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Clogher Valley farmer fears for future as RHI court decision approaches

Thursday, 1 June 2017

A CLOGHER VALLEY farmer at the centre of the battle to force a Stormont department to reverse its cuts to Renewable Incentive Scheme (RHI) payments has claimed not only was its decision illegal, but it had pushed many of his colleagues to the brink of desperation.

Augher chicken farmer, Fred Maxwell, has accused the government of not only dumping his industry into chaos but, he claimed, it had also reneged on legally-binding guarantees that tariff rates for those signed up to the original 2012 scheme could not be altered.

The 56-year-old further claimed that not only has the decision to introduce new regulations this year to cover those operations gone beyond the Department of the Economy's legal authority, but it has placed the future of many farmers and their mental wellbeing in serious danger.

The farmer is one of several hundred throughout the province that have come together under the Renewable Heat Association NI banner to challenge the move to reduce payments under the controversial initiative.

The scheme was initially set up to encourage businesses and other non-domestic users to move from using fossil fuels to renewable heating systems. But with operators legitimately able to earn more cash the more fuel they burned, the cost to the public purse has been projected at around 500 milion.

Mr Maxwell says legitimate hard-working farmers, many of them in Tyrone, were now being punished for what he described as 'the government's incompetence' in the matter and has called for a proper audit of all involved in the scheme - something that has not happened to date.

The RHI scandal led to the collapse of the Stormont power-sharing administration, while a public inquiry, chaired by retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlan is to examine the development and roll-out of the scheme.

A few months ago the then Economy Minister, Simon Hamilton, set out revised 2017 RHI Regulations as part of cost-cutting proposals, but the farmers have claimed this was illegal as they had already been granted 20-year contracts.

The legality of the matter is currently being thrashed out in the High Court. The case has been adjourned until June 13 when, according to Mr Maxwell, a decision in favour of the Department's new regulations would spell disaster for the farmers.

 

The names of firms and individuals who claimed from the scheme were published last week with more than one-third of all payments made to participants in this county. A list of 142 Tyrone enterprises was published in March outlining payments worth 10.7 million. The department's new expanded list has shown 62 million was paid in the scheme to the end of February last with at least 23 million of that, about one-third, going to participants in Tyrone. It is believed there are up to 725 boilers in the county.

Mr Maxwell said 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.

"They keep turning them down and asking questions. Every question they've asked me I've answered within a day but they never come back when they are supposed to. The Department for the Economy is telling them not to accredit any more boilers."

Yesterday (Tuesday) outgoing Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP, Tom Elliott of the UUP, who is standing again the forthcoming election, visited Mr Maxwell's farm and assured him he would raise the matter of his accreditation in Westminster.

 

Given the strict requirements needed to rear his chickens, Mr Maxwell's 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 recently heard auditors found no evidence of abuse among the chicken producing industry.

"Chicken farmers 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," he said.

"Our government lied to us. They sold us a tariff that was guaranteed for 20 years and by law couldn't be changed and yet they changed it. The department said there was a 12 percent return on investment on the original tariff - they're now saying there's a 12 percent return on the new tariff.

"On the old tariff our incentive, after we had paid our bills, was roughly 5,000 per boiler. In the new tariff I'm going to be down 107,000 per year. They have changed the rules, they shouldn't have been able to but they did.

 

He went on: "No politician or civil servant lost their job over RHI but every business that went into RHI is going to lose money. My worst case scenario is everything I make out of the chickens is going to have to go to pay off this and that shouldn't be. I had a good business before RHI."

With the general election around the corner, Mr Maxwell said all politicians from all parties had avoided tackling this issue. He offered them an open invitation to come along to his premises and talk to him about the matter.

"They don't want to come near us, but they should be trying to help," he said. "My business has been decimated."

He added the scheme was still running in England, Scotland and Wales and that's now what they had to compete with.

"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 subjected to verbal abuse and his property was subjected to an incident when rumours spread of his involvement in the scheme.

"Every biomass boiler owner is deemed a crook and that's just not right. My plans for expansion are gone."

Mr Maxwell felt the only way to help now was if those in power reinstated the tariffs that the farmers signed up to.

"That's what the government promised, that's what the published and promoted and what we borrowed the money for. We can't go back and leave our equipment back again, we've borrowed the money and paid everybody and yet we're left in limbo. I am worried for the well being of many farmers who are in financial straits because of what's going on. They can't just shut the door and away away. These men have made a lifelong commitment to their work but they are being treated now like they don't matter ...it's like something you would hear about in the likes of Cuba or Libya," he said.

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