Farm planning scandal: Councils and Stormont department cannot agree who should investigate potential fraud

Dozens of applications for new farm buildings, including poultry sheds, used fake soil samples. Photo by lbgroup2018, Creative Commons

Dozens of applications for new farm buildings, including poultry sheds, used fake soil samples. Photo by lbgroup2018, Creative Commons

COUNCILS and a Stormont department are still arguing over who is responsible for investigating potential fraud in a farm planning scandal - more than 18 months after it was uncovered.

The Detail revealed last year that false soil sample results were submitted as part of more than 100 applications for farm sheds and biogas plants, in a bid to bypass environmental legislation.

The scandal, which happened between 2015 and 2022, covered nine council areas.

Several probes were launched into the scandal, including by some of the councils, the PSNI, and the Northern Ireland Audit Office.

But documents uncovered under Freedom of Information legislation show that councils and the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) still cannot agree who is responsible for investigating any potential fraud.

The DfI, which has overall responsibility for planning in Northern Ireland, said councils are responsible.

But SOLACE NI, which represents councils, said DfI should lead the investigation and that councils should "have a very limited role”.

The PSNI investigation is continuing. A police spokeswoman said officers are continuing to gather and review information.

"The process is ongoing," she said.

Nine councils - Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council; Fermanagh and Omagh District Council; Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council; Mid Ulster District Council; Newry, Mourne and Down District Council; Mid and East Antrim Borough Council; Derry City and Strabane District Council; Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council; Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council - were affected by the scandal.

Councils have known about the issue since November 2022, when officials at the Department of Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) told them that fake soil samples were being submitted as part of planning applications.

Soil samples are a key part of the farm planning process.

If a farmer wants to build a new animal shed or biogas plant they must submit samples showing their fields can absorb animal waste spread as slurry and that it will not run off into streams and rivers.

Slurry run-off has been blamed for causing toxic blue-green algae which choked Lough Neagh last summer.

Map by Chris Scott, The Detail

Map by Chris Scott, The Detail

An investigation by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) found that a total of 108 farm applications, out of 124 reviewed, used fabricated samples to bypass environmental planning applications.

Documents obtained by The Detail show that, more than 18 months after they were told of the scandal, councils and the DfI are still in dispute over who is responsible for investigating any potential fraud.

SOLACE NI wrote to DfI in December last year saying it “seems obvious that the responsibility for co-ordinating a response to a Northern Ireland wide issue impacting the vast majority of councils should lie with the body with responsibility for the oversight of planning, namely DfI”.

SOLACE also said it was “impossible for councils at this stage, in their role as planning authorities, to determine whether any inaccuracies in information are as a result of human error, contamination or deliberate or reckless behaviour”.

It added that councils “do not have the experience, resources or statutory powers to investigate or prosecute fraudulent behaviour and would ordinarily, as a matter of course, defer to the police in this regard”.

In response, a DfI official wrote to SOLACE in January saying that any fraud investigation was the councils’ responsibility.

“Fraud itself in relation to local government functions is the responsibility of councils as autonomous organisations under their own anti-fraud and governance policies,” the letter read.

The Detail asked DfI and SOLACE NI if they were still in dispute over any potential fraud investigation.

Marie Ward, chair of SOLACE NI, said: “As the PSNI is investigating the matter SOLACE has no comment to make at this stage.”

A DfI spokeswoman said the department had "no further comments at this time".

James Orr, director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, said the responses were “shameful”.

“It looks like a carousel of continuously passing the buck,” he said.

“It is impossible to think that councils are not responsible in this.

“But if the councils are abdicating their legal responsibilities to investigate fraud, then in this shameful situation that has emerged, DfI has to exercise their role as an oversight body on the performance of councils. They can’t run for cover either.

“The consequences of not doing this are so serious for places like Lough Neagh.”

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