There has been no new evidence brought forward which suggests NI should have less strict planning rules for agricultural buildings, MLAs have been told.

Speaking to Stormont’s agriculture committee last Thursday, Keith Finegan from NIEA gave an overview of a public consultation on new planning rules which opened last year.

“We got a lot of really good responses and a lot of really good information. We did not get any new scientific evidence,” he said.

The issue with planning for farm buildings surrounds ammonia which is emitted from livestock manure and is deposited as nitrogen in sensitive habitats, such as bogs and woodlands.

New guidance is currently under development at NIEA to assess the potential impact of ammonia emissions from agricultural buildings that are in the planning system.

The previous guidance, known as the operational protocol, was dropped in December 2023, following a legal threat by the Office of Environmental Protection.

With no operational protocol in place at present, planning applications for livestock buildings are currently being assessed by NIEA “on a case-by-case basis”.


According to DUP MLA Michelle McIlveen, NIEA has responded to 48 planning applications related to agriculture under this approach.

“It is alarming that, out of 48 relevant planning cases dealt with by NIEA between December and the end of May this year, only four have been given the green light,” she said.

Another issue is length of time that is takes planning applications to move through the system, particularly when NIEA require the applicant to submit more information.

At the committee meeting last week, David Reid from NIEA described current turnaround times for many planning applications as “absolutely appalling”.

“Nobody should have to wait for three or four years to get a response. It is an absolute failing on our part and is one that we absolutely have to address,” he acknowledged.

Muir says no legal basis for planning ‘betterment’

The issue of plans for replacement farm buildings being rejected, even if the proposal would lead to reduced ammonia emissions, has been discussed widely by MLAs in recent days.

Speaking at Stormont on Monday, Agriculture Minister Andrew Muir defended the approach taken by NIEA in assessing planning applications for replacement livestock sheds.

He said there was “no legal basis for the use of the betterment approach”, which is effectively comparing emissions from an existing shed against a proposed building that could replace it.

“If there are adverse effects as a result of the development, the NIEA is legally obliged to advise of such, even if those adverse effects are a reduction compared with the impact of the existing building,” Minister Muir said.

During a visit to Greenmount last week, Keith Finegan from NIEA told Stormont’s agriculture committee that various technologies are in place at the college’s dairy unit to reduce ammonia emissions.

However, he said that these mitigations are not being included in most planning applications for new or replacement buildings on commercial farms.

“We do not see any of those coming forward in new applications. What we do see is the same flooring systems and same housing that we seen 10, 20, 30 years ago,” Finegan said.

NI farmers unaware of caveats around planning

Many farmers in NI are not fully aware of the exact requirements for permitted development which allows sheds to be built without planning permission, an NIEA official has said.

Speaking to MLAs last week, Keith Finegan said not all proposed buildings that will be under 500 square metres in size automatically qualify for permitted development.

“The main caveat is that permitted development only applies where there is no environmental impact,” he explained.

“The legislation requires applicants to contact their planning authority for certificate of lawful development.

“Before that can be granted, the planning authority have to undertake environmental assessments,” Finegan said.

The NIEA official said it was something that the agency “raise constantly” during meetings with farmer representatives.

“We have a lot of enforcement appeals at the minute associated with that issue,” Finegan said.