APPLICATIONS for poultry farms have allegedly used “falsified” versions of official documents needed to obtain planning permission in councils across Northern Ireland, The Detail can reveal
Teagasc, the Republic of Ireland’s agri-food agency, launched an internal investigation into dozens of northern poultry farmers’ planning applications.
The agency said it found that most of the cases used documents, purporting to be issued on its behalf, which were either completely “falsified” or “altered” without knowledge or consent.
Such documents, which relate to the export of animal manure across the border into the Republic, are vital to satisfy environmental regulations and therefore ensure planning permissions gain approval.
The revelations prompted authorities to investigate the matter – including Stormont departments with responsibility for agriculture, the environment, planning and financial fraud.
Enforcement cases have been opened by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and several councils.
However, experts have told The Detail government agencies have failed to both prevent and adequately tackle the problem – with none of the relevant authorities committing to a comprehensive investigation.
Leading environmental group, Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, has said the situation is alarming and "could have serious environmental consequences".
"The widespread nature of this, and the length of time it took to identify it, is a damning indictment of our dysfunctional agricultural planning system”, the organisation's director James Orr told The Detail. “I never expected, in my wildest dreams, something so blatant."
Northern Ireland has seen a significant expansion of the poultry industry over the past decade. At any given time, the jurisdiction will have almost 24.5 million birds on its farms.
There has been a large increase in the number of poultry farms in the Republic of Ireland too, concentrated in the border counties of Monaghan and Cavan.
Historically, animal waste from poultry units in Northern Ireland would be spread on local agricultural lands – as a source of nutrients for crops.
But the rapid growth in farms and bird numbers has produced an unsustainable volume of poultry litter.
In order to obtain planning permission for poultry units in Northern Ireland, it is necessary to satisfy environmental regulations that the litter produced each year will be disposed of properly.
Animal waste produces harmful emissions such as ammonia, a gas which is already at extremely high levels across the island of Ireland.
Stormont’s Department of Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) has said that ammonia has a “damaging impact on biodiversity, including sensitive habitats, and ecosystem resilience, as well as human health”.
Authorities have been aware of the issue for over a decade, with the Stormont Agriculture Committee being told by officials in May 2012 that it only has capacity to sustainably manage just over a third of the poultry litter Northern Ireland was producing.
Due to the already high levels of ammonia in Northern Ireland – over 95% of which is linked to agriculture – farmers have increasingly looked for other ways to dispose of the litter, such as the export of waste to farmers in the Republic of Ireland.
Exporting the waste has become a vital component in the industry, without which expansion would not be possible. Since 2017, over 280,000 tonnes of poultry litter has been exported to the Republic.
Agricultural planning applications in Northern Ireland need to provide evidence, such as a letter from Teagasc, that farms in the Republic of Ireland have sufficient land available before getting approval.
The Detail can reveal that Teagasc launched an investigation into the use of letters – purporting to be issued on behalf of the agency – in Northern Ireland planning applications, after being alerted by a member of the public.
Out of a sample of 38 planning applications which used Teagasc letters, the agency said it found that in 60% of the cases the letters were “falsified” or “altered” without its knowledge or consent – according to documents we obtained through a Freedom of Information (FoI) request.
Describing this as “a matter of significant concern”, Teagasc also said it was “clear” from its investigation “that there exists a significant level of falsification and alteration, without consent, of documents in support of Northern Ireland planning applications”.
Dean Blackwood, an environmental expert and former planning officer, said that the widespread nature and length of time over which the alleged issues occurred presented the northern planning authorities in a poor light.
Mr Blackwood added that this was especially relevant coming off the back of a recent Audit Office report which he said criticised authorities for “taking a very hands off, disjointed approach to the oversight role”.
Because the allegedly falsified letters were found across a number of councils, Mr Blackwood added that DAERA officials should have informed the National Crime Agency, as well as the Audit Office. However, the department has failed to confirm if it had done this.
Councils can apply to have planning permission revoked, or the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) – which has regional responsibility for planning – can step in, but Mr Blackwood acknowledged authorities “are very, very reluctant to use those powers”.
Our team – made up of journalists reporting for The Detail, The Guardian and Noteworthy – discovered over 40 additional planning applications submitted between 2015 and 2021 in which Teagasc letters were included as part of the application files.
Most of the applications were for units ranging from 16,000 to 32,000 chickens each.
We attempted to contact all farmers in the Republic whose names appear on the letters as the recipients of litter, providing them with a copy of the letters and asking them to confirm if they were legitimate.
While some farmers said the letters were legitimate, eight farmers told our team they had no knowledge of signing any agreement to take litter. Some of their details were used on multiple applications.
Most farmers did not want to speak on record, but *John explained how he was “annoyed” once he found out someone used his name – especially as he said it could have a serious impact on his farm subsidies if, on paper, it looked like he was exceeding his nitrogen limits by taking this poultry litter.
John added: "I was quite incredulous that somebody could use my name and use the land of this farm to justify getting planning permission."
Additionally, our team discovered that allegedly fabricated documents purporting to be from the Republic of Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were also submitted in a number of separate planning applications for other Northern Ireland poultry farms.
The EPA said it was able to quickly identify what would be major inconsistencies with the documents, such as not being on official headed paper or being signed by non-existent staff.
