I beg to move
That this Assembly notes with concern the scale and complexity of the ammonia problem in Northern Ireland; further notes that critical loads of nitrogen deposition at which ecological damage occurs have been exceeded at 98% of Northern Ireland’s special areas of conservation, in some cases by 300% or more; recognises the need to halt further overloading of critical thresholds; notes Northern Ireland’s legal obligations under article 6 of the EU habitats directive; and calls on the Minister for Infrastructure to conduct an urgent review of approved planning applications for ammonia-emitting projects that are within 7·5 kilometres of a Natura 2000 site; and further calls on the Minister to implement a moratorium on planning approvals for any project that proposes to increase discharges of ammonia into the environment until such time as a report is produced by the Department for Infrastructure that determines whether article 6 of the EU habitats directive is being complied with in Northern Ireland.
Members will be aware of the current scale of the ammonia crisis in Northern Ireland and its impact on human health and the environment. Health-wise, ammonia pollution is linked to lung damage, heart disease, diabetes, problems with memory and thinking, cognitive decline, respiratory issues, higher death rates and lower birth rates. Members do not need to be reminded that we are in a pandemic. COVID-19 is a virus that affects the lungs, heart and respiratory system. We know that ammonia pollution can have a significant impact on the rates of serious illness and death from COVID. This is not something that we should be taking lightly.
Some Members will also be aware of the scale of the ecological crisis in Northern Ireland. The number of breeding sows has gone by 24% to almost 48,000, broiler chickens up 41% to almost 17,000,000 and hens up 89% to almost 4,000,000; whilst the number of wetland birds has fallen by 19% and the freshwater bird population by 42%.
95% of our lakes now fail water framework directive quality standards. 78% of our shellfish water bodies now fail water quality standards for E. coli. It is not a pretty picture, but I would argue that it is no accident either.
The policy of agriculture intensification that has been pursued by the Executive through its Going for Growth strategy since 2013, has resulted in pollution that sits in our air, soil and our water. Nature, and our communities are paying the price. How did we get to this point? Amongst other issues, with indifference and inaction across several Government Departments, we are seeing systemic planning failures that omit legal environmental considerations from planning application processes.
The Green party have been examining, in depth, how the planning system works and where it does not work. Through our research, we have found that habitats regulations assessments, which are a legal requirement for projects within a certain radius of protected habitats, are sometimes not being carried out.
I will use the example of anaerobic digester (AD) plants which produce vast quantities of ammonia. The Green party mapped each of the 79 active AD plants in Northern Ireland and we found that 49 of them should have had that assessment carried out. To date, we have only found one instance and evidence in that one case of this actually being done.
We wrote to all 11 councils. So far, we have received five responses. From those responses, we know that 34 of their AD plants have no planning approval, yet they are getting public subsidies. This has been stated in the recent Northern Ireland Audit Office report.
I cannot say it any more plainly: this is unlawful and it contravenes our legal obligations under the habitats directive. These assessments are systemically not being conducted and potentially illegal projects are systemically going ahead.
When we do assess the impact of ammonia on protected habitats, existing ammonia levels at that site are not taken into account. We now have situations where sites exceed critical levels of ammonia by over 300%, year-on-year-on-year. The fact is, that this is actual planning policy and that is astounding. Current confusion around the system has left farmers unable to upgrade or replace existing sheds, even where the building of more modern sheds would result in the falling of ammonia levels because, under planning, these are considered to be new developments.
The overall picture is of a broken planning system that enables the non-stop intensification of our agri-food sector, rapid and extensive species decline and irreparable damage to protected habitats, not to mention 500-600 premature deaths in Northern Ireland every year.
Let me be clear, this is not the fault nor the responsibility of the farming community. This is the result of deliberate and informed Government policy to expand, grow and intensify, in the full knowledge of the facts around environmental and health impacts. They cannot say that they did not know, because they did. As demonstrated, time and time again through answers to written and oral questions, ammonia seminars and the Department's own planning policy documents, the information is there and they have known it for a long time.
