Belfast Telegraph

RHI Inquiry: 'Lessons not learned' for scheme

By Rebecca Black

The former department in charge of the botched 'cash for ash' heating scheme did not learn from issues which had arisen with previous similar initiatives, it's been claimed.

Donal Lunny, junior counsel to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Inquiry, cited examples including the reconnect scheme for which demand had soared past expectation, and also the Northern Ireland Renewables Obligation (NIRO).

"If Deti (Department for the Economy) did not make use of such learning, what is the explanation," he asked during a statement to the inquiry yesterday afternoon.

Reconnect, which ran between 2006 and 2009, had expected to have an uptake of 375 applications, but instead there were a total of 1,240 biomass boilers installed on the scheme.

The estimated cost of the RHI scheme had been £400m over 20 years, but this was reviewed to be at least £490m.

"Ought Deti's experience of Reconnect have alerted Deti to a disproportionate uptake in the renewable energy section," Mr Lunny said.

Mr Lunny has vowed to get to the truth amid the "thicket of complexity" around the initiative that contributed to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly earlier this year.

He warned that his statement to the inquiry will need to go into "considerable detail" to expose the "sometimes simple truths" which led to the costs of the renewable energy scheme spiralling.

It also emerged at yesterday's hearing that while Deti was trying to control the costs, the then Department of Agriculture was actively promoting the scheme, leading inquiry chair, Sir Patrick Coghlin to query whether the two departments spoke to each other.

"It is rather difficult to understand how one department was emphasising profitability with the scheme while another department was trying to control it," he told the inquiry, asking whether the department communicated at various levels.

"It is almost as if (there are) two different worlds here," he added.

Mr Lunny queried whether Deti was aware of the full promotion of renewable energy in Northern Ireland, and the impact that might have on the number applying for the RHI scheme.

"An important question whether there is any evidence of Deti considering those issues and addressing them," he told the inquiry.

Personnel from the former departments are scheduled to give evidence at a later date.

The inquiry also heard yesterday how Northern Ireland may have been better off to have been involved in the Great Britain scheme, rather than having set up an NI specific one.

Mr Lunny quoted a statement from Mark Coburn of the consultants Cambridge Economic Policy Associates (CEPA), who said that managing a smaller budget subject to potential large changes in accreditation levels was "always going to be more challenging than a larger one".

The inquiry is already running behind schedule, just days into its public hearings. The probe into the scandal which contributed to the collapse of Stormont earlier this year is just six days into its hearings, and is still working its way through opening statements.

Mr Lunny had been to due to start his statement yesterday morning on the first of the four phases of this inquiry, which will look at the original design and implementation of the RHI scheme in Northern Ireland.

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