Second major investigation into planning scandal

Farms with more than 2,000 pigs need NIEA pollution permits. Photo by Guido Gerding, Wikicommons

Farms with more than 2,000 pigs need NIEA pollution permits. Photo by Guido Gerding, Wikicommons

A SECOND major investigation is probing “misrepresented” evidence submitted as part of planning developments.

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) has confirmed it has uncovered “the submission of misrepresented soil sample analysis results” in 21 applications for pollution permits and waste management licences and exemptions.

Businesses which need NIEA pollution permits include intensive livestock farms – those with more than 40,000 poultry or 2,000 pigs.

The revelation comes after The Detail reported earlier this month that the NIEA has identified “misrepresented” soil samples in 108 applications for new farm livestock sheds or biogas units, dating back to 2015.

The two investigations were launched in October but have only recently come to light.

The 21 applications highlighted in the latest NIEA probe include five waste management exemptions - permits allowing small-scale operations to be exempt from waste licensing - which have already been approved.

The remaining 16 applications, which have not been approved, include 12 for waste management licences and four for pollution control permits.

The NIEA said all of the 16 live applications have been “paused”.

“NIEA is conducting an investigation into the submission of misrepresented soil sample analysis results, in support of applications for environmental licences and permits,” a spokeswoman said.

She added that NIEA has been in discussions with the Public Prosecution Service “and will continue to work with partners in the criminal justice system to ensure an effective outcome”.

“As part of this investigation, NIEA routinely liaises with a number of bodies, however no referral to the PSNI or NCA (National Crime Agency) has been made at this time,” she said.

Farm development probe

The NIEA informed local councils in February that it had identified “misrepresented soil samples” in more than 100 farm planning applications between 2015 and this year.

Soil samples - a key part of any application for a new farm development - must show the applicant can deal with animal manure without harming the environment.

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

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

The NIEA said it had been “unable to verify” the results of key samples because “the purported analysing laboratory” listed on the planning documents had no record of either all, or a majority of, the samples recorded.

The agency said it is not investigating potential planning breaches and had “not referred these to the PSNI or NCA as this would be a matter for the local council planning authorities”.

The 108 applications were across nine of the north’s 11 council areas.

The Detail asked the nine councils affected how many of the applications were in their area and if they are investigating.

Only two councils - Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, which is dealing with 13 applications, and Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, which did not provide figures - confirmed they are carrying out an investigation.

Derry City and Strabane District Council said five of the 108 applications are in its area.

“Council has engaged with the applicant/agent on all the cases and the matters are ongoing,” a spokesman said.

Mid and East Antrim Borough Council; Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council, and Mid Ulster District Council said that they could not comment.

Fermanagh and Omagh District Council; Newry, Mourne and Down District Council, and Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council said The Detail’s query would have to be handled by their Freedom of Information teams - a process which takes several weeks.

The PSNI confirmed none of the 108 cases have been referred to them.

The Department of Infrastructure (DfI), which has regional planning authority, said it is not carrying out any investigation.

The Department of Finance said it is not investigating “as any investigation into breaches of planning legislation, or potential planning fraud, is a matter primarily for the relevant planning authorities”.

Audit Office

The Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) said it had been informed in October about “actual or potential fraud” over misrepresented soil samples.

“The NIAO has enquired as to how the matter is being investigated by the relevant statutory agencies, but while we acknowledge the Northern Ireland Environment Agency’s ongoing investigation into the validity of soil sample results, there appears to be a lack of clarity as to any investigations into potential planning fraud,” a spokesman said.

“The NIAO will be following up on this matter with the relevant local planning authorities.”

James Orr, director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, said that the NIEA probes were welcome but called for a wider investigation to be launched.

“You have government officials unearthing these problems, but then not following it through,” he said.

“That’s the biggest issue.”

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