foot-and-mouth disease has earned more than £7m – representing a profit of about £5m – by assisting with the Government's chaotic attempts to deal with the disease.

To the bewilderment of homeowners expecting a council tax rise of between 5 and 8 per cent to offset what civic leaders claim to have been the £1.5m costs of foot-and-mouth, Cumbria County Council admitted yesterday that its waste management service, which has at best broken even in the past eight years, earned a £5m surplus when its landfill sites were used to dispose of the carcasses of culled animals.

Revenues of £2.24m are also expected by a business unit at the council for assistance in biosecurity work, including the construction of lagoons to receive disinfectant that ran off farms. Invoices for the work are yet to be paid.

The costs of the foot-and-mouth clean-up have always astonished farmers in the North of England. They became a matter of controversy last July when Tony Blair ordered that the cost to the public purse of cleaning and disinfection be capped, because prices were spiralling out of control.

Cumbria's profit figure, which had been discussed in meetings closed to the public before a senior councillor unexpectedly disclosed it during a council debate on Thursday evening, has caused a political storm in Carlisle, the regional capital.

Eric Martlew, the Labour MP for Carlisle, said yesterday that it was "disgraceful" the council had not announced the surplus, made by its wholly owned company, Cumbria Waste Management (CWM), when it was claiming such high foot-and-mouth expenses.

Clearly prepared to make capital at the expense of the council's Liberal/Tory coalition, which assumed control last year after 27 years of Labour rule, Mr Martlew said: "They are going to make millions of pounds' profit from foot-and-mouth. All the time they knew that and were hiding it for party political reasons."

Cumbrian farmers were bemused, though not entirely surprised.

"The ministry was paying £15 an hour and some big farms were costing £2,000 during the clean-up," said Steve Dunning, the regional chairman of the National Farmers' Union. "Power washing might pay £15 an hour in London but it doesn't usually up here."

The council insisted yesterday that the £5m made from its landfill sites – at Hespin Wood near Carlisle, Flusco, near Penrith, and Distington in west Cumbria – was not pure profit. "There are likely to be calls on that surplus – new plant, diggers and JCBs. It would be good biosecurity to replace them," a spokesman said. Eventual dividends from CWM may only be £1m, Mike Ash, the deputy council leader, added.

Terry Franks of the Royal Oak Hotel in Braithwaite, a member of the Cumbria Crisis Alliance, a tourism pressure group, said: "It is a lot of money after the year we have had. We are hearing rumours that taxes are going to go up because of the loss the council is supposed to have made. That would be scandalous – we should not be made to pay."

Mr Ash added: "It is unfortunately the case that CWM has some windfall profits this year [but] we will be considering any profits the company has made in detail. Whatever we do with the budget we will be upfront and businesslike."

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