The facts tell us that ammonia pollution is causing mass species extinction, harming public health and ending lives early. The Executive's Going for Growth strategy has resulted in, on one hand, the creation of Northern Ireland plc, and we have seen big companies such as Moy Park, Thompsons and Dunbia smash through the annual £1 biillion sales target, with directors paid salaries as high as £2·6 million. Good for them. However, we also see the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the very government body charged with protecting our environment, signing prosperity agreements with these same corporations, which have direct links to the Agri-Food Strategy Board and the drawing up of the Going for Growth strategy. I would like to know where else in the world the environmental protection authority would sign prosperity agreements with some of its biggest polluters.
On the other hand, we see an in industry that has become increasingly hostile to those working within it: the key workers who have shown just how vital food production is to our economy and our people. Rural poverty is at an all-time high, with one in four farming families living in poverty. As the costs of production have gone up, farmgate prices have been driven down so that farmers are operating at a loss or barely breaking even.
The Member has highlighted planning failures with regard to anaerobic digesters. If only a very specific grouping is causing the problem, why is she suggesting a moratorium on all planning applications?
I thank the Member for his intervention, and I will explain as I go through. I thought that I had made clear that AD plants were operating even without planning permission. There are problems in the system. However, we also have a situation where the number of full-time and part-time farmers is dropping year-on-year, which indicates that, for many, it is no longer possible to make a living in the industry. I would like to quote what one farmer told me:
"A friend of mine told me, just after the death of a farmer who fell through the roof of a rundown farm building, that, if it hadn't been for COVID-19, they would be attending their eleventh funeral since 2000 of farmers he knew across Northern Ireland who had died falling through farm shed roofs while up trying to repair them themselves".
Traditionally, when times were good for farmers, they called in professional builders to replace or repair their buildings. We always say that a cash-strapped industry is never a safe industry.
Further down the production line, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed just how precarious jobs in the industry are. We have seen outbreaks of coronavirus among meat factory workers, many of whom are on poor contracts and unable to self-isolate or take sick leave. We have seen employers flouting the 2-metre social-distancing rule and putting public health and workers' lives at risk for profit. Poverty pay and exploitative contracts are endemic in the sector. You do not have to be a genius to realise that the way in which we do business, and this Executive policy of relentless intensification at all costs, simply does not work for most people. Instead of ensuring the prosperity of some of the most powerful businesses in this sector, we should be focused on ensuring the prosperity and well-being of its workers.
In conclusion, we know that we have a deeply flawed planning regime and a deliberate government policy to disregard environmental law and regulation. That is what has led us to the situation that we face. The scale of this is overwhelming — it is beyond alarming. This pollution is in our waterways, our air and our soil. It is in our rural communities. How long will we allow this to continue? We know that planning is flawed and that the policy that we have in place to assess ammonia emissions is obstructive to farmers. It has not been legally proofed and is, more than likely, not complaint with our legal obligations. We know that good planning could help to fix this. We need to stop, establish exactly where we are and put good practice in place. We need an urgent review of the planning system and of approved planning applications for ammonia-emitting projects within 7·5 kilometres of the habitats protected under EU law.
I beg to move the following amendment
Leave out all after ‘300 per cent or more;’ and insert: ‘recognises the need to reduce further overloading of critical thresholds; acknowledges that emissions do not recognise borders; and calls on the Minister for Infrastructure to conduct a review of the planning application process to ensure planners have all the appropriate guidance on ammonia and are led by science and data to mitigate ammonia emissions; and further calls on the Minister for Infrastructure to consult fully with the farming and agri-food industry and the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs on this review to ensure that the impact on the farming and agri-food industry is fully understood.’
I share many of the concerns articulated by Clare Bailey on the environmental impact of ammonia. In a unary world, I could agree with her about the solution; we do not live in a unary world, however. In this instance, while agreeing with the problem, I feel that a more nuanced and rounded solution is necessary.
The motion asks for this problem to be dealt with by the Infrastructure Minister through a moratorium on planning. I have some sympathy with the Infrastructure Minister having to be with us tonight because, from my point of view, this is a motion and debate which requires the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister to be with us. A moratorium on planning is not going to solve the problem. Not only will it not solve the problem, it could exacerbate it in some cases. If, for example, a farmer wishes to redevelop or replace an existing building that would allow for a reduction of his or her farm's ammonia output, a planning moratorium would not allow that to happen and, therefore, no reduction would occur.
