Belfast Telegraph

Civil servant with an arts degree was left to run RHI on his own

By Allan Preston

A civil servant left to run the failed Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme on his own has told an inquiry his urgent requests for extra staff were ignored.

Peter Hutchinson worked for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the botched green energy scheme was set up in 2011 through to 2014.

At the inquiry yesterday, chaired by retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin, he admitted he had no previous expertise in energy matters having only had "an arts degree, unfortunately" and had received no specific energy training.

A similar scheme in England, the inquiry was told, had 77 dedicated staff members.

The inquiry heard that DETI had only two dedicated civil servants working on RHI, with Mr Hutchinson left alone to run the "complex and heavily loaded" scheme most of the time.

The scheme was originally intended to give business owners a financial incentive to switch to green energy.

But a lack of proper cost controls ultimately derailed it as users were able to make money by needlessly burning fuel.

The overspend is predicted to run to £700m over 20 years. Its failure caused the collapse of the Stormont Assembly.

Early in his work, Mr Hutchinson had prepared a risk register that cited the lack of staff as an immediate and critical need because of RHI's complexity.

After raising his concerns with his line manager repeatedly, who in turn took the matter higher, he said: "There are only so many times you can say it, I suppose."

Further evidence was heard of how in 2011 DETI asked a consultancy firm - Cambridge Economic Policy Associates (CEPA) - to prepare an economic appraisal for RHI. Two options were suggested: an up-front grant for installing a biomass boiler, or a continuing subsidy.

Junior counsel for the inquiry Donal Lunny put it to Mr Hutchinson that DETI had decided on using the continuing subsidy before CEPA had even finished its calculations.

Asked why the subsidy was favoured, Mr Hutchinson said it was because the subsidy was seen as similar to the British RHI scheme, which DETI hoped to emulate.

"I don't think I foresaw what happened," he added when questioned if he was concerned the subsidy could overrun. Mr Hutchinson is scheduled to appear before the inquiry a second time this week.

Last week a CEPA director told the inquiry that his company did not mention the need for a cap on costs because he assumed it would be "common sense" that one would be needed. Mark Cockburn was asked why documentation submitted from his company to DETI in 2011 did not contain any references to a cap.

He replied: "I thought it would have just been common sense that you've got a finite amount of money available and you commit it up to the point where there's no more available.

"I think we were taking the assumption that we had from DETI about the amount of money that they had available. I can't point to an email, but our understanding was that that money was finite and so some way of ensuring that there could be no overspending was inherent within it."

Belfast Telegraph

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