Calls for Northern Ireland environmental planning quango to be disbanded

Ulster Farmers’ Union president Victor Chesnutt has called for an environmental planning quango, which effectively stalled agricultural planning applications in Northern Ireland for almost a year, to be disbanded.

The body, Shared Environmental Services (SES), came under fire from Minister of Agriculture Edwin Poots who said he had written to the service to reject its austere restrictions on agricultural planning.

What is SES?

SES is a shared service hosted by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council. Its role is to support all 11 councils in Northern Ireland undertake Habitat Assessments in their role as a planning authority.

Councils took on responsibility for planning in Northern Ireland in April 2015. Up until this point, all environmental planning advice was provided by the Northern Ireland Environmental Agency (NIEA). However, now advice is provided by both SES and NIEA.

Criticism

UFU president Victor Chestnutt said the approach “lacked common sense”.

“We have Northern Ireland Environmental Agency and Shared Environmental Services run by the council but answerable to no one – both doing the same job.

“I publicly call for the disbandment of Shared Environmental Services this will help our councils’ stretched budget and lead to clarity going forward. Make common sense common again,” he said.

Also Read: Ammonia deadlock stalling farm planning applications but ‘no one thought to tell farmers’

The group was accused of “moving the goalposts” after it changed its already stringent ammonia threshold from 1% to 0.1%.

It meant that if a farm is sited within 7.5km of certain designated sites, its application was likely to be denied.

In October, the UFU pushed for a judicial review on the grounds that the changes had been made without adequate consultation. As a result, SES said it would withdraw its guidance.

However, this resulted in what insiders describe as a “period of limbo” for agricultural planning applications, during which time agricultural planning was effectively halted.

Minister Poots’ comments

It comes as Minister Poots said he had written to Shared Environment Services rejecting the lower limit.

Minister Poots said: “I have written to the SES last week indicating that we should be operating on a 1%, as opposed to a 0.1%, threshold and that will create the opportunity for many more planning applications to be achieved.

“I did that on the basis that we will be bringing forward an ammonia action plan, and therefore, we will be doing things that will be reducing ammonia [emissions]…

Stopping things going forward will not achieve what we need to achieve on ammonia.

“And we need to find different ways of doing that and I will be working with the farming community on that.

“In terms of independent bodies, I happen to think that you are better to have people who are elected to positions that you can remove if you don’t like the decisions they make, rather than organisations which can make decisions where there is absolutely no accountability.”

SES has been contacted for a response.