Belfast Telegraph

RHI cost-saving steps to run out due to impasse, warn Ulster Unionists

By Suzanne Breen

The Ulster Unionists are warning that temporary measures introduced to reduce the overspend in the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme are in danger of expiring due to the political impasse at Stormont.

UUP finance spokesman Steve Aiken said he was very concerned there was neither an Assembly nor direct rule ministers in place to extend the measures beyond the end of next month.

One of the last decisions taken by MLAs before the collapse of the Assembly was to approve a one-year emergency measure to tackle the huge RHI overspend.

The rules introduced new tariffs which cut the anticipated overspend from £30m to £2m in this year alone. The current measures are set to expire on March 31, at the end of the current financial year.

Mr Aiken said: "There is every possibility that the current stalemate at Stormont will rumble on well beyond March 31, so there is a real danger taxpayers here will again end up paying huge sums for the botched RHI scheme. That mustn't be allowed to happen.

"As a new permanent secretary at the Department of the Economy takes post we ask that the UK Government urgently intervenes to take whatever steps necessary to ensure Parliament can approve an extension to the current measures, even if this is interpreted by some as one step further towards direct rule."

Mr Aiken said he had every sympathy for genuine applicants to the RHI scheme, many of whom invested hundreds of thousands of pounds of their own money in the venture.

But without cost controls, the scheme would cost taxpayers £700m over 20 years, he said.

"At a time of a spiralling funding crisis in our hospitals and schools, that simply could not have been allowed to happen," the UUP MLA stated.

"Even Mr Justice Colton acknowledged the unfairness of the situation during his ruling last December on the new tariffs, but he too found there was a compelling public interest for the changes. The current arrangements were always intended to be a temporary measure in order to give the Department of Economy here the opportunity to develop the long-term arrangements needed.

"It's regrettable that over 12 months later not a single new solution has been found."

Last summer, the department announced that it planned to extend the cost-control plan for a further 12 months until March 2019.

"The reality is however that this would require Assembly approval or sign-off by a direct rule minister, of which we have neither," Mr Aiken said.

Belfast Telegraph

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