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£520k is paid out by mistake to Northern Ireland wind turbine owners

Concerns have been raised around the management of an emergency coronavirus grant scheme after it emerged over £500,000 was paid out in error to wind turbine owners in Northern Ireland.

Some 52 turbine owners received grants of £10,000 in March as part of the Small Business Support Grant Scheme, only for the sector to be deemed ineligible weeks later.

Economy Minister Diane Dodds has said steps are being taken to recoup the money, with officials saying it will be done “where possible”.

But concerns were raised on Monday night that others, such as those who own anaerobic digesters, may also have been paid in error.

The Department for the Economy was unable to confirm whether this was the case.

There is no suggestion that any turbine or anaerobic digester owners have acted improperly in any way.

Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson, who sits on the Stormont Economy Committee, said the sheer speed at which the grant scheme was administered in March made mistakes “inevitable” but said immediate steps were now needed to establish the true cost.

Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs blasted the revelations as a “fiasco” while a Co Down businessman has called for a moratorium on all wind farm development. Connaire McGreevy, spokesperson for the Mourne AONB Against Wind Farms group, said it was concerning.

“It’s a huge sum of money, particularly when there’s so many people who have been excluded from grant support,” he said.

“To see wind turbines being grant-funded just begs lots more questions around the entire energy industry.”

He said all wind turbine development should be halted until a full investigation is carried out.

Mr Dickson said it was possible that many more businesses had been paid in error and that getting the money back could be difficult.

“I think the reality is that payments were made in a very big rush back in March,” he said.

“Politicians and the media were calling for urgent action to keep businesses afloat and to allow employees to be paid.

“Regrettably it was inevitable that mistakes would be made. What now needs to be done is that those mistakes can be rectified and that we can be sure public money is spent properly and given to the right people.”

He added: “I’m not quite sure how you go backwards. Will it require a change in the regulations to recoup that money because if it was properly made at the time then I’m not quite sure what you can do about it.

“Obviously there’s a range of issues here from wind turbines to anaerobic digesters. It may very well be that there were other categories of businesses who may have received funds.”

Mr Beggs said it was “outrageous” that over £500,000 was paid out to turbine owners when many businesses in need got nothing. He called on Diane Dodds to find out how the error occurred, recoup the money and give clarity on whether the £10,000 grant was given to other energy generators – and ensure the “fiasco” was not repeated.

A department spokesperson said the “necessary, swift action” to support thousands of businesses in crisis was taken with £338m paid out to over 32,000 businesses.

They added that “the unprecedented speed and scale” of the Executive’s response to the pandemic had been acknowledged by Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly.

The department said it would “where possible seek to recover any funding that may have been paid to those deemed ineligible to receive payment”.