Sinn Féin is committed to protecting our environment. We are committed to a climate change Act. We are committed to the reduction of greenhouse gases. We are committed to clean air and health water. We want to see a green new deal, and we want to see a just transition in progressing all of this. A just transition is a framework of measures that Governments and organisations must take to secure workers' rights and livelihoods as economies transition to ones based on sustainable forms of production. Just transition in no way seeks to slow or deter this transition. It is an environmentally positive principle that encourages radical steps towards halting climate change, but also acknowledges that the only way that those steps will be successful is if we can bring people in carbon-heavy industries with us, and assure workers that they will not find themselves unemployed as a result of a shift to, for example, renewable energy.
Agriculture, in this instance, should not be given special dispensation. However, we need to recognise the wider negative impact on this sector, which is so vital to the economy in the North, should a planning moratorium be introduced. It is important to also highlight that our food and drink sector is key to the economy and employment here, with sales of over £5·1 billion. There are too many unknowns for the Assembly to support a moratorium on planning. The solution to addressing our ammonia problem can be found only by working with and not against our farmers. Remember that, in most cases, farmers are the custodians of our countryside and natural environment. Recognition needs to be given to farmers who are currently reducing their ammonia output. Any solution must include leadership from DAERA and be driven by its Minister. This is a cross-departmental issue. Given that the original motion that the Green Party submitted was aimed at the AERA Minister, I think that the Green Party also recognises this fact.
At this point, I should declare that, as an MLA representing a rural constituency, I have been involved, on many occasions over the years, in planning applications on both sides of this argument on behalf of constituents. Ammonia is a form of nitrogen and can lead to the creation and release of greenhouse gas emissions such as nitrous oxide. We need to reduce our nitrogen levels; there are no arguments there. A key driver of ammonia emissions is when urine and faeces mix. This is primarily an issue of the production of livestock and management of slurry. Livestock production is recognised as a key factor in the extent of ammonia admissions. Some 96% of our ammonia emissions come from agriculture. I recognise the critical ammonia levels here in the North and the impact that they are having on biodiversity. The North's ammonia levels are particularly high in comparison to those of our neighbours. None of this is in dispute, so we need to be very serious about addressing the problem. Moreover, we need to do it sooner rather than later. We live on an island where emissions do not recognise borders. Ammonia needs to be considered as a long-range pollutant because of the island's atmospheric and topographical conditions.
Anne O'Reilly from DAERA, who facilitated a recent workshop on ammonia emissions, stated that:
"There is also an ongoing need to improve the modelling covering the South of Ireland, as nitrogen emissions are transboundary and emissions originating in the South are not modelled to the same level of detail as those in the North".
Teagasc, a research organisation for agriculture in the South, stated:
"It is vital that both the North and South maximise efforts to reduce ammonia emissions, if these efforts are not co-ordinated emission reduction efforts in one country may be shadowed by emissions from the other."
Does the Member share any surprise that, when it comes to this issue, there is very little talk about ammonia sequestration? Planting trees is, according to the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, a very efficient way to sequester ammonia. Why do we not have a strategy? The Agriculture Minister has promised an ammonia strategy, and he is supposed to have a tree planting policy. Should those not be gelled together to deal with the issue rather than talk about moratoriums, which put people out of business?
I welcome the Member's intervention and agree that the issue at stake is the lack of an ammonia strategy coming from the Minister. We need to see that soon, and I will be making remarks later on in relation to that.
Not only do we need a cross-departmental solution, and even, as the Member's intervention shows, solutions crossing within Departments, but we also need an all-Ireland approach to properly tackle this issue and reduce emissions. In recognising that agriculture is the key producer of ammonia, we need to ensure that agriculture is the key driver for reduction of ammonia. I think that our farmers are up for that; however, they need help. Education is key, investment is important and support is vital. There are solutions that will reduce ammonia production and actually make farming here not only more environmentally friendly but also more efficient for the farmers. We need to see the implementation of these solutions accelerated.
We can be optimistic that our ammonia reduction strategies will bring improvements to our protected sites. According to the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), a 25% reduction in ammonia achieves significant improvements in the nitrogen disposition of all the North's protected sites. We are keenly waiting for the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to bring before the Assembly his action plan on ammonia. It is required urgently. We have been advised by departmental officials that this draft ammonia plan will be published soon and that it will, hopefully, be an important road map to reducing ammonia emissions here in the North.
