Obsession with eco-friendly schemes to blame for costly fiasco run by DUP, says Wilson
Sammy Wilson has blamed an obsession with eco-friendly energy for an out-of-control scheme that will cost the taxpayer more than £1bn, even though his DUP colleagues oversaw it.
The East Antrim MP branded the non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) programme a “recipe for wasteful spending” after a Audit Office report revealed it was being abused.
The scheme, now closed, encouraged the installation of costly green heating systems by paying a tariff per kilowatt of heat burned over a 20-year period.
But a failure by Stormont to control the programme led to a huge layout of cash, with one farmer allegedly in line to receive £1m of public money over the next two decades for heating an empty shed.
Last night, Mr Wilson said some MLA were obsessed with green energy.
“It was inevitable that the enthusiasm to make sure that Northern Ireland did not fall behind the rest of the UK in promoting RHIs (would result in) mistakes,” he added.
“Whether it was planning policy, environmental policy, energy policy or even rating policy, there was an insistence that priority be given to renewables. The impacts were never properly scrutinised for fear of being labelled a global warming denier.”
Mr Wilson claimed the result was incentive schemes that distorted the energy market, making it cheaper to waste energy than conserve it, as well as giant wind turbines destroying the views in some of the most beautiful areas of the country.
“Whilst I recognise that most of the policy direction has come from the EU and Westminster, the fact is that green-obsessed Assembly members did little to question policies or use what little powers they had to slow them down,” he said.
“In years to come, I have no doubt that people looking at the huge subsidies we are now asking consumers to pay for renewable energy across the UK will ask what kind of madness overtook decision-makers.
“As the Assembly contemplates how the mistakes are paid for, a starting point may be to insist that any incentives are only paid when it can be shown that the heating of a building is essential for its productive use.”
However, critics accused Mr Wilson of “throwing up all sorts of smokescreens” and called for party colleagues Arlene Foster and Jonathan Bell to account for what happened when they ran the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), which oversaw the debacle.
Ulster Unionist economy spokesperson Steve Aiken said: “What he cannot deny is that the fiasco revealed in the Audit Office report was presided over ministers from the DUP.
“Both Arlene Foster and Jonathan Bell, as former DETI Ministers, need to account for their action or lack of action when they were in charge of the department. This is also the case for the permanent secretary.
“In terms of the RHI, the fact is that the financial catastrophe that has occurred here with the now-suspended scheme did not occur in the rest of the UK
“To quote the auditor general, ‘The fact that the department decided not to mirror the spending controls in Great Britain has led to a very serious ongoing impact on the budget, and the lack of controls over the funding has meant that value for money has not been achieved, and it facilitated spending which was potentially vulnerable to abuse’.
“We are now left with a massive bill for Northern Ireland taxpayers and an enormous hole where Stormont’s energy policy should be.”
Auditor general Kieran Donnelly said that Northern Ireland’s block grant could be hit for hundreds of millions of pounds over the next 20 years after the DETI’s failure to control costs.
He added that the scheme was designed without viable cost controls when it was set up, which led to commitments that exceeded the maximum amount the Treasury was prepared to fund.
DUP Economy Minister Simon Hamilton described the findings as deeply shocking, cataloguing “multiple failings in the design and administration of this scheme”. “The potential ongoing costs of this scheme to taxpayers are incredible, and the accusations of fraud will be rigorously investigated,” he said.
“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.”
Mr Hamilton added that external consultants were being appointed to conduct inspections of installations to ensure they met the spirit and letter of the scheme, and warned that any fraud would be firmly dealt with.