DAERA ready to issue responses

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The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) has confirmed that it is finally in a position to start issuing responses to the planning authorities on planning applications delayed due to ammonia considerations.

DAERA says it fully appreciates the frustration caused by the delay in making its statutory consultee response to approximately 100 planning applications (17 of which relate to the Farm Business Investment Capital Scheme). However, in considering the applications, the department is obliged to take account of evolving case law, existing environmental conditions and the nature of planning consultations received.

The department hopes the process will be concluded within a month and applicants will either know if their application has been recommended for approval or refusal, or if further information is required before a decision can be reached.

“These are complex issues that require detailed analysis. The Department will be redeploying resources to ensure the backlog is dealt with as quickly as possible,” said DAERA’s Director of Environment, Marine and Fisheries Group, David Small.

“The task ahead is for us to work closely with the agri-food and environment sectors over the coming weeks and months to develop our detailed Action Plan on ammonia, ahead of a consultation on the draft Action Plan during 2018. Our new approach must help realise our vision for a better, healthier environment alongside a thriving and sustainable agri-food sector,” Mr Small concluded.

DAERA’s move is in response to the “Making Ammonia Visible” report produced by the Expert Working Group on Sustainable Agricultural Land Management for Northern Ireland, which made a series of recommendations on the issue.

Mr Small said the challenge facing both farmers and the Department on ammonia highlighted the importance of a balanced approach which supports a thriving and prosperous agri-food industry whilst protecting our environment.

“Ammonia pollution, and the associated nitrogen deposition, is damaging our environment and our most sensitive wildlife habitats. In Northern Ireland, agriculture is responsible for 93% of the ammonia emissions, mainly from slurry and fertiliser management and application. To prevent further damage and to meet national and international statutory obligations, we must start working to reduce our levels of ammonia,” Mr Small explained.

“Our farmers are the custodians of the land and, as such, we want to work in partnership with them to deliver a win-win for farmers and the environment with improved biodiversity, air and water quality and profitable farm businesses.

“Working together to tackle pollution is nothing new. There is a history of the Department and farmers working in collaboration to address key environmental challenges. Farmers have made good progress on water quality through the Nitrates Action Programme, and also on the carbon intensity of food production. We recognise this good work and hope to build on that progress when it comes to reducing ammonia levels and nitrogen deposition.

“The document we have published is an initial position on the Expert Working Group’s recommendations. We are fully aware the Group and the wider stakeholder community have emphasised the need for a plan on ammonia to be developed in partnership. We have taken this on board and want to work as closely as possible with stakeholders to develop a way forward on this vital challenge for the local agri-food and environment sectors,” Mr Small added.

Work is already under way. DAERA has established an Ammonia Project Board which met with stakeholders earlier this year to discuss the challenge of ammonia. Further stakeholder forums for agriculture and environment organisations are planned throughout 2018 at which evidence will be gathered to inform the eventual Action Plan on Ammonia. The next stakeholder forum will take place in June.

DAERA has made early progress on addressing a key theme of “Making Ammonia Visible”; strengthening the scientific evidence base around ammonia emissions. DAERA has commissioned a scientific research programme, led by AFBI, on ammonia which will provide the Department with further critical information on how best to address ammonia emissions, including through 20-30 new air quality monitoring sites.

As part of the Action Plan, the Department has also commenced work on a review of its operational planning and permitting policy.

“As a Department we have a role to ensure business activity does not cause unacceptable environmental damage. We do this in two ways - as a statutory consultee within the planning process and as a regulator through the permitting and licensing role for certain activities. In undertaking both these we have to ensure appropriate consideration is given to the potential impact of ammonia on our protected environmental sites,” Mr Small continued.

Responding, Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) president Ivor Ferguson said DAERA and the NI Environment Agency had been caught ‘asleep at the wheel’ when it comes to ammonia, adding that it would be carefully scrutinising decisions.

Mr Ferguson said: “The UFU raised concerns about the ammonia issue over a year ago and we are only now starting to see government progress. It has also taken them four months to prepare an initial response, which we are considering in detail, to the Expert Working Group’s report ‘Making Ammonia Visible’.

“We recognise that ammonia is an issue that needs to be tackled but one of our concerns is that we still do not know the true extent of ammonia emissions across NI. The UFU has concerns that some of the emission factors that are being used to calculate ammonia do not reflect the real situation on many local farms. While we welcome the fact that DAERA have commissioned a number of research projects to address these knowledge gaps, this will take time and in the meantime we are left in limbo using information that is out of date and is open to considerable question. How can farmers plans be judged by NIEA using information that cannot be substantiated?

“It is completely unacceptable that farmers have faced exceeding long delays, some waiting well over a year, for a decision on farm planning applications because of ammonia regulations. We have been pressing DAERA and NIEA for some time on this and have been critical of the way they have handled the issue. Significant internal policy changes took place at least twice in 2017. There was no consultation with farmers at any time, even though farmers had applied for planning in good faith and many had spent £10,000 or more on applications. This should not have happened and we need answers as to why this occurred and who made these decisions.

“Many farmers have already taken steps to reduce ammonia emissions on their farms. They are upgrading their buildings and can show that they are reducing their ammonia emissions. These applications must be allowed to progress. To do otherwise has the potential to close Northern Ireland agriculture for business; this would be totally unacceptable and sends out the wrong message.

“We will be scrutinising the decisions as they roll out and will take whatever action is necessary to deliver a common sense approach for farmers.”