We all agree that we need to improve our environment and have a sustainable and prosperous agri-food sector. As I have said already, we need to see financial investment in order to help with this. I welcome the Agriculture Minister's recent announcement of £7·5 million for tier 1 of the farm business improvement scheme supporting the sustainability of farm businesses, a scheme which will support the purchase of equipment and machinery that costs between £5,000 and £30,000. I urge farmers to apply to this scheme. Sinn Féin is also concerned for low-income farmers who cannot afford to buy this low-emission slurry-spreading equipment. The Department must fulfil its statutory equality commitments and ensure equality of opportunity, as well as mitigations for those farmers who will be negatively impacted. It is important to flag up that whatever measures are outlined will have ramifications for hill farmers, whose farm income is already low and whose farmland is currently disadvantaged. Nevertheless, we should be optimistic. There are a lot of measures to reduce ammonia, and AFBI scientists have stated that there could be significant improvements at designated sites in five to 10 years through the implementation of ammonia reduction measures. We need to get on with this.
I oppose the motion. Everyone in this Chamber obviously recognises that more needs to be done to tackle ammonia emissions and protect our environment. This is an issue that is readily accepted by the agriculture sector, which is responsible for more than 90% of ammonia emissions. However, the motion asks for three very specific actions: a review of every planning permission for ammonia-emitting projects within 7·5 kilometres of a Natura 2000 site; a moratorium on planning approvals for all ammonia-emitting projects; and the production by the Department for Infrastructure of a report on whether or not Northern Ireland has complied with article 6 of the habitats directive. From the outset, I must make it clear that I oppose this motion not out of a lack of desire to tackle the issue but, rather, a recognition that the steps being proposed by Ms Bailey and Ms Woods are inappropriate. Unfortunately, my party's amendment, which might have allowed for a more practical and workable approach to the issue to be discussed, was not selected for this debate.
The first requested action relates to the review. There are a number of problems with this request.
It is not time-specific and requests all approvals from any time. A vast range of activities emit ammonia, so that would involve a huge number of approvals. The review also has no scope. If the aim is to revoke or modify approvals, that can only happen if developments have not been completed, which would make the process pointless. It would also require huge resources to assess whether developments have been completed. Is it to assess whether the correct assessments have been carried out? Planning officials will readily acknowledge that they are not experts in environmental law, but they defer to the relevant statutory experts in their appraisal of proposals, which are the NIEA and Shared Environmental Services, bodies that, of course, are outside the remit of the Department for Infrastructure.
Such a review is, ultimately, a toothless, ineffective and, dare I say it, costly fishing expedition, which does not deal with the problem at hand. It certainly would not be able to assess whether Northern Ireland is in breach of its regulations or obligations under the habitats directive.
The request for a moratorium would apply to all such planning applications, not just those within 7·5 km of protected areas. That, again, is open-ended, essentially, until the Department produces a report, which I will deal with shortly. The impact of such a moratorium on Northern Ireland's fragile economy could be enormous. The motion presumes that the planning process is the means by which a solution can be sought to those problems, but I suggest that it is not. A moratorium would grind the system to a halt. It would have a potentially detrimental impact on major infrastructure projects, roads upgrades and homebuilding schemes, which could have a further devastating impact on the Northern Ireland economy, on top of the devastation that is being caused by the global pandemic. It would undermine projects that all Executive parties have signed up to and the key objectives of the Executive. Therefore, any party that is part of the Executive should not and cannot support it.
Finally, on the report, the Department for Infrastructure is not best placed to determine whether Northern Ireland is complying with its article 6 obligations. With the focus on the planning process, the implication is that tightening the planning process can address the issue in some way. Planners will and do follow the experts. The vast majority of ammonia emissions come from activities that fall outside the scope of the planners and, indeed, the remit of the Department for Infrastructure. As an aside on the habitats directive, developing a process and creating certain obligations have not proven to be effective tools in addressing environmental damage to protected sites. The midterm review of the directive that was carried out by the EU noted a very slight improvement in the number of species in habitats in protected areas, but, by and large, previously noted negative trends continued across the EU and there was a recognition that the EU would not meet its 2020 targets.
