‘Catastrophic, shocking, and incredible’ failings in NI eco heating scheme

Present-day economy minister Simon Hamilton with former DETI minister - now First Minister - Arlene Foster
Present-day economy minister Simon Hamilton with former DETI minister - now First Minister - Arlene Foster

The Northern Irish government’s bungled handling of a renewable heating scheme has been described as “catastrophic” by the UUP.

A report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office into the running of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme has outlined how one farmer is allegedly in line to receive £1m of public money over the next 20 years for heating an empty shed, due to a Stormont failure to control the energy scheme.

The RHI scheme encouraged the installation of costly eco-friendly heating systems by paying a tariff per kilowatt of heat burned over a 20-year period.

UUP economy spokesman Steve Aiken said: “Now we have a situation where the Audit Office is telling us that the cost to the Northern Ireland block grant will be around £140m over the next five years.

“This is a catastrophic and self-inflicted failure of devolved government.”

Auditor general Kieran Donnelly said: “This scheme has had serious systemic weaknesses from the start.”

It began in 2012 and was adminstered on behalf of the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets by the now-defunct Department for Enterprise Trade and Investment (DETI) – a department which had been under DUP control since about 2007. After a shake-up of Stormont departments, DETI has now been superseded by the Department of the Economy, run by DUP MLA Simon Hamilton.

Unlike in the rest of the UK, no cap or payment tier system was placed on the money that could be claimed in proportion to the size of boiler in Northern Ireland.

In effect, that enabled a business to burn unnecessary heat just to make money.

Mr Donnelly described this as a “critical mistake”.

Mr Donnelly said that the fact that the department decided not to mirror the spending controls in Great Britain left the system “vulnerable to abuse” and “has led to a very serious ongoing impact on the NI budget”.

Late last night, Mr Hamilton said: “The Audit Office’s findings in respect of the RHI are deeply shocking and catalogue multiple failings in the design and administration of this scheme.

“The potential ongoing costs of this scheme to Northern Ireland taxpayers are incredible and the accusations of fraud will be rigorously investigated.

“Whether it is the absence of tiered tariffs or controls on costs, at various stages of the scheme there were serious systemic failings and opportunities were missed to remediate the situation by those directly responsible for administering the scheme.”