An excess of slurry leaching into our waterways has been blamed for toxic blue-green algal blooms which have choked Lough Neagh, the River Bann, Lough Erne and other key habitats over the summer. But despite serious concerns about how Northern Ireland is handling the millions of tonnes of animal manure generated by our huge agriculture industry every year, Stormont departments and local councils have been accused of failing to address a major planning scandal around the disposal of manure.
Northern Ireland is facing its most serious environmental crisis in years over the use of fake planning evidence in applications for new farm animal sheds, campaigners have said.
A series of investigations has been launched after The Detail revealed that more than 100 applications for pig, poultry and cattle sheds and biogas plants submitted false soil sample results in a bid to bypass environmental legislation.
The applications were submitted between 2015 and 2022.
It is understood that around three-quarters were approved.
The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) first raised the alarm last year, after it discovered dozens of fake documents had been submitted for years.
But Stormont departments and local councils have been accused of being slow to act after it emerged a series of investigations has only recently begun into the use of the documents.
The Northern Ireland Audit Office has now launched its own review into how councils and government departments are handling the issue.
And police are also reviewing the matter after they received a complaint.
The average chicken or pig shed in the north generates hundreds of tonnes of manure every year, which is generally either spread on land as slurry or burned for fuel in a biogas plant.
Soil samples are an essential part of farm planning applications and are used to show farmers can deal with animal manure produced on their farms without harming the environment.
A major investigation by The Detail has found:
- 108 (87%) of 124 farm applications used “fabricated” samples to bypass environmental planning regulations
- Soil sample results “were either fabricated in their entirety or had been changed by a planning agent without the laboratory’s knowledge”, according to Department for Infrastructure (DfI) memo
- After some soil samples were resubmitted, a spot check of one farmer’s fields showed that the levels of polluting chemicals were still “significantly higher” than those stated
- The scandal is the second involving farm planning applications in two years. In 2021, it emerged some applications from Northern Ireland farmers had included fake documents claiming manure generated by animals to be housed in any new sheds would be exported to the Republic
- Questions remain over documents submitted as part of some live planning applications
- A leading environmental campaigner described the issue as “the most alarming and significant scandal to hit the agri-food industry to date”
Over the last decade, the north’s poultry industry has seen a major expansion as part of Stormont’s 2013 Going for Growth strategy which encouraged farmers to build more poultry sheds and raise more birds.
Two years after the strategy was announced, NIEA introduced new rules which meant that any farmer who wanted to build a new poultry, pig or cattle shed first had to show how they would handle the extra manure generated.
Farmers had to submit soil samples showing their fields could absorb animal waste spread as slurry and that the fertiliser would not run off into streams and rivers.
However, an NIEA official spotted in 2022 that fake soil samples were being submitted as part of planning applications.
The Department of Agriculture, which includes NIEA, told the Audit Office “suspected fraud” had been found in a series of farm planning applications dating back several years.
An NIEA investigation later found of 124 farm applications which submitted soil samples between 2015 and 2022, 108 had used “fabricated” samples to bypass environmental regulations and gain planning permission for new animal sheds and biogas units.
The soil sample results, which planning documents claimed had been analysed by a laboratory in England, “were either fabricated in their entirety or had been changed by a planning agent without the laboratory’s knowledge”, files from the north’s lead planning body, the DfI, show.
Applicants who were still awaiting planning permission were asked to resubmit their soil samples “given the significant number of affected applications identified across Northern Ireland”, NIEA said.
But even after they were submitted, a spot check of one farmer’s fields showed that the levels of polluting chemicals recorded by NIEA officials were “significantly higher” than those stated on resubmitted soil samples.
Despite these findings, only one other spot check has been carried out by NIEA, with the body saying that the soil sample results “are still being assessed”.
James Orr, director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, questioned why only two resubmitted soil samples had been checked by NIEA.
“The business-as-usual approach is obviously totally broken,” he said.
“It doesn’t make sense why they don’t test all 108.”
Although government departments have known about the scandal for over a year, no overarching investigation has been launched.
NIEA said the issue falls under planning rules and it is not carrying out an investigation because that would be outside its remit.
“Any investigation into potential planning fraud would be a matter for the planning authorities .i.e. local councils,” a spokesman 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 - are affected by the scandal.
Following a meeting with council chief executives in September, the Audit 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 Audit Office itself confirmed it has launched a review of how the issue is being handled “by a number of government bodies”.
The Detail contacted each council to ask about their investigations.
Fermanagh council said it has carried out a probe and is “currently in the process of considering the most appropriate next steps in relation to the matter of potential fraud”.