There is huge scope for member states in their approach to national conservation measures. Although the European Court has an iron fist in its case law, the European Commission uses a velvet glove in its dealings with member states. Put simply, we can comply with the minimum standards of the directive but still fail its objectives. There is a need to act and for an effective and sustainable plan to address our very real issues, but, unfortunately, the motion is not the way to achieve it.
A résumé of the issues that have arisen in the debate include water quality management, habitats, agricultural development, agricultural diversification and poverty in agriculture. Frankly, the wrong Minister is here to be held accountable for those issues and to respond to the debate. Nevertheless, the SDLP welcomes the opportunity to note its concern about the scale of ammonia emissions in Northern Ireland. The party will support the amendment and that will become clear as I speak further.
Although ammonia emissions are not unique to us, by any means, they are a particular problem here. As with other environmentally damaging factors, we do not have specific targets for reducing ammonia emissions and our efforts are expected to contribute to the UK target for reducing ammonia emissions by 16% by 2030. The particular problem with ammonia emissions here is that we are responsible for 12% of the UK total, but we have only 3% of the population and 6% of the land area. The proportion of sites here that exceed the critical level of ammonia concentration is, however, higher than in England, Scotland and Wales. Ammonia emissions were also 19% higher in 2018 than they were in 2010. That is higher than the previous peak that was recorded in 1996. Ninety-six per cent of Northern Ireland's ammonia emissions come from agricultural activity, with all livestock sectors being responsible for most of that figure; largely from manure and slurry management and fertiliser spreading.
Since 2019, those have been regulated under the nutrients action programme, with a derogation available for some grassland farms. However, the current level of ammonia emissions is a barrier to achieving sustainable agricultural development and meeting our shared climate and biodiversity targets. In addition to the ecological damage as a result of ammonia emissions, which has been noted in the motion, the majority of priority habitats and species are now at an unfavourable conservation status. There has been significant and continued loss of biodiversity since the 1970s. In particular, we have witnessed that in the evidence from the past 20 years. It is clear that a big problem with discharges into the environment is imminent.
That having been said, we welcome the work that has been done by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs since July 2016 to address the issue of ammonia emissions. We also welcome the efforts by farmers to reduce those levels, which they are responsible for through modernising their farm practices and facilities. One particular concern of mine about the motion that has been proposed by the Green Party is that, in effect, by reopening planning applications, aside from the considerable stress and resource implications that would have for the Department and councils, which, as we know from the figures, have enough difficulties, we would put pressures on farms and farm businesses. I am concerned that uncertainty would be created about their futures, and that their financiers would have that uncertainty about their futures. That is of great importance to me.
The Agriculture Minister has described the strategy on ammonia reduction which has been brought forward by the Department as a comprehensive approach to ammonia, and has repeatedly stated his intention to publish those proposals for consultation soon. It may be that the three-year absence of an Executive has contributed to delay in producing the draft ammonia strategy, but any action by the Infrastructure Minister should clearly be taken in coordination with that strategy and must be complementary to it. I have already mentioned some issues in respect of planning. It is currently the case that DAERA is the statutory consultee on those planning applications. It is the Department that is legally obliged to consider the impact of ammonia emissions and subsequent nitrogen depositions that a proposed building development or development of that nature would have on the environment. Any moratorium could have the unintended consequence of preventing the updating of facilities on a farm and thereby preventing the reduction of ammonia emissions.
It is clear that action is needed to reduce ammonia emissions to prevent further biodiversity loss and help to repair the ecosystem. Such action is essential for the sustainable development of the agriculture industry and improving public health. However, responsibility for that area does lie with the Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. It is to be hoped that the motion and debate will prompt the Minister to publish his proposals and draft ammonia strategy sooner rather than later.
First, I would like to declare that I have a small agricultural holding, which is let, and that my parents have a relatively small family farm; more of a grate-and-wheelbarrow than large-feeder-wagon operation, I have to say. I rise on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party to indicate its support for the amendment standing in the name of Philip McGuigan, Declan McAleer and others. The motion suggests a nuclear option. Earlier, the proposer justified it because a major flaw has happened with AD units, as has been indicated in the Audit Office report. I am surprised that, if that is where the problem is, the motion does not focus on that area. Its proposal would affect every farm in Northern Ireland, would affect the entire rural community, and may actually have an perverse effect on ammonia levels.
