Newry & Armagh DUP Assemblyman William Irwin MLA has voiced his outrage following a ruling by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, a section of DAERA, on a planning application for a farm building extension.
Mr Irwin said for the majority of Northern Ireland, DAERA will be recommending that there is no further planning approvals for farm buildings, regardless of the sector, due to the background levels of ammonia.
In the scathing attack on the department, Mr Irwin believes that the approach taken by DAERA through the NIEA completely destroys all the good work carried out by the Food Strategy Board.
He added that unless there is an immediate change in approach this will kill off expansion in the Northern Ireland agri-food sector in a matter of years.
Mr Irwin highlighted a particular case which he had dealt with this week whereby NIEA had effectively blocked planning permission for a dairy farmer who wished to invest in robotic milking equipment.
Mr Irwin stated: “This is a concern for farmers who wish to upgrade and modernise their farm operations. DAERA, through the NIEA are recommending that planning applications are refused because of ammonia levels. It’s all the more worrying as in the case I dealt with this week, the farmer was not proposing to add one single cow to his dairy herd, rather he was simply extending a shed to house the robotic milking system which will actually reduce ammonia emissions.
“What purpose did it serve for DAERA to support farmers via capital grants through the Farm Business Improvement Scheme when the very same department is turning down the planning applications required for the scheme?”
Mr Irwin continued: “DUP elected representatives are aware of a significant number of planning applications which are being recommended to be turned down by NIEA. We are also aware of other farmers who wish to invest in the sector but can’t progress because of the NIEA. At a time when food processors and major retailers are looking to source more products from Northern Ireland, millions of pounds of investment which would create hundreds of jobs are being blocked because of a policy interpretation from a part of DAERA. This is wrong.
“I will be part of a DUP delegation that will be meeting with NIEA officials next week as we believe the regulations that NIEA are referring to are being applied disproportionately and without adequate consultation with the industry. I believe the current interpretation doesn’t reflect the impact of modern science, innovation, mitigation measures and of course the fact in the case I refer to that ammonia levels are more than likely to reduce.
“The NIEA response to the planning department is concerning and for an application to be refused on the basis of the NIEA response on ammonia levels will be a huge concern for farmers and for the industry going forward.
“If a farmer isn’t adding animals to his herd then it makes little sense for NIEA to intervene with such drastic restrictions. In other cases, I have learned of farms that have been inspected previously and passed the requirements set down by NIEA and have then ran into a brick wall in terms of ammonia emissions.”
He concluded: “It is clear that DAERA must revisit this issue and apply a common sense policy in such instances, otherwise farmers will be prevented from making improvements or expanding their farm operations and this will be detrimental to the industry. Farmers contribute hugely to the overall environmental upkeep of Northern Ireland and without active farming our rural environment would suffer drastically.”