A minister, MPs and several aristocratic landowners have received thousands in public funds from a government subsidy intended to stimulate the green transition.
The heating incentive was set up in 2014 to help businesses, public sector and non-profit organizations meet the cost of installing renewable heat systems by paying them a tariff for each unit of heat produced from renewable sources. A parallel system was set up for homes.
But concerns were raised by the National Audit Office, which concluded that although the schemes had good potential to reduce the UK’s carbon footprint, “the department has not achieved value for money”.
The NAO also raised concerns about the policing of the system and the risk that it might be gamed. Currently, 22,000 businesses have signed up to the RHI, which is forecast to cost £23bn by 2042.
An investigation by Open Democracy has now found that a number of wealthy landowners and MPs are among the beneficiaries of the subsidy. These include the international trade minister, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Philip Dunne MP, who chairs the environment audit committee, and Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP, who chaired the select committee hearing on the British RHI scheme. They also include the Duke of Devonshire, Peregrine Cavendish; and Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester.
Peter Geoghegan, editor-in-chief of openDemocracy, said: “At a time when energy prices are skyrocketing and millions are struggling with the cost of living crisis, we have found that an obscure heating scheme of dubious quality is costing billions – and that Conservative MPs, and even a government minister, have been benefiting.”
In 2015, Trevelyan and her husband installed two biomass boilers, totalling 198KW capacity, on the family estate, Netherwitton Hall. OpenDemocracy have worked out using numbers from Ofgem based on how many boilers and the size of property that under the scheme they would probably have received just under £20,000 a year. Their boiler is powered by wood from the estate. It is estimated the estate will receive a total of £400,000 in 2015 prices by 2035. Trevelyan split with her husband in 2019 and no longer lives in the family home.
Large landowners have received substantial income as a result of the grant. Chatsworth, the home of the Duke of Devonshire, installed two boilers to heat its 300 rooms, as well as its garden, stables, shops and restaurants, in 2013. Figures provided by their installers state that they generated income of £69,758 a year through the RHI – that’s £1,395,160 over 20 years in today’s figures, though this will rise with inflation.
Based on their power ratings, the two boilers at Lord Coke’s Holkham Hall estate are likely to bring in £63,221.79 a year – a figure that will rise with inflation, generating the equivalent of £1,264,435 over 20 years of RHI payments.
There is no suggestion any of the individuals who have benefited from the grant have broken any law or rule.
However, Mark Sommerfeld, head of power and flexibility at the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology (REA), defended the RHI, saying it remained “a heavily regulated scheme, with strict rules in place to ensure the appropriate use of renewable heating systems and a carefully designed tariff mechanisms that actively reduced the level of support new applicants received as the cost of systems decreased. During the scheme’s lifetime it was also regularly reviewed to ensure sites provided value for money to the taxpayer.”
A spokesperson for campaign group Biofuelwatch said: “RHI has been a poorly designed subsidy scheme which has failed to prioritise genuine climate mitigation in the heat sector and which has significantly contributed to air pollution at the expense of public health. It has left the UK with one of Europe’s worst records in relation to heat pumps, one of the most important ways of decarbonising the heat sector. And far from incentivising energy efficiency and conservation, the RHI has rewarded profligate and wasteful energy consumption by recipients.”
Trevelyan said: “My former husband set up the Netherwitton Heating Company of which I was a director until our divorce in 2019. This was a communal biomass system set to provide clean energy from local wood to about 20 properties and our family home. It provided the opportunity for all those families to move away from oil or coal fired heating systems, reducing their costs substantially.”
Clifton-Brown said: “I chaired a session of the public accounts committee on Wednesday 21 March 2018, in the absence – due to family reasons of the elected chair. I did not take the report through the committee, which was carried out by the elected chair. The family farming partnership of which I am a member is fully declared in the register of members’ financial interests. The partnership successfully applied for an RHI grant in 2015 on a property which was converted for holiday lets, to install a green pellet boiler.
“I was not involved in the grant application, and I had no personal use from this boiler. The partnership has received grants, but these have been eclipsed by the running and capital costs, but it wishes to do all it can to reduce carbon emissions”
A government spokesperson said: “These claims are a gross exaggeration. The renewable heat incentive in Great Britain has strict cost controls, budget caps and other mechanisms to prevent overspend and tackle potential gaming.”
Coke, Philip Dunne and the Duke of Devonshire have all been contacted for comment.