Exclusive: MPs and landowners rake in energy subsidies as millions struggle
International trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan and members of the landed gentry are among those to benefit
Tory MPs, Lords members and multi-millionaire landowners are raking in eye-watering sums from a taxpayer-funded subsidy to heat their mansions even as millions face fuel poverty this winter, openDemocracy can reveal.
Among the beneficiaries identified by this website are international trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who has claimed £80,000; Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the MP who headed a parliamentary inquiry into whether the scheme was delivering value for money; and two members of the House of Lords, one of whom is in line to make more than £1m.
The non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was meant to encourage a shift to cleaner energy and has been running since 2011. Under the scheme, anyone who installs an eligible ‘green’ boiler in a business or public sector building receives 20 years of payouts for their trouble.
A similar scandal caused a political earthquake that shut down Northern Ireland’s government for three years.
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Martyn Day, SNP MP, told openDemocracy: “These are deeply worrying findings which will rightly cause concern as households across the UK grapple with the spiralling Tory-made cost of living crisis.”
Day, who scrutinised the scheme as part of the public accounts committee in 2018, added: “While ordinary people are being forced to make the impossible choice between heating and eating, the UK government has serious questions to answer over its priorities.”
Some 110,000 homes and 22,000 businesses have claimed the RHI, which is set to cost £23bn and run until 2042. The final round of new applicants were awarded funding this year.
Documents reveal Conservative politicians repeatedly failed to clamp down on some of the most egregious loopholes in the subsidy even as they cut support for other key green measures.
Ruth London, head of Fuel Poverty Action, told openDemocracy: “Every year millions freeze and go into debt in homes with the worst insulated housing in Europe, and every year thousands die from cold and damp. Yet the wealthy few are again hoovering up the resources we need for our survival.”
Energy watchdog Ofgem told Clifton-Brown’s inquiry in 2018 that recipients were “gaming” the system, and had privately warned as early as 2011 that it carried a “significant fraud risk”. There is no suggestion that the MPs or peers named in this article have committed fraud.
Among the parliamentarians claiming the renewable heat incentive is Arthur Gore, the Earl of Arran, who has had a seat in the House of Lords since 1983.
Gore’s family home, Castle Hill in Devon, is heated by a biomass boiler system.
Castle Hill is part of Gore’s own Fortescue estate, where 50 cottages are rented out.
The house itself is not open to the public. But the public are paying for its heating – which has been designed to “maximise” the amount extracted from taxpayers, and which heats a pool as well as the sprawling country pile.
The installer, 5D, says on its website that the Earl’s biomass boilers “provide heat and hot water to the Mansion House, two separate Wings, the Estate Offices, six cottages and an outside pool”.
They add that: “The design included thermally modelling the buildings so we could work out how to accurately split the system into two 199kW boilers to maximise the return from the Renewable Heat Incentive.”
There are situations in which two boilers may be more logistically practical than one – for instance, to provide a backup – but the installers’ comments in this and other cases seen by openDemocracy suggest that the primary reason for installing a second boiler was to maximise payouts.
This is the practice that Ofgem repeatedly described as “gaming”, and even “exploitation”, papers revealed to the Coghlin Inquiry show. That inquiry, which focused on the Northern Irish scheme and was not tasked with examining the British one, noted the shared weaknesses of both.
“The rather neutral term ‘gaming’ should not be permitted to detract from any activity that was clearly designed to exploit and maximise the financial profit from a scheme supported by public funds and conceived as being value for money,” Sir Patrick Coghlin wrote.
The Earl of Arran did not respond to openDemocracy’s request for comment.
openDemocracy has ascertained that at least 3 MPs – Trevelyan, Clifton-Brown, and Philip Dunne – have benefited from payments from the RHI.
Clifton-Brown chaired the parliamentary inquiry into the British RHI scheme, which – in contrast to the thousands of hours spent scrutinising the Northern Irish programme – took place in a Westminster committee room on a single afternoon in March 2018.
The Cotswolds MP is the deputy chair of the Public Accounts Committee. Stepping into the chair that day, after some opening remarks about energy security, he briefly declared his interest, saying: “I am a recipient of the renewable heat incentive in my partnership and I will obviously be getting income from that application.”