Lisburn council said it was “making enquiries into this matter and taking legal advice in relation to whether any fraud has occurred and what further action might be required”.
Armagh; Antrim and Newtownabbey; Derry and Newry councils said they could not comment due to an ongoing investigation.
Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council said it “will deal with this matter in line with its policies and procedures”.
Mid Ulster council said it was “working alongside the relevant authorities to assist in ongoing investigations” and could not comment further.
Mid and East Antrim council said the issue had been referred to the PSNI.
“It would be inappropriate for council to pre-determine this investigation or provide any further comments at this stage,” a spokesman said.
Police confirmed they are reviewing a complaint.
“Detectives from the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Economic Crime Unit are currently reviewing a complaint into this matter,” a spokesman said.
Second major scandal
Environmentalists have questioned councils’ and Stormont departments’ commitment to cracking down on farm planning issues, given it is the second scandal in two years.
Last year, The Detail revealed that Teagasc, the Republic’s agri-food agency, found that dozens of planning applications from Northern Ireland farmers had included fake documents in an attempt to bypass environmental legislation.
Teagasc said 60% (23) of the 32 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.
And there are concerns that fake documents are still being used.
According to documents on the north’s public planning portal, one application submitted in October 2018 for poultry sheds on a farm in Co Tyrone, which is still being considered for planning approval, used both fake soil samples and a fake Teagasc letter.
Planning documents included a note from NIEA saying it had “been unable to verify the origin” of at least the large majority of the soil sample analysis results, because “the purported analysing laboratory has no record of” the customer's name or reference numbers.
The documents also noted that Teagasc could not verify an earlier letter submitted as part of the application which stated the poultry litter would be exported to the Republic.
The applicant did not give an explanation for the fake letter.
A note from the applicant’s agent later said the farmer was withdrawing the Teagsac letter “as he is no longer proposing to send manure to ROI (Republic of Ireland)”. However, the letter did not state how the applicant is now proposing to deal with the manure.
Another application for three new poultry houses in Co Fermanagh, which was submitted in 2019, was among the 108 which used fake soil samples.
Planning documents show the applicant initially wanted to send their manure to be spread on land in the Republic.
When the soil samples were found to be fake, the applicant then said it wanted to send manure to a biogas plant in Northern Ireland.
NIEA asked the applicant to show that the plant had the capacity to accept their manure. But that information was not provided and instead the applicant again said the poultry litter would be exported to be spread on land in the Republic.
A note from NIEA highlighted the “history of falsified documents being submitted with this application” and said Fermanagh and Omagh District Council should “consult with the competent authorities in the Republic of Ireland to ensure they are content with the proposals put forward by the applicant, and that there exists the capacity and capability for this manure to be accepted at the identified landbanks”.
Dean Blackwood, an ex-senior planning official in the former Department of the Environment, said the scandal was not being taken seriously.
“There is not just the environmental damage, which is extremely important in itself, but if action is not taken then the reputation of the planning system will be irredeemably lost,” he said.
Mr Blackwood said the Department of Infrastructure, which has overall responsibility for planning, should appoint an external investigator to look at the scandal as a whole.
“And given the reluctance the councils have shown, I don’t think they should be trusted to now step in at this late stage,” he said.
Calls for immediate moratorium
Daera is being investigated by environmental watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), over ammonia guidance to councils for use in making planning decisions.
In June, NIEA announced it had “temporarily paused” some farm planning applications, including for new animal sheds and slurry stores, while it sought legal advice over its ammonia guidance.
However, that pause was lifted in late September.
Mr Orr, who described the scandal as “the most alarming and significant scandal to hit the agri-food industry to date”, said all applications for new farm developments should be halted.
He said the explosion in toxic blue-green algae at Lough Neagh and other lakes and rivers across the north over the summer has shown that our environment cannot cope with the amount of agricultural waste being produced.
“The scale of the problem is so immense that I think we need to move into a different language, in terms of how we explain this,” he said.
Mr Orr said an increase in ammonia levels - a nitrogen compound which is mainly generated by animal waste - was having a huge impact on our environment.
“And there comes a point when rivers can't take anymore, lakes can't take anymore, lungs (from ammonia pollution) can’t take any more,” he said.
“When there comes a point when peatlands are being destroyed and trees are dying, anything additional to that becomes a tipping point.
“And when those tipping points happen you see the consequences, such as the blue green algae
“And that's why the only answer to this is an immediate moratorium.
“Because we need to give the country, the people's house, a breathing space to find out just what the damage is.”