A FARM linked to a planning application scandal was fined just £21.89 in what an expert has branded as a “new low” for environmental protection in Northern Ireland.
The Detail revealed last year that farms in the north had used either fake or altered official documents - purportedly from Teagasc, the Republic of Ireland’s agriculture and food development authority - around the export of manure.
The fake documents were used in a bid to get planning permission for new livestock or poultry sheds.
But almost 18 months on, less than a dozen farms have been fined by authorities in Northern Ireland.
And experts have criticised the low level of fines and the length of time it is taking government departments and councils to tackle the issue.
A Teagasc review found that, between 2015 and 2021, 23 northern farms submitted planning documents which falsely claimed they would deal with any extra manure generated by any new sheds by exporting it to specific farms in the Republic.
A new investigation by The Detail can reveal:
- A total of 31 farms have now been implicated in the scandal, including eight in Northern Ireland which accepted manure from others which used the fake documents
- Instead of exporting their manure to the places stated in the documents, some of the farms sent it to undisclosed farms in the north or the Republic, in breach of pollution regulations
- Just 11 farms have been fined by the Department of Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera)
- The fines, which are taken from a farm’s government subsidy, ranged from £456.67 to just £21.89
- Of seven local councils affected by the scandal, only one has identified planning breaches and taken action
- Following The Detail's investigation last year, farms have stopped using Teagasc letters
The scandal comes after a separate investigation by The Detail, published earlier this month, revealed that 108 planning applications for new pig, poultry and cattle sheds and biogas plants submitted false soil sample results in a bid to bypass environmental legislation.
Experts have said the scandals have seriously called into question the effectiveness of Northern Ireland’s planning system and environmental oversight.
Rules aimed at limiting agricultural pollution state that farms must tell the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) where they are sending their manure or if they are receiving any from other farms.
Manure in the form of slurry run-off has been blamed as the main cause of toxic blue-green algal blooms seen in Lough Neagh, Lough Erne, the River Bann and other waterways over the summer.
Environmental expert Professor John Barry, from Queen’s University Belfast, said the relatively small fines were “a new low” for regulation in the north, particularly given serious issues linked to manure.
He said the scale of the fines were “worse than I thought”.
“It is not even a slap on the wrist,” he said.
He added: “I normally have low expectations whenever it comes to protection of the environment in the north, but that is a new low by the standards up here.”
NIEA said the planning breaches were all classified as “low, on farm, permanent and negligent” and farms were fined in line with “standard penalties”.
“Intentional and negligent penalty matrices have been developed in line with retained EU legislation, having regards to the principles of dissuasiveness and proportionality,” a spokesman said.
“Where a breach has been classified as negligent, this means that the inspectorate (NIEA) has determined that the breach arose because the applicant failed to take reasonable care, skill and foresight."
Teagasc first raised concerns about the use of fake letters in March 2021, with an internal report stating “there exists a significant level of falsification and alteration without consent of documents in support of (Northern Ireland) planning applications”.
However, the scandal only came to public attention following an investigation by The Detail, Noteworthy and the Guardian in July last year.
Almost a year-and-a-half on, only a few farms which used the letters have actually been inspected by NIEA.
A total of 18 farms which used the fake letters were granted planning permission before the scandal was uncovered.
Of those, 13 had completed their building work.
However, NIEA has so far only inspected four, stating that the nine others were either not operational, could not be inspected because they were not claiming subsidies, or were in a "diseased zone so will not be subject to cross compliance site visit at this time".
The agency found that none of the four inspected were sending their animal manure to the recipient stated in their planning documents.
In two cases, the manure was instead being sent to farms in Northern Ireland, rather than being exported to the Republic. One farm was exporting its manure, but not to the one listed in planning documents.
The fourth farm kept its own manure, even though it said it would export it.
More farms are due for inspection over the next 12 months.
However, planning expert Professor Geraint Ellis, from Queen’s University, said the government’s response was not good enough, given serious issues with water pollution.
“I am really amazed at the lack of a robust response on this issue,” he said.
He added: “The situation in Lough Neagh and other water bodies shows that agricultural pollution is a major problem, and should be addressed urgently.
“The slower NIEA takes to address the failures found by your investigation, the worse the situation will become.
“It fails to send a message to those undertaking the fraudulent activity that they will be sanctioned, and further undermines public confidence in the wider system of planning and environmental governance, which can have wider knock on effects such as increased litigation and public frustration or anger.”
Of the north’s 11 local councils, seven received farm planning applications which used fake Teagasc letters.
So far, only one council - Armagh, Banbridge & Craigavon District Council - has found planning breaches and taken action.
Mid Ulster District Council had nine applications - the highest of any of the seven councils.
It said its investigations found no planning rules had been broken.
A spokesman said: “To date, we have established that no planning breaches have occurred.”
Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council; Antrim & Newtownabbey Borough Council, and Newry, Mourne & Down District Council said they could not comment because the matter was being investigated.
Fermanagh & Omagh District Council said “the findings of the enforcement investigation and any associated potential actions are currently considered confidential”.
“Any potential actions against individuals may also be subject to legal privilege and as such, the council is unable to provide any further comment," a spokesman said.
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council said: “The application which was approved prior to this matter coming to light is currently being reviewed by council.”
Armagh, Banbridge & Craigavon District Council found planning breaches on three farms.
The farms were told to submit new planning applications which stated where they were sending their manure.
“Since the serving of those notices, planning applications have been submitted to the council and they are currently under consideration,” a spokeswoman said.
NIEA said it was up to local councils to decide if the use of the letters amounted to potential fraud.
“Any offences committed under planning legislation or the Fraud Act, resulting from the submission of false Teagasc letters to support planning applications and inform habitats regulation assessments, is primarily the responsibility of the local councils in their role as local planning authorities,” an NIEA spokesman said.
The Detail asked all seven councils if they had initiated fraud investigations.
None responded to the question.
Prof Ellis said he was alarmed by the councils’ inconsistent responses.
“We have a planning system that has been shown to be failing in its core duties - as officially noted by the Audit Office and the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee - but also by professionals and environmental campaigners for years,” he said.
“This has resulted in very low public confidence in the system.
“In such a context, I’m amazed that all the planning authorities are not bending over backwards to highlight a robust response to this situation, where their weak systems of scrutiny have been shown to be inadequate.”
Since The Detail revealed in July last year that some farms had used fake Teagasc documents, no applicant has attempted to use a letter.
A Teagasc spokesman said: “Since the issue was aired publicly in 2022, (to the best of our knowledge) we have received no further requests to validate individual letters from farmers agreeing to take poultry manure as part of planning applications.”
Prof Ellis said the move “suggests that there is a pattern of behaviour that has changed now that there is greater scrutiny”.
“If the planning authorities were investigating more robust procedures, it would be really worth investigating why this drop has happened,” he said.