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RHI farmer who claimed £900k says business has been hurt and my family insulted - 'I wish I'd never heard of scheme'

By Jonny Bell

The farmer revealed to have claimed almost £1m from the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) has spoken of how his business has been "decimated".

The Department for the Economy yesterday faced a backlash for publishing the names of firms and individuals who claimed from the botched green energy scheme. The largest amount of money to a single recipient is understood to be £2m. He has not yet been named.

Read More: Revealed: Full list of RHI scheme claimants

Speaking after the names of most grant recipients were published, Fred Maxwell said his family had been threatened and his reputation left in tatters by his involvement in the scheme that brought down Stormont.

Mr Maxwell owns and operates Northern Ireland's largest chicken farm, and says he "wishes he never set eyes on" RHI.

His operation near Dungannon has 10 hen houses producing more than 2m birds a year.

He opened his books for the Belfast Telegraph to demonstrate how the scheme affected him.

The documents reveal that in 2013, with his heating system in need of an overhaul, Mr Maxwell opted for RHI boilers.

Since then he has spent almost £2m on equipment, fuel and bank loans, and received some £906,000 from the Government for taking up the sustainable heating system.

"I got in what I needed in terms of the heat my chickens require," he said. "I could have put in as many boilers as I liked, but I didn't, I just got what I needed.

"And every penny spent, apart from a small amount of wood chip I brought in from the South, has gone into the Northern Ireland economy."

As well as every hen house having its own boiler, he also has a shed for drying the wood chip. He decided to install it as he had difficulties sourcing and maintaining a reliable supply of wood to keep the boilers going.

He built a £350,000 shed in 2015, although he says he first began work on it long before there was talk of a change in the scheme. Crucially, he is still waiting on accreditation from the scheme's administrators Ofgem, meaning the three boilers used to provide constant heat are being paid for from his business and he gets no payments for it from the RHI scheme.

Given the strict requirements needed to rear his chickens, his hen house boilers work around half of the year.

"That was the benefit for us," he said. "It's a dry heat so all of a sudden the chickens were performing better, they didn't need antibiotics or as much meal to grow - they thrived. Aside from the incentive, that was the benefit, but I am not making money."

He described the system as being labour intensive and something that wouldn't be considered without the incentive.

Audited by PricewaterhouseCoopers, he says it told him he was one of the lowest users in the scheme. A court hearing last week heard auditors found no evidence of abuse among the chicken producing industry.

"There are crooks using RHI, in any system there would be," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"But I can't see it being the chicken farmers. They could only use the heat for what they need it for. The chickens couldn't take any more. Where is the farmer heating empty barns with the windows open? He doesn't exist.

"Where is this ratio of £1.60 for every £1? That never existed, but it is out there. And we are being called all sorts."

Mr Maxwell says that other than a seminar organised by the then Department of Agriculture, there was no encouragement to sign up.

"I was one of the first to go into the scheme when the banks wouldn't lend to us. It was only when Arlene (Foster, whose then-Stormont department was overseeing the scheme) wrote the letter to the banks that they begun lending, and more got on the scheme."

He stressed he has never been a DUP donor or party member, and was at one time a UUP member. He said he had in the past voted for Lord Morrow, but only because he knows him.

He did not vote in the last Assembly election because of the lack of support farmers embroiled in the RHI controversy received from politicians.

"They don't want to come near us," he said.

"The scheme is still running in England, Scotland and Wales. They are still advertising it and people are still signing up and it is much more of an incentive for those farmers than it is for us. And we have to compete with them - what is our government trying to do to us?"

He said he had been left on his own with no support. His family have been subject to verbal abuse and his property was subjected to an incident when rumours spread of his involvement in the scheme.

"The way it has been portrayed... dirt sticks," he said. "My wife has been at the shops and people tell her we must be making a fortune while schools and hospitals are suffering.

"Every biomass boiler owner is deemed a crook and that's just not right. It's like saying everyone in the BBC is a paedophile because of Jimmy Savile, and they are not, that's just stupid to think that way."

He added: "Arlene Foster set up this scheme and Michelle O'Neill advertised it to us (through her then department's workshops). And they want to run the country? I really fear for us if they do.

"We have been lied to by our government. We were told all this was set in stone, the money 'grandfathered'. Now we can't continue if the tariffs continue the way they are.

"I see them trying to attract foreign investment but how can anyone consider investing in us when they can't be honest with their own?"

With caps imposed and payments already agreed in advance with customers, he is facing mounting financial pressure and soon will be producing chickens in order to feed his heating bills.

"My business has been decimated. Now it's taking the profits from growing the chicken to fund the heating," he said.

"They offered a scheme, guaranteed the money for 20 years and now they've taken it away.

"We are just chicken farmers. We never signed up for our finances to be put out there for all to see.

"We are private individuals and wanted it to stay that way."

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