Toffs are like jackals: always quick to sniff out new carrion. I remember a few years back one florid aristo boasting what obscene amounts of money he was saving on his heating bills thanks to a brilliant new government scheme to incentivise wood-burning. ‘Probably no use to you —your house isn’t big enough,’ he said, pityingly. Then he went on to tell me about the solar array on his estate. ‘Makes perfect sense if you’ve got a few acres spare.’
But I haven’t told you the worst of it. The worst was that my friend felt really virtuous. Some might say that here was another well-heeled scrounger with a massive sense of entitlement raking in tens of thousands in subsidies for sitting on his fat arse. But as he saw it, he was doing his bit to save the planet. In fact, he went on to indicate — and I’m not making this up — that he considered himself a better person than me because all I did was write articles advocating for selfish, greedy causes like unfettered free markets, whereas he was making a real difference.
My toff friend, it goes without saying, was a massive fan of the kinder, gentler Conservatism of David Cameron. So, no doubt, are many other landowners who have benefited from the feed-in tariffs and other subsidy schemes that Dave’s ‘greenest government ever’ used to incentivise renewable energy. But I’m not. I think it was a disgraceful scam, an inexcusable waste of public money, and a grotesque, cynical and immoral wealth transfer from the poor to the establishment elite, with poisonous consequences we will be ruing for many years to come.
What’s happening now in Northern Ireland is but the latest example. There has been a power grab at Stormont, with the majority Democratic Unionist Party deposed and the grisly Sinn Fein in the ascendant, making mischief. The excuse being milked by Sinn Fein is a massive scandal in which millions of pounds have been squandered on one of the Cameron coalition’s green schemes, the Renewable Heat Incentive.
The person being blamed is DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster who, for her sins, was the province’s economy minister at the time the RHI scheme was brought in. For some reason which no one has been able to explain, her department forgot to include capping controls, which meant the amount claimable under the scheme was limitless.
And what a great deal it offered. For every pound spent on ‘renewable’ wood fuel, the Northern Ireland government would pay you back £1.60. Even allowing for the initial capital costs of installing your eco-friendly wood-burning boiler, the potential returns were huge: at least £25,000 per boiler, per year — guaranteed, inflation-indexed for 20 years. Few questions were asked about the purpose of these boilers, which meant that canny farmers and businessmen could install them in previously unheated outbuildings and rake in the cash. Northern Ireland’s main Porsche, Maserati and Jaguar dealer, it’s said, has never seen such happy times.
Meanwhile, Stormont is skint: an already straitened budget which might have been spent on healthcare or education is now having to be spent on RHI payment obligations of around £480 million. The full cost of the scheme is £1.3 billion over 20 years at current prices, the bulk being absorbed by Westminster taxpayers.
But while focusing on the local incompetence, corruption and malfeasance of the ‘cash for ash’ scandal, we’re in danger of ignoring the bigger picture. This wasn’t a random accident of hickish local government. It was the predictable result of a foolish scheme which incentivised precisely this kind of greedy and immoral behaviour.
If you pay people a Porsche a year to burn vast quantities of wood in disused buildings, then that is what people will do. And there’s no point asking the Energy and Climate Change Secretary who introduced the RHI scheme what he now thinks of its merits . That’s because in his lucrative new life as an ex-MP, Chris Huhne is doing very nicely, thank you, raking it in as European chairman of Zilkha Biomass, a US company which ships wood pellets across the Atlantic for us to burn in our eco-friendly power stations and boilers.
Thanks to the surge in demand caused by RHI, more wood is being burned in Britain than at any time since the industrial revolution — resulting in swaths of woodland being cut down, such as Ryton Wood in Warwickshire, where 50 mature oaks, some 300 years old, were felled for ‘sustainable’ fuel. It has caused similar conservation issues in America, where deciduous forests are being felled to provide fuel for power stations such as Drax. Is that really eco-friendly?
And ‘cash for ash’ is just one renewables scandal among many. There’s also what journalist David Rose christened the ‘great green guzzler’ con, whereby farms have been paid £216 million in subsidies for anaerobic digesters responsible for a number of environmental disasters, including one incident last year which poisoned an eight-mile stretch of the River Teifi in Wales, killing more than 1,000 fish on a well-loved salmon and trout beat. Can you imagine the outcry if a fossil fuel power station had done that much damage?
Over the next six years, the blogger Paul Homewood has calculated, environmental levies are going to cost the UK £65 billion — nearly £10 billion more than we’ve earmarked for HS2. Yet because it’s ‘green’ — so obviously good — this outrageous waste of tax-payers’ money has almost never been subjected to proper scrutiny. Perhaps it’s time Theresa May showed that there’s more to her than just ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and set about undoing the damage part-created by her dismally useless husky-hugging predecessor.