The Ulster Farmers’ Union has claimed that farmers are outraged after planning rules for assessing ammonia for farm applications were changed, again, without warning.
UFU president, Ivor Ferguson, said the decision by Shared Environmental Services (SES), which was made without consultation with industry, will have vast and far-reaching consequences and ultimately impact on all farmers regardless of sector and size.
In response a spokesperson for Shared Environment Service (SES) said planning rules hadn’t changed but they were revising its assessment guidelines.
The SES said: “Planning rules and the requirement to comply with the Habitats Regulations have not changed. Ammonia readings in Northern Ireland exceed levels that harm sensitive habitats at the majority of designated sites. This and recent case law have led SES to revise its assessment guidelines.
“As a result more applications are being assessed for the potential impacts of ammonia on international designated sites. SES assesses each application individually and will continue to work with applicants to give credit where possible for measures to reduce ammonia emissions.”
Mr Ferguson has hit out at the change claiming “the goalposts have been moved again”.
He added: “How are farmers meant to plan and develop their businesses when the rules are changed without warning? It is completely unacceptable that these changes, which have significant implications for farm businesses, have been foisted upon us. Never mind that it has been done without any proper engagement or consultation.
“The new rules put us at a competitive disadvantage. Our closest neighbour and biggest competitor in the GB market, the Republic of Ireland, does not have the same ammonia regulations. They are free to expand, while we can’t. Ultimately, this means agri-businesses, rural economy and communities will all be impacted unless we find a balanced way forward that allows businesses to develop and deliver ammonia reductions,” said Mr Ferguson.
Mr Ferguson claimed the new policy for assessing planning applications is much stricter than the previous one and the new rules make it virtually impossible for farm businesses to comply.
“If the farm business is sited within 7.5 km of certain designated sites, their application will more than likely be denied. The roll out of this means that the vast majority of farmers across NI will be unable to develop their business if the new rules remain in place,” he said.
The UFU says the new policy has implications for those with applications already in the system or about to apply, the majority of which have incurred significant expenditure preparing their applications.
Mr Ferguson added: “For farmers who have already applied to planning or have been preparing applications to meet the previous policy, it is totally unacceptable that the bar has now been raised without warning. This makes it extremely difficult for them to comply with the new position. Farmers who are in the system or have made financial commitments to get ready for planning must be assessed against the criteria that was previously in place. In most cases, they have spent thousands of pounds, in fact some have spent tens of thousands, preparing a planning application only for the rug to be pulled out from under them.
“Farmers need to develop their business to meet new standards, improve health and safety and increase efficiencies allowing them to compete in the marketplace. By preventing on farm development, this is stifling these improvements, causing a huge amount of stress and strain for many NI family farms who are worried about their future.”
The UFU says local councils across Northern Ireland, who collectively employ SES to carry out planning assessments, need to step up.
“I would advise all councils to take these concerns seriously. The impact of these policy changes will be devastating to our rural economy,” said Mr Ferguson.
The UFU says it will be meeting politicians, writing to councils, and taking further advice on challenging what it has described as this ‘ludicrous’ move by SES.
North Antrim DUP MLA Mervyn Storey has said the Shared Environmental Services (SES) guidance for interpreting ammonia emitting projects is the final death nail for farmers already struggling to achieve planning.
He said the change has come as a bitter blow to farmers especially given that no consultation was carried out with the industry most affected.
Mr Storey continued: “No clear justification or explanation has been given as to why this guidance has changed nor am I aware of any other Government Departments being consulted. There must be accountability within this planning process, we can’t have one element of Government going on a solo run. Farmers should have the opportunity to drive efficiency, improve animal health and welfare, improve health and safety, and reducing emissions on farms by building new facilities. However, the guidance offered here is extremely damaging and short sighted.”
Newry and Armagh MLA William Irwin added: “This policy is having a real impact on the ground. I am aware of one farmer who has land on both sides of the border and struggling to get planning permission in Northern Ireland after spending over £10,000 on the process. He is seriously considering moving his investment to the Republic of Ireland where the approach to planning is less of a burden. This policy is effectively saying Northern Ireland is closed for business - it must be reviewed urgently with a proper process put in place to consult the agri food industry and deliver a workable, pragmatic approach to planning going forward.”
A DAERA Spokesperson said: “The Shared Environmental Service (SES) provides support and advice to councils to meet their environmental responsibilities in connection with their planning role. It is completely independent from DAERA
“Exceedances of air pollution limits represent a threat to the environment and human health. The majority of Northern Ireland’s protected habitats are exceeding the Critical Loads above which environmental damage occurs. It is likely that the update of the planning authority/SES guidance was precipitated by recent case law which has clarified how the existing legislative requirements should be interpreted and implemented alongside the current excessive levels of emissions.
“Government Departments and regulatory bodies throughout the UK, including DAERA, are also reviewing their approach in light of these rulings.”