The EPA said it took the issue of allegedly fabricated letters “very seriously” and carried out an internal investigation – but it also said that any allegations should be raised with the northern planning authorities.
Equally, Teagasc told us it was not going to investigate all the other cases where its letters were used – including the additional dozens we identified, as this “is within the remit of the planning authorities holding these files rather than Teagasc”.
DAERA, which was alerted to the Teagasc investigation in March 2021, also said that “the use of fraudulent documents to support applications for planning permission is primarily a matter for NI planning authorities to investigate".
When pressed on whether they would investigate the over 40 additional cases we had identified, the department would only say that the outcome of its current investigation could “potentially” lead to wider scrutiny.
This means that to date no authority in either jurisdiction is currently carrying out a comprehensive investigation of all cases involving Teagasc documents dating back to 2015.
After Teagasc alerted authorities in the north, DfI said it wrote to relevant councils advising them to consider the impact of potentially false Teagasc information in respect of planning decisions they granted or were in the process of considering
The department also wrote to all councils advising that any future letters purportedly from Teagasc were to be checked directly with Teagasc to establish their authenticity.
The NIEA, which is a part of DAERA, said it launched an investigation and found “specific concerns” in two council areas “regarding alleged breaches of planning conditions at four sites” and has “initiated action against the operators of three of the sites” relating to the failure to submit manure export records to the department.
DAERA also said it requested for the Department of Finance (DoF) fraud team to investigate “potential fraud” relating to these matters and to consider the “awarding of grants by DAERA to any of the sites identified by Teagasc”.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland told The Detail it’s aware of the DoF’s investigation and that the force’s Economic Crime Unit liaised with department officials “however it was determined that this was not a matter for police”.
DAERA said it has “determined there are no concerns regarding the awarding of grant funding” provided to farms in question.
Moy Park, which dominates the poultry sector in Northern Ireland, made it clear it is not aware of any alleged falsification or altering of letters as a problem in planning applications relating to the industry here. Our report does not relate to the practices of the company.
The Ulster Farmers’ Union said it had not been aware of the matters arising out of the Teagasc investigation until being approached by The Detail.
The union called the Teagasc findings “completely unacceptable”, adding that any alleged wrongdoing “only harms the reputation of Northern Ireland agriculture and must be fully investigated and dealt with by the appropriate authorities”.
Teagasc said its investigation found that the vast majority of councils across Northern Ireland have been affected by the issue of allegedly “falsified” documents in their planning applications.
Most councils told our team that they engaged with DfI about the Teagasc cases and will follow any forthcoming “actions or recommendations” from the department.
One council said it has now “reviewed procedures to mitigate against potential for future fraud”, while other councils have said they are now checking Teagasc letters directly with the agri-food body whereas, before this matter arose, they took them at “face value”.
Some councils said that if they are informed of a potential breach of a planning condition, they will investigate.
However, one council said it’s not responsible for tracing animal waste exports and that there isn’t a requirement for it to do so. Another said the onus is on the applicant to track this.
Two councils confirmed they have opened a number of enforcement cases, with one saying it’s “investigating cases where an alleged breach of conditions on permissions for intensive animal housing may have occurred, specifically where litter is being disposed of in locations other than those specified by the permission”.
However, none of the councils have said they revoked planning permissions off the back of the Teagasc investigation.
In addition, no councils said they found additional allegedly fabricated letters – although some declined to clarify this.
Dean Blackwood said he was concerned that some councils treated the issue only as a breach of planning conditions rather than something more serious.
The former planner also said that councils not being required to verify documents is “an inherent weakness in the system”.
Mr Blackwood added: “Missing from the Department of Infrastructure is any awareness of just how badly this reflects on an already under-fire planning system.”
Where is the litter going?
Our investigation has found that, since 2015, the exporting of animal waste from Northern Ireland has become an increasingly common practice.
Across the councils which account for the large majority of new poultry planning applications here, one in two of such farms are sending litter over the border.
Most of these farms are located near protected nature areas, which are already also far in excess of the levels of ammonia they can take.
There is a lack of knowledge about where the tonnes of harmful waste associated with the cases identified by Teagasc has actually ended up being spread, dumped or treated.
In just the eight cases where Republic of Ireland farmers confirmed they were not receiving litter as stated on documents seemingly produced by Teagasc officials, 7,000 tonnes of poultry litter is potentially unaccounted for.
While our team was unable to trace down where the litter may have ended up, through information requests to northern authorities we have uncovered cases of dumping of poultry litter without authorisation.
DAERA released information on 11 cases between 2015 and 2017 where unauthorised poultry heaps were found during inspections. In one case, the litter was dumped close to a stream, carrying the potential to impact the quality of the water course.
DAERA refused to provide any details on the farms and we have no information to suggest that any of these incidents are linked to the cases identified by Teagasc or instances where Republic of Ireland farmers confirmed to our team that they never signed litter contracts.
Geraint Ellis, chair of Environmental Planning at the School of Planning in Queen's University Belfast, raised concern over what happens with animal manure in Northern Ireland as “there's clearly waste that's just not going where it should be”.
“If you start looking at that, I think the whole issue then just broadens out very quickly because if the waste isn't going to where it should, it must be going somewhere else, and then if it's going somewhere else, what environmental damage is that doing?”