Planning probe now investigating more than 100 farm applications

The poultry sector is a key part of Northern Ireland agriculture. Photo by Larry Rana, Wikicommons

The poultry sector is a key part of Northern Ireland agriculture. Photo by Larry Rana, Wikicommons

A MAJOR investigation into farm planning applications is now looking at more than 100 cases, including developments which were approved years ago.

The Detail revealed yesterday that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) had raised “significant concerns” about the validity of vital documents submitted as part of at least 14 live applications for new farm developments.

The agency had written to applicants saying it had been “unable to verify” the results of key soil samples because “the purported analysing laboratory” listed on the documents had no record of either all, or a majority of, samples recorded in each of the applications.

Following the report, a whistleblower contacted The Detail to say that the NIEA had written to planning chiefs in February, informing them that it was investigating more than 100 planning applications.

The NIEA has now confirmed that it is investigating 108 applications - 101 for pig or poultry units and seven for biogas plants, which turn manure into fuel.

The applications include some which are waiting for planning approval and some which were approved years ago.

The probe, which was launched in October 2022, centres on applications which contain “misrepresented” soil sample results.

Soil samples are a key part of the planning application process and must show the applicant can deal with animal manure without harming the environment.

Manure is high in ammonia, a nitrogen compound which can harm the environment and human health.

Ammonia emissions - 97% of which come from agriculture in Northern Ireland - are already at dangerous levels, including at many protected nature sites across the north.

The letter to planning chiefs, including at the Department for Infrastructure, the Planning Appeals Commission and local councils, stated that the applications under investigation date back to 2015, when planning regulations changed.

The letter, which The Detail has seen, stated that any laboratory which was analysing soil samples as part of a planning application now needed to send the results directly to the relevant planning authority.

“This is deemed as a necessary control measure given the significant number of affected applications identified across Northern Ireland,” the letter read.

James Orr, director of Friends of the Earth NI, told The Detail that rigorous investigations into the applications were needed.

"I would hope that the councils, the Planning Appeals Commission and the Department for Infrastructure are initiating full investigations,” he said.

The NIEA announced separately yesterday that it had paused some planning applications on farms.

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) said that NIEA is "considering legal advice on the ongoing application of our Ammonia Planning Standing Advice and have temporarily paused the issue of associated planning advice pending the outcome of these considerations”.

Daera is being investigated by environmental watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), over ammonia guidance to councils for use in making planning decisions.

The Ulster Farmers’ Union criticised the pause in some applications.

UFU president, David Brown, said: “NI farmers are already working to reduce ammonia and are eager to do more by developing their farms efficiently to produce sustainable high-quality food.

“Instead of encouraging this ambition and supporting our farmers to upgrade buildings, improve animal and bird welfare and environmental standards, NIEA has halted positive agriculture developments.

“To say our farmers are frustrated is an understatement and how they are being treated by NIEA is completely unfair.”

When asked about the NIEA investigation into more than 100 planning applications, a UFU spokesman told The Detail: “As this is an ongoing investigation, we will not be providing comment.”

Last year, The Detail revealed that Teagasc, the Republic’s agri-food agency, had begun an internal investigation into planning applications submitted by dozens of Northern Ireland farmers.

Teagasc said 60% of the applications had used documents, purporting to be issued on its behalf around the export of animal manure across the border, that were either “falsified” or “altered” without its knowledge.

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