Businesses could be decimated: UFU

UFU deputy president Victor Chestnutt
UFU deputy president Victor Chestnutt

The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) says it has had a ‘frank and forthright’ conversation with the Department of Economy (DfE) permanent secretary about the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Scheme.

UFU deputy president, Victor Chestnutt pointed out that farmers involved in the scheme are in crisis mode as a result of DfE’s proposed plans to slash the already reduced tariff.

Discussions at the meeting covered a range of issues relating to the scheme including the proposed drastic cuts and the audit process.

Mr Chestnutt said the UFU has made its position clear on DfE’s proposals and the impact they will have on Northern Ireland’s farming industry.

He added: “If these further steep cuts come into effect many farmers, in particular poultry producers, will be facing dramatic cash flow issues. The proposed cuts have the potential to decimate hundreds of Northern Ireland’s farming businesses.

“It is galling that these farmers entered a government-run scheme in good faith, used it responsibly and now their businesses are being pushed to the wall because of the failures of others.”

The UFU says the cuts will permanently damage the competitiveness of Northern Ireland’s poultry industry.

Mr Chesnutt said: “Our closest neighbours in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland are receiving around £20,000 per boiler per year in RHI payments. DfE’s proposed plans take NI payments down to £2,000 per boiler per year.

“This is completely unsustainable and doesn’t account for loan repayments, maintenance, or fuel. Farmers in GB and ROI will be able to produce birds at a much lower cost, making them more competitive in the market place.”

The UFU also raised concerns about the RHI audit process and the stress it has caused farmers.

Mr Chestnutt said: “Countless farmers have contacted the UFU to question the RHI audit process. The audit process has been gruelling and stress levels are running high. Some farmers were audited in summer 2018 and still have not received a report.

“This is completely unacceptable. We encouraged DfE to follow the lead of other regions and to organise pre-audit workshops. I’m pleased to say they were receptive to this idea and agreed to plan workshops going forward.”

The RHI tariff legislation bill had its first reading in the House of Commons this week (28th February) and the UFU is seeking urgent meetings with the NI Secretary of State and MP’s at Westminster on the issue.

Meanwhile, Jim Allister MLA believes the drastic changes announced by DfE to the RHI tariffs will bear heavily and unfairly on genuine poultry farmers, of whom there are many in his constituency.

He added: “I care nothing for anyone ripping off the taxpayer through abuse of the scheme established by Mrs Foster, but I am concerned for those who in good faith invested heavily on the basis of the DUP leader’s ‘grandfathering’ assurance and who then used the scheme responsibly. Now, they have been left high and dry by an announcement that has overdone what was necessary.

“If the department is trying by this punitive step to purge itself of its own complicity in the Cash for Ash scandal, then it has only compounded its bungling.

“We were told the temporary reductions last year and the year before balanced the RHI budget with no further drawings required on the block grant. If that is right and the Treasury was therefore funding the cost, why has an approach been taken which will see Northern Ireland boiler owners paid substantially less than their GB counterparts? How is this fair, particularly with the history of governmental promotion of the scheme?

“Many poultry farmers in North Antrim and elsewhere will rightly feel done over by a department whose crass mishandling produced the situation in the first place.”