A moratorium on planning approvals for projects that would increase ammonia emissions would be counterproductive. In the long term, would more imported beef be bought that has been produced with lower welfare standards and, perhaps, even higher ammonia emissions? Would cows be fed a high-protein diet, where we would have no control over that?
That would be wrong. It may even involve cutting down more rainforests to feed such a system. We need to be very careful that we do not create perverse outcomes.
Clearly, there is need for a review of the planning system. I note that that is mentioned in the amendment, but a similar view perhaps needs to go in a different direction.
Let me illustrate how the planning system, which is supposed to be improving the environment, has gone wrong, in my opinion, and why I could not support the main motion. First, as others have indicated, the replacement of existing livestock sheds is being treated by shared environmental services and NIEA as new developments. Even if a new building will improve welfare standards and reduce emissions, it may well be rejected. That is crazy. If we want to reduce ammonia emissions, we should allow farmers to —.
I thank the Member for making that point. Will the Member accept that that can even happen in cases where the livestock numbers are being reduced and therefore so is the contribution that they are making to extra ammonia in the atmosphere?
I am not at all surprised to learn that. We need to be very careful that government and politicians do not propose policies that have the opposite effect to what is intended. We need to be very careful to think them through so that we bring about improvements to the environment as well as to the well-being of our farmers.
Shared environmental services also, on its own, imposed guidance that is much stricter than that of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. How was that allowed to happen? What happened? Of course, eventually, it was overturned by a court. The Ulster Farmers' Union took that body to court and it backed down at that stage. It is a nonsense that a body can almost, of its own right, change policy and effect significant costs on the farming community. In fact, that policy was resulting in virtually no planning applications being permitted.
We have an overly bureaucratic planning process. Whilst the regulations may be appropriate for larger applications — I do not know how they missed out the AD units because they are major, multimillion-pound applications — they are often disproportionate. What am I talking about? I am aware of a constituent who wanted to build a shed for six cows and six calves. He put his application in and then discovered that he had to have his ammonia assessment. He did not have a clue about it, as most would not, and started to find out how to get that completed. He was quoted almost £2,000 to get an ammonia assessment done for six cows and calves. He will probably have to sell one of his cows and calves to get his ammonia assessment done. Clearly, there is a disproportionate scale of assessment required, and it needs to be downscaled, depending on the size of the application. We need to avoid consultants where possible so that undue costs are not added for hard-working families who toil long hours, often for little reward.
I will turn now to the 7·5-kilometres rule. I recently learned that farmers in Islandmagee, when completing their ammonia assessment, have to reference the Maidens lighthouse ecosystem, which is many miles offshore. Are we for real? How is a farm in Islandmagee going to have an impact on the Maidens lighthouse? I actually did not believe it when I first heard it until it was verified to me, but that is what our current system requires.
We clearly do need to improve biodiversity, but we must make sure that, when we bring proposals, they actually reduce emissions and start to work. There is much to be commended in 'Making Ammonia Visible', the 2007 report of the expert working group led by John Gilliland. We need to communicate with and educate our farmers and encourage mitigation, such as the trailing hose or trailing shoe, which can reduce ammonia emissions by 30% and 70% respectively. It is possible to improve air quality and water quality and reduce ammonia emissions and improve farm efficiency. Let us take everybody with us and give them the knowledge, the information and the financial support to enable them to do so. I support the amendment.
Other Members have pointed out, and it is worth repeating, that Northern Ireland ammonia levels rose by around 20% in 2010, compared with around 5% in the rest of the UK, and, more crucially, 98% of designated special areas of conservation are exceeding critical levels of pollutants. That can seriously impact such protected sites as peatlands. Additionally, ammonia emissions can cause the depletion of our treasured natural landscape and lead to marked reductions in plant biodiversity. There is no doubt that action is required to address the issue. In the context of that reality, I understand the principle of the motion, but we need to schedule and plan the suggested changes to make the motion practical for those most impacted. The motion, if successfully followed through, would introduce change, with immediacy — there is no doubt about that — but with no consultation with, or preparation for, those most seriously impacted.
