Public bodies, including councils, in Northern Ireland failed to proactively investigate potential agricultural planning fraud – involving nearly 3,500 “falsified” soil samples – according to a highly critical new report published today (Friday, July 5).

The report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) highlighted that the NI Environment Agency (NIEA) had discovered in 2022 that “falsified” soil samples had been submitted in relation to 108 planning applications for agricultural developments across nine 11 local councils.

Some of these planning applications dated back to 2015.

The NIAO outlined in its report that there are “strict regulatory requirements” around establishing or developing the infrastructure for agricultural developments in the North.

It also detailed that this is because “certain agricultural practices including intensive farming and the development of anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities can have a potentially negative impact on the environment”.

Soil samples

One of the regulatory requirements for applicants that want to develop new agri-related infrastructure is to obtain planning permission.

As part of this process applicants can be required to “include analysis of soil samples to ensure that fields are able to absorb material such as slurry, and that this material will not run off into streams and fields”.

The submission of a Nutrient Management Plan (NMP) is also required as part of the planning application to relevant councils for certain agricultural planning permissions.

In addition to this in cases where a proposal for intensive farming “exceeds certain thresholds” as well as obtaining planning permission from the local council, applicants must also obtain environmental authorisation in the form of permits or licenses from the NI Environment Agency.

The NIAO report outlined that last year it had been contacted by a member of the public who had raised concerns with it about how NI public bodies had reacted to the discovery of “potentially fraudulent planning applications” and to query why there was no ongoing investigation into the issue.

The NIAO began enquiries into the concerns raised by the member of the public and also held meetings with several officials from various public bodies including NI Environment Agency.

It found that there “was a lack of effective collaboration between NI public bodies in response to notification of potential planning fraud” and said subsequent collaboration between some of the key planning bodies had been “extremely poor”.

The NIAO concluded that there was “a failure by councils to initiate an investigation of potential planning fraud on a timely basis”.

Although the report also noted some “positive measures” taken after the initial discovery of the misrepresented soil analysis results it has recommended “enhanced” independent retesting of soil samples, and a review of existing planning regulations.


Commenting on the report’s overall findings Local Government Auditor, Colette Kane, said it was “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,” Kane added.

According to the NIAO public confidence “has been undermined” as a result of the response to the falsified” soil samples by the NI public sector generally.