A LEADING academic has hit out at Mid Ulster District Council after it found dozens of farm planning applications which had used fake evidence did not breach planning controls.
The council, which covers part of Lough Neagh and counties Derry and Tyrone, was one of nine of Northern Ireland’s 11 councils which received the applications.
A total of 108 applications, including for pig, poultry and cattle sheds and biogas plants, had used falsified soil sample results in an attempt to bypass environmental regulations, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) has found.
The applications were submitted between 2015 and 2022. It is understood that around three-quarters were approved.
The 108 applications are now subject to a series of council investigations.
The Audit Office has also launched a review into how councils and government departments are handling the issue.
Mid Ulster council received 30 applications - the highest of any local council.
In documents seen by The Detail, the council found there was “no breach of planning control” in 26 of the cases.
Mid Ulster reviewed the applications in its area after NIEA asked all nine councils affected to look at the cases earlier this year.
Correspondence between Mid Ulster and the NIEA has shown that, in 26 of the 30 cases, the council found “no breach of planning control” relating to fabricated soil samples because “there are no planning conditions attached to permission… relating to soil sample analysis levels or results”.
“Accordingly the planning department of the council does not intend to pursue this matter any further.”
Of the remaining four applications, one has not yet been granted planning permission.
The Detail asked Mid Ulster about the outcome of the other three applications but it did not respond.
Farmers who wish to build new livestock sheds must provide soil samples to show that the manure spread on fields as fertiliser can be absorbed by the ground and will not run off into streams and rivers.
Agricultural runoff is one of the leading causes of pollution in our loughs and rivers and has been blamed for the growth of toxic blue-green algae in Lough Neagh, the River Bann and Lough Erne.
Dr Geraint Ellis, an expert on planning and environmental law at Queen’s University Belfast, said the council's response was “pretty shocking”.
He said it had not taken wider environmental concerns into consideration.
“I find these documents incredibly frustrating to read as it clearly highlights yet another glaring example of the poor environmental governance in Northern Ireland and particularly in how the planning system deals with environmental protection,” he said.
He raised concerns about the “under-resourcing of the planning system and the narrow range of environmental expertise that is often available to planning authorities.
“Enforcement action is entirely discretionary on behalf of planning authorities and they must weigh up whether they think it is an infringement worth pursuing - and with less resources, they are making more decisions not to.”
A spokesman for the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) said it has developed environmental training for council planners.
“To date over 200 planning staff have participated in the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) training - which has been accredited by the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA),” he said.
“The Core EIA training was also adapted to support the role of statutory consultees to the planning system; and to date training has been delivered to 90 consultee staff from across four departments.”
Audit Office meeting
The Audit Office met council chief executives in September over the 108 applications.
The office said it had since been told “that the councils are investigating the circumstances of each case and are taking legal advice on the potential implications”.
The Detail asked Mid Ulster if it is reviewing its findings on the 26 applications.
A council spokesman said it was “working alongside the relevant authorities to assist in ongoing investigations”.
“However, due to the potential risk of prejudice to these ongoing investigations, we are unable to comment any further at this time.”