As has been mentioned, it comes as no surprise that the planning moratorium, essentially, that is being held with the Infrastructure Minister present will have a deliberate focus on agriculture matters. That is because we have to consider the potential severe and immediate impacts on our crucial agriculture sector — those who contribute such a proportionally high amount to our economy, and who are responsible for putting food on our tables. If the motion and its outworkings were to succeed, farmers who have plans to upgrade existing facilities could, potentially, face a backlog of farm planning applications in Northern Ireland caused by questions, perhaps, understandably, about their environmental impact. That is a problem not unknown to those in the sector who faced a similar backlog in recent times when around 166 applications were stuck in the system as officials tried to agree how to assess them for ammonia emissions. On that occasion, ministerial intervention was required. That reinforces the need for consultation and careful consideration before we confront that sector, without warning, with restrictive measures, especially when they are already facing uncertainties and potential problems surrounding the EU exit process and all of the issues involved in that.
Effective measures to reduce emissions of ammonia into the atmosphere have already been trialled. A range of methods through which it is possible to reduce emissions of ammonia by at least 50% have been developed and field-tested. They include mitigation strategies such as separation of sensitive receptors from local sources and the use of shelter belts to enhance dispersion through increasing turbulence and capture of ammonia close to source. Those actions are already taking place in the agriculture sector, and valuable work is being done by such organisations as the Nature Friendly Farming Network and the Dairy Council Northern Ireland. As has been mentioned, the Department is also working on an ammonia action plan. We await and urge further progress on that.
Northern Ireland Environment Agency figures, and other analysis, show that ammonia emission levels from local agricultural sources are a problem. I do not seek to deny that. I suggest that we set frameworks, structures and goals with the sector. It is essential that we support our agriculture industry and make necessary changes to tackle ammonia emissions, with the industry on board.
The ammonia problem is not exclusively, or generally, caused by traditional family farming on a small scale, but, mostly, by larger developments and intensive processes, such as large-scale pig farms — something that I know a bit about in my constituency. We might, therefore, seek to look at scale as well as practice. I cannot support the motion, but I will support the amendment, which offers schedule and structure to buy more time to consult properly with the industry. On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the amendment.
I declare an interest as a partner in a farm business. I rise to oppose the motion. Although the motion highlights an ongoing issue facing the wider agriculture industry in Northern Ireland, it does not in any way assist the industry with its contents, but halts development through the idea of an unwelcome moratorium. That is not the way in which to deal with this issue, as, for a variety of reasons, it would be detrimental to agriculture.
As we fully realise, farming in Northern Ireland is, by no small measure, crucial to the economy here. We are talking about an agri-food sector with a value of almost £5 billion, and it supports in the region of up to 100,000 jobs in Northern Ireland. Those are not insignificant figures, and they point vividly to the importance of the industry to the economy and, by default, the well-being of everyone in Northern Ireland. We are in the midst of a pandemic that has required unprecedented financial support to be given to many sectors of our economy, including agri-food production. A motion that seeks to halt important progress on farms is most unwelcome. Farming in this day and age is certainly much more complementary to the environment, with farmers spending much of their day-to-day lives working the land and producing the food that we all enjoy. The effort that is expended on caring for the countryside is very clear for all to see as you drive around this great Province. The way in which our countryside is maintained is down, in the main, to the hard, tough graft of our farming community.
The motion that has been brought to the House today by the Green Party gives the impression that simply halting the approval of very necessary measures for the welfare of animals will have a direct impact on ammonia emissions. That is simply not the case. As has been my previous position on these types of matters, which are now regularly brought before the House, the issue is about balance. That is something that the farming industry tries to seek at all times. There is a balance to be struck between curtailing the level of unavoidable emissions and the need for farming to continue to be sustainable and for food security and supply to be met domestically. Both of those issues require ongoing and significant investment. We are in a global market for food. We cannot continue to push the idea that we can put significant and costly restraints on any industry in Northern Ireland while ignoring the fact that the obvious increases in production costs would make goods more expensive. That would all be unravelled by the importation of goods from countries with vastly inferior standards and commitments around emissions and food safety. That is the reality of the proposal before us today. Although I support the need for Northern Ireland to play its part in reducing global emissions, we are, globally, on account of all the statistics, one of the lowest emitters. That, of course, does not mean that we should sit back and do nothing. Indeed, legislatively, that is not possible, given the commitments that we are working towards already. Farmers are behind those efforts.