Clifton-Brown’s partnership is described in his register of interests as “a family partnership (East Beckham) used for arable farming and tourism in North Norfolk area”.
Similarly, Dunne, the current head of the environmental audit committee, told a meeting of the group in 2017: “My home is heated through a biomass boiler for which I receive renewable heat incentive payments.”
Trevelyan already looks to have received in the region of £80,000 from four years’ worth of payments at her home.
Around the time of her election in 2015, Trevelyan and her husband installed two biomass boilers, totalling 198KW capacity, at their family home Netherwitton Hall. A conservative estimate of payments suggests they will have received just shy of £20,000 a year, with the boiler powered by wood from their estate. The family home will continue to receive payments, rising with inflation, until 2035, to a total of £400,000 in 2015 prices – though Trevelyan split from her husband in 2019.
None of the three MPs identified by openDemocracy to be benefiting from the scheme responded to openDemocracy’s requests for comment.
One loophole the government has consistently failed to close is the fact homeowners can claim more money by installing multiple boilers that run at lower capacities, rather than installing a single larger one to do the same job.
William Sackville, the 11th Earl de La Warr, appears to have done just this when he installed biomass boilers to heat his 15-bedroom house, Buckhurst Park.
Sackville’s family have lived at Buckhurst Park since the time of William the Conqueror.
His installer explained that they had installed “two boilers” in June 2014 – just in time to get the maximum tariff under the renewable heat incentive, now around 10p per KWh. The boilers totalled 350KWh capacity, but they were “hydraulically separated, allowing for RHI to be claimed separately on each at the below 200kW tariff rate”.
Assuming typical “load factor” of 15%, in line with the practices observed by Ofgem, the earl stands to get £943,714.80 from the taxpayer to heat his house. And that’s not counting the savings he’ll make by no longer needing to buy oil to power boilers.
As for the cost of the fuel, the installers’ website refers to the earl’s own “considerable managed woodland” – meaning he only has to pay to have it cut and chipped.
Sackville, who worked in the City, and after whose family the American state of Delaware is named, told the Telegraph in 2019 he was not “rich” and that it was “all relative”.
Another famous house – 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 generate income of £69,758 a year through the RHI – that’s £1,395,160 over 20 years. The system had paid for itself by 2017. Had the heat output been combined into one even larger boiler rather than split in two, the amount payable would have been sharply reduced. Peregrine Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire, declined to comment.
Another case where taxpayers are paying a member of the Lords to run biomass boilers is that of Holkham Hall, owned by Lord Coke, the Earl of Leicester.
Coke told his estate’s magazine in 2013 that he was “delighted” with the scheme, which was to be powered by thousands of tonnes of wood from his own 2,000-acre woodland.
Based on their power ratings, the two boilers are likely to make the earl £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. Coke is since understood to have had a third boiler installed, though its power rating is not known.
The Earl of Leicester did not directly answer openDemocracy’s questions about how much profit he had made from the scheme, but said schemes to encourage early adoption of “new technologies” were common and had his support.
Then there’s Hever Castle – former home of Anne Boleyn, now home to property developer John Guthrie. “Rising oil costs and a large woodland” meant the castle’s owners had already put in a large biomass boiler in 2007.
When the RHI scheme was introduced two years later, Guthrie was “keen to benefit from the financial savings that can be made from the government’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI)” (in the installer’s words). And so the estate got the same installers back to rip that boiler out and replace it with one around 30% bigger, sized at 995KW (had it been 5kW bigger, the payments would have dropped significantly).
Assuming typical load factors and a conservative estimate of what tariff the deal secured, that decision is likely to have netted the owner £77,661 a year, or the equivalent of £1,553,226 over 20 years.
It has been an open secret amongst the landed classes that the scheme is, for them, a licence to print money.
Back in 2015, an unnamed Tory peer told The Telegraph that, thanks to biomass boilers, “every stately home I know is now like a sauna in winter, with windows wide open”.
Bizarrely, the article went on to suggest that the answer was not to scrap this tax-funded cash transfer to the rich, but the other green levies that fund energy efficiency measures for more modest homes.
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