Northern Ireland news

Report into generous renewables scheme warns of accepting advice from vested financial interests

Generous subsidies are paid to the owners of single wind turbines. Picture by Mal McCann

STORMONT's Department for the Economy (DfE) has been warned that accepting "face value" advice from vested financial interests can lead to "flawed policy decisions".

The assembly's Public Accounts Committee urges civil servants to adopt "appropriate due diligence" on evidence from sectoral bodies and individuals, recommending that information from independent sources is given greater weight.

The recommendation is one eight contained in the PAC's report into the Northern Ireland Renewable Obligation (NIRO), a subsidy scheme that became notably more generous under the watch of one-time economy minister Arlene Foster.

A report into the scheme from the Northern Ireland Audit Office last year highlighted "excessive" subsidies paid to the owners of single wind turbines.

It found those generating renewable electricity would be paid up to £5 billion from consumers' bills over the lifetime of the scheme.

Much of the cost is burdened by consumers in Britain, who pay more than £80 a year towards the subsidy, while their counterparts in the north pay around £28.

The audit office said one of the reasons Northern Ireland has a proportionately greater number of single turbines than Britain – up to three times as many per square kilometre – is due to measures introduced by Mrs Foster in 2014 when she was economy minister, which set support significantly higher.

The PAC notes that while the scheme met and exceeded its primary objective of incentivising renewables generation, it questions whether it optimised value for money.

“While we do not ignore the benefits that this scheme has brought Northern Ireland, we are concerned that there were a number of areas which must be improved, if schemes like this are to provide value for money," committee chairman William Humphrey said.

He said he was pleased DfE had strengthened the expertise of its officials in recent years, adding that the committee "strenuously recommend that it learns from any weaknesses and ensures that new schemes are closely monitored for effectiveness and value for money".

The PAC recommends greater consideration of environmental, planning and other risks when formulating fresh energy policy, including "more formal engagement and agreement with other public bodies than has previously been the case".

It urges DfE to "identify and address any current skills gaps" in order to reduce an over-reliance on private sector consultants, while acknowledging that evidence submitted by those with vested financial interests carries greater risks.

"This includes the potential that incorrect conclusions drawn from such submissions could lead to flawed policy decisions," the report says.

Committee vice-chair Sinead McLaughlin said: "The fact that DfE's predecessor did not have the skills needed for it to fulfil its energy policy role is an astonishing failure of governance, responsibility for which must sit both with the senior officials in that department and the minister at the time."

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