Northern Ireland news

High Court dismisses farmer's legal challenge over RHI subsidy cuts

Pellets used for fuel in a typical biomass boiler under the RHI scheme
Jonathan McCambridge, PA

A poultry farmer who challenged cuts to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme has had his application for judicial review dismissed by the High Court.

Thomas Forgrave launched the legal action over legislation which saw annual subsidies for the RHI scheme slashed from £13,000 to £2,000.

An earlier hearing was told that he had spent £350,000 on installing biomass boilers under the original scheme.

He had claimed that those who originally signed up to the green energy initiative were entitled to rates guaranteed for 20 years.

But dismissing his case at Belfast High Court, Mr Justice Humphreys said the court was particularly influenced by the fact that the applicant had received more than £1.1 million in subsidies since he was accredited for the scheme in 2014.

The judge said: “There has been much ink spilt on the various financial issues in this case but, ultimately, the court is not in a position to, nor does it need to, decide many of these.

“It simply cannot be said that the applicant has been subjected to an excessive burden by reason of the interference with his economic interests under the scheme.”

Mr Justice Humphreys added: “It is not the role of the court to second-guess economic policy – if the legislation has a reasonable foundation then the court should defer to the national legislature.

“This is particularly so when the legislature has had the benefit of expert analysis and public consultation in arriving at a final determination.

“I recognise that whilst the 2019 scheme is quite different from the 2012 original, the scheme remains in place following intervention to eliminate the flaws which were causing overcompensation.

“I have therefore concluded that the fair balance called for between the general interest and the interest of the individual has been achieved in this case.”

The RHI scheme, set up in 2012, incentivised businesses and farmers to switch to eco-friendly boilers by paying them a subsidy for the wood pellet fuel required to run them.

But mistakes in its designs saw the subsidy rates set higher than the actual cost of the wood pellets, with applicants finding themselves able to burn to earn.

The controversy over RHI led to the collapse of Stormont powersharing after the late Sinn Féin deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned in protest at then-first minister Arlene Foster’s handling of the affair in January 2017.

The RHI had left the administration facing an overspend bill of hundreds of millions of pounds.

The subsequent cost-control steps, which led to the court challenge, have prevented that happening.

Last year a public inquiry identified a multiplicity of mistakes in the running of the scheme.

The inquiry, chaired by retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin, produced a 656-page, three-volume report containing 319 findings and making 44 recommendations.

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