Audit Office slams official response to potential agricultural planning fraud involving 3,461 false soil samples

Chicken farming has impacts on the environment
-Credit: (Image: Stock image/Getty)

The Northern Ireland Audit Office has slammed the official response to a potential agricultural planning fraud involving thousands of 'false soil samples' used in planning applications for 100 livestock houses and eight anaerobic digesters.

Soil samples have to be submitted for environmental checks on whether such applications will cause an overload of farm and other nutrients like the nitrates and phosphorous that cause toxic blue-green algae blooms like the one impacting Lough Neagh.

According to the NIAO report, an NIEA officer became suspicious of multiple soil samples with notably low phosphorus results in October 2022 and contacted the English lab that analysed them to cross check their records. They found in many cases the lab "had no record of the sample reference numbers" and that "results had either been fabricated in their entirety or had been changed without the laboratory’s knowledge".

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The resulting investigation identified 108 planning applications in Northern Ireland that were determined and still under consideration based on the "false and potentially fraudulent soil sample analyses" dating back as far as 2015. Ten current applications for funding under the Farm Business Improvement Scheme were also affected.

NIAO said failings by public bodies to investigate the potential agricultural planning fraud has "undermined public confidence" in the planning system and has called for a review of existing regulations to determine if they are enough to protect the environment from the impact of diffuse pollution.

Comptroller and Auditor General Dorinnia Carville said: "It is very disappointing that the Department for Infrastructure, which has responsibility for oversight of the NI planning system, considered it inappropriate to get more directly involved in this matter. As a result, an opportunity to ensure that all affected councils had initiated an investigation into potential fraud was missed. This report recommends that the Department takes a more active role should such sector-wide issues arise in future.

"Furthermore, it is frustrating that many of the issues identified are not new. In our 2022 report on Planning in Northern Ireland, we highlighted an urgent need for improved joined up working between organisations. Failure to properly address this is continuing to undermine public confidence in the planning system here."

NIAO said it got involved when a member of the public raised concerns about how the potential fraud was being handled by the nine councils involved, the Department for Infrastructure which oversees planning and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, which sits under the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

All parties were aware of the issue by November 2022, but the NIAO said in its report about how it was handled they are "concerned" by the Department for Infrastructure's reaction as well as the lack of action by some councils. They said "NIEA responded positively when its staff initially established in October 2022 that some results in the soil sample reports it had received had been falsified".

Of the nine councils involved just Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council; Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council; Derry City and Strabane District Council; Mid Ulster District Council and Mid and East Antrim Borough Council had made referrals to the PSNI to be dealt with by the PSNI’s Economic Crime Branch.

Waste from livestock houses is often spread on fields as slurry which is why soils have to examined before new applications are approved to ensure additional waste doesn't impact ecosystems
Waste from livestock houses is often spread on fields as slurry which is why soils have to examined before new applications are approved to ensure additional waste doesn't impact ecosystems -Credit:Stock image/Getty

They found there was a "lack of effective collaboration between NI public bodies in response" to notification of potential planning fraud and a failure by councils to initiative an investigation they also said "lessons were not learned from a similar case in 2021"and that "ineffective controls failed to prevent or detect" the reporting to false soil samples.

Local Government Auditor, Colette Kane, added: "It is alarming and a matter of great concern that any council could consider the submission of falsified information in a planning application to be anything other than potential fraud. The lack of action by some affected councils, even after they were prompted by the NIAO, is concerning.

"This report recommends that councils’ fraud policies, procedures and response plans are reviewed to ensure that any future cases of this nature are clearly identified as fraud and investigated in a timely manner. It is also important that council officers involved in planning understand their role in identifying and responding to allegations of potential fraud where they arise."

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