Belfast Council calls for public inquiry into Renewable Heat Incentive "shambles"

BELFAST City Council has called for a full public inquiry into the "shambolic" Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, which has run millions of pounds over budget.

The RHI was set up in 2012 by the DUP's then-minister for enterprise, trade and investment Arlene Foster, who is now Joint First Minister. It was designed to encourage businesses and other non-domestic energy users to switch from fossil fuels to heat from renewable sources - but users could legitimately claim more in subsidies than the cost of the fuel burned.

Northern Ireland's Department of Economy now estimates that it will cost taxpayers an additional £490m.

A motion proposed by Alderman Ruth Patterson and passed by the council on Tuesday night noted serious public concern at the scheme's "financial squander" and resolved to write to the UK secretary of state calling on him to use powers under the Inquiries Act 2005 to initiate a public inquiry.

It also calls on Foster to step aside while the inquiry takes place.  

According to figures published by the BBC, 1,946 RHI applications were approved - a 98 per cent success rate. Some 984 were received in just three months from September to November 2015 after plans were announced to cut the subsidiary.

In an independent audit, there were issues with half of the 300 RHI installations inspected, including 14 cases of suspected fraud. In five cases, payments were stopped.

Alderman Patterson told a meeting of the council that the RHI scheme was a "farce" that was constructed in a "woeful manner" and wasted hundreds of millions of pounds. She noted that a former DUP minister, Jonathan Bell, has made serious allegations of political corruption that need to be "fully tested", along with allegations that DUP donors benefited disproportionately from the scheme.

Arlene Foster has apologised for not controlling the cost of the RHI scheme but has insisted she has "nothing to hide" and has rejected all calls to resign.

In a statement, the DfE said: "In regard to the cost of the RHI scheme, the Comptroller & Auditor General's report estimated the 20-year costs of the scheme, if nothing is done, to be £1,150m.

"C&AG stated this involves 'a number of uncertainties' and represents 'the best estimate of the worst case'.

"Based on a forecasted three per cent Barnett share of the allocation for the GB scheme, the projected available budget is £660m. Based on those published figures, the maximum burden on the Northern Ireland budget would be £490m."