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Many legitimate RHI users crippled with debt: claim

By Claire O'Boyle

Legitimate claimants of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme have been left hundreds of thousands of pounds in debt by the botched venture - even before ministers have managed to thrash out a deal to change their contracts, it has been claimed.

Banks have already pulled out of loan deals with dozens of recipients of the RHI programme because of uncertainty surrounding future payments, leaving many in life-changing debt.

One farmer is said to be facing a bill of around £400,000.

Michael Doran, from the Renewable Heat Association which is representing around 500 claimants of the scheme, said the government's handling of the programme has had devastating consequences for people - not just financially, but on the whole of their lives.

"These people applied to an official, government programme and agreed in good faith to its terms and conditions," said Mr Doran, who does not have any boilers through the RHI scheme.

"They made investments in their farms and businesses once their applications had been approved in the belief the government would keep its side of the contract.

"They got bank loans agreed on the understanding they would receive RHI payments over 20 years.

"But already, many have suffered very badly because the circumstances have changed as a result of how this has been handled."

One farmer Mr Doran has spoken to is now short of around £400,000 while another has no funds to cover an investment of £100,000.

"Two years ago, one farmer invested £700,000 in improvements to his business," he added.

"His application to the RHI scheme had been approved and this made up part of his agreement with the bank. They agreed to a loan of £400,000.

"But now, because circumstances have changed because he couldn't guarantee he would be getting the RHI money he has been told they will not pay out on this loan.

"He is now facing a bill of £400,000 which he thought would be covered by a bank loan, and he doesn't know how he's going to pay it."

Another man is in a similar predicament, with an outstanding bill of around £100,000.

"It's exactly the same thing," Mr Doran added.

"He had agreed a loan with the bank with payments from the RHI scheme taken into consideration, but now they have reneged on that deal.

"When he responded to them, the bank said he should go ahead and 'sue' them. They know he is not in a position to do that with everything else going on."

But, added Mr Doran, the fight was not with the banks - it still lies entirely with the government departments which designed and failed to deliver the scheme properly.

"The banks have been forced into a very difficult and awkward position here too," he said.

"They signed off on loans in good faith believing payments would be coming in from the scheme for 20 years.

"Now ministers are throwing doubt on to this by saying they're going to go back and change the initial agreement, so of course they have to protect themselves. It's understandable that the banks won't leave themselves exposed as part of this mess.

"This is a problem caused by the government, and the people who legitimately applied to this scheme - the vast majority as far as I can see - should not be punished because of their mistakes.

"If there are people behaving badly, then they have to be rooted out, but most people took part in good faith. I've spoken to four or five people directly who have been affected in this way already but I believe there are dozens more out there."

And, Mr Doran added, it's not just this sort of financial burden impacting on recipients.

"The attitude of the public seems to be that anyone who claimed on this scheme was up to no good, but in my opinion it's probably about 98% of people who applied genuinely, hoping to do a good thing for their business under the rules," he said.

"Even people who applied during the so-called 'spike' period were still applying under official rules. Why should they be criticised for that?"

The RHI scandal came under renewed attack yesterday with TUV leader Jim Allister branding it an embarrassment for unionism.

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