Northern Ireland news

Farmer challenging huge cuts to RHI scheme `plunged deep into debt' court hears

Subsidies were higher than fuel costs and RHI was closed to new entrants in 2016

A POULTRY farmer challenging huge cuts to the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme has been plunged deep into debt because he trusted government pledges on subsidies, the High Court has heard.

Counsel for Thomas Forgrave claimed he is suffering while no-one at Stormont pays the consequences for blatant errors in the failed green energy initiative.

The north Antrim man is taking legal action over legislation introduced in 2019 which saw annual payments to boiler owners slashed from £13,000 to £2,000.

He insists those who originally signed up to the RHI scheme have a right to tariff rates guaranteed for 20 years.

On day two of the case against the Department for the Economy, the court was told how Mr Forgrave borrowed more than £500,000 to pay for and install biomass boilers at his farm.

Amid concerns over reduced income rates, the bank loan was later restructured. He now faces repaying £307,000 over 10 years.

Representing Mr Forgrave, Gerald Simpson QC said: "This has left the business in a potentially unviable position."

Set up to encourage businesses and other non-domestic users to switch to environmentally friendly wood pellet burning systems, the RHI scheme was plunged into controversy after the potential cost to taxpayers emerged.

Subsidies were higher than fuel costs and it was closed to new entrants in 2016.

Mr Forgrave is seeking to judicially review the decision to cut payments. He contends that the department breached his right to property protected under European law.

"The possession and issue in this case is the guaranteed right to a tariff level, subject only to adjustment for inflation, for a period of 20 years," Mr Simpson submitted.

"The interference amounts to deprivation because, in fact, the right has been extinguished and been replaced by something completely different on which no sensible businessman would borrow money and no sensible bank would lend money."

Mr Justice Humphreys was told no-one in government will suffer for the "continuing mistakes and blatant errors".

"On the other hand the applicant, who was and is a successful businessman up until the 2019 tariffs came into existence, and whose only error was to believe the representations of government, and who trusted those representations... he is far from immune from the consequences.

"His business has become effectively unviable with all the consequences for him: financially; his business; in his life; and in his family's lives."

Proceedings were adjourned to June 22, when lawyers for the department will respond.

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