Belfast Telegraph

RHI ruling leaves some claimants fearing for their future

By Allan Preston

A High Court ruling against a group of more than 500 RHI claimants has been met with "shock and disappointment".

The Renewable Heat Association NI (RHANI) was formed in January this year to represent "legitimate participants" in the botched green energy scheme.

RHANI's wide-ranging membership is drawn from the agriculture, commerce and hospitality sectors.

In its second judicial review against the Department for the Economy, it argued that changes to the scheme this year shifted the goalposts for applicants who had already made large investments.

But Justice Adrian Colton ruled yesterday that compelling public interest justified cutting the cost of the RHI and that businesses had been enjoying an "unacceptably high" return.

If the original 2012 scheme had not been amended it would have cost Northern Ireland's public budget close to £700m, the judge said, with "severe consequences".

Speaking outside court yesterday, RHANI executive chair Andrew Trimble said he feared the judgment would hurt the local renewable and agri-food sectors badly, with the potential to put some poultry farmers out of business.

"The agri-food business operates on very narrow margins. This incentive did help to defer operating costs; it will put a difficult business in a very difficult position. particularly when Brexit is looming," he said.

With "a very large percentage" of wood pellets used for biomass boilers imported from European countries, he added the economics of the renewable sector would also be "significantly stressed".

The group is to take legal advice and meet with members before deciding if it will appeal.

The Ulster Farmers' Union said it was "disappointed" with the judgment as the vast majority had used the RHI scheme legitimately.

As users were encouraged to install boilers by the department, the UFU said it would push for a "fair solution" for members who had made a long-term commitment.

Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken said the case demonstrated just "how messy the fallout" from the RHI scandal had been.

"I am sympathetic to those who legitimately took part in the scheme, on the basis of a letter they received from the then minister Arlene Foster selling the benefits of the scheme and have now found themselves caught up in one of the biggest financial scandals in Northern Ireland's history," he said.

"The importance of the public inquiry into the RHI scheme continues to be underlined. It is vital that the public get answers as to how it went so badly wrong and who was responsible."

The Department for the Economy welcomed the judgment.

It said the 2017 regulations had brought RHI in line "with the original intention of the scheme".

It added that the regulations would be extended until March 2019 as a temporary measure, allowing time to develop long-term arrangements to balance the public interest and obligation to beneficiaries of the scheme.

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