THE future of a hugely controversial project to create a waste incinerator to serve Britain’s largest county has been thrown into doubt after a sudden Government U-turn.

In a surprise move Defra have withdrawn their provisional offer to underpin the North Yorkshire scheme with £65m of credits from the Private Finance Initiative.

The move was described as “baffling” by shocked county council bosses who have spent five years working on the scheme - but was greeted jubilantly by campaigners against the project.

“We are absolutely delighted,” said Bob Schofield, spokesman for the North Yorkshire Waste Action Group, which has been fighting the proposal from the beginning.

“It was always terrible value for money. Now enough is enough and it is time for the county council to look at other solutions.”

The PFI credits would have gone towards the £250m cost of building the plant – which ultimately would cost around £1.4bn over 25 years.

But Defra said other waste infrastructure projects around the country, in which they are investing £3.6bn, would now be enough for the UK to meet the EU target of reducing waste sent to landfill.

As well as the North Yorkshire scheme, at Allerton Park, near Knaresborough, offers have also been withdrawn for projects in Merseyside and Bradford.

The leader of North Yorkshire County Council, John Weighell, said the announcement had come as a complete surprise to the authority and they would now be seeking an urgent meeting with the Government.

“We have been repeatedly assured throughout the procurement process of Defra’s commitment to PFI credits,” he said.

“To be informed now, after the granting of planning consent and the decision of the Government not to call in the planning application for a public inquiry, that the funding commitment is being withdrawn is frankly baffling and disappointing.”

He added: “We have undergone a lengthy procurement process of more than five years, and Defra has been closely involved in that process – even to the extent of providing a permanent liaison officer at senior level.

“At no stage in that period, during which there have been continuing assessments to ensure that the scheme remains viable, value for money, and necessary, has any issue been raised by the Government.

“There have been repeated indications from Government throughout this period that the scheme will be funded through PFI .”

He also insisted the decision did not necessarily mean the end of the scheme – and they would now be looking at all the options available before deciding the way forward.

But Tory MP and long-term opponent to the scheme Andrew Jones – in whose Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency it would be – said the decision seemed likely “to stop the incinerator in its tracks.”

He added: “It is time to draw a line under the incinerator and I hope we can now move to a greener and more sustainable way of dealing with waste.”