The motion focuses on planning applications and calls for the halting of approvals despite the fact that all planning applications in that instance must already comply with strict criteria on ammonia. That, in itself, has been a source of significant concern for farmers who may wish to erect only a structure on their farm to replace an old, worn shed, for example; that is treated as a new development by shared environmental services and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. I have represented a number of farmers who have been waiting for many months on progress on their farm development and improvement. That very issue is the cause of the delay.
Given the lengthy delays that have been experienced by farmers who have entered the planning system for various projects on their farms, it is very clear that there is a need for a fresh look at the system. However, a moratorium is not the way forward for agriculture in Northern Ireland. It would place the sector at an unfair disadvantage compared to, for instance, the Republic of Ireland. I would very much like to see a joined-up approach from the Minister for Infrastructure and the AERA Minister to try to address the issues around ammonia and reach a consensus that is practical and economical for our agricultural and food industry and which continues to recognise the importance of protecting the natural environment.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this debate. We have this one slightly back to front. I have some sympathy for the Minister in that regard; maybe he will comment on that. We are going through the review of the Planning Act. There may be something in there that we will be able to do in terms of working across the Departments. Sometimes, the Departments operate in silos.
Most of my remarks will be about ammonia and supporting the rural community. Obviously, I represent a large rural constituency. People tend to forget about the contribution that the rural community makes to the economy; as some Members have mentioned, it is up to £5 billion. Most of my remarks will be about farming and ammonia, which is the basis of the motion. We need our farmers to farm in an environmentally sustainable way. Our planning system must work with DAERA to identify a process for verifying emissions that helps farmers to develop their farms in a more sustainable, greener and efficient manner.
Ammonia needs to be considered as a long-range pollutant because of the island’s atmospheric and topographical conditions. There are challenges to accurately establish levels of atmospheric ammonia and to test the validation of the model ammonia emissions. The 'Making Ammonia Visible' report recognised that challenge and made the following recommendation 1b:
"Establish an enhanced regime for the monitoring of atmospheric ammonia and nitrogen deposition across the North on a daily basis, with the simultaneous recording of the weather, so that the results are sufficiently detailed to define the causes."
Modelling is an evolving process, and it is acknowledged that there are deficiencies in prevailing models. The Inventory of Ammonia Emissions from UK Agriculture notes the following on modelling of emission factors for cattle housing:
"It is recognised that slatted-floor slurry systems also exist for dairy and beef systems, particularly in Northern Ireland and Scotland, and that the current slurry housing system EF is not representative of these systems. Emission measurements being undertaken on such systems in the Republic of Ireland may provide useful data from which the UK can derive a system-specific EF."
The modelling of emissions needs to be on an all-island basis, as ammonia does not recognise borders.
The need to address ammonia will present challenges to our current food strategy, Going for Growth. In any potential future food strategy, particularly the word "growth" is a key objective of any such strategy. This was recognised in a report produced by Teagasc, which is the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in the South. It has future scenarios for Irish agriculture and implications for gas and ammonia emissions.
The bottom line is that scenarios that involve increased levels of agricultural activity in the future will require either one or all of the following: a wide-scale deployment of available mitigation actions, moderation of the level of ambition for emissions reduction within the sector and a re-examination of the growth ambitions for the sector. We need to understand what impacts this will have on the agrifood sector. Our food and drink industry is worth £5·1 billion, as was said earlier in the debate.
It is important to recognise the complexity of ammonia emissions from agriculture. The creation and amount of ammonia emissions are influenced by a multitude of factors. DAERA hosted three online events on ammonia emissions on what will be expected from our farmers to meet international targets. Low-emission slurry-spreading technology will reduce ammonia emission quite significantly, but other measures are required in tandem. Other mitigation measures include the grazing season for cattle to be extended by two weeks, lowering the crude protein in diets of all livestock, covering 30% of above-ground slurry stores and a 100% switch from straight to protected urea.
I rise in support of the amendment to the motion tabled by the Green Party. Whilst the motion deals with an important issue, it fails to strike the right balance. In fact, it fails to strike any meaningful balance between ammonia reduction on the one hand and protection of future sustainability of the agri-food sector in the other. The motion seeks to place a ban, albeit in part, upon activities that would overload critical thresholds in relation to the production of ammonia within specific geographic locations. The outworkings of such a proposal would be a direct attack not just on sustainable food production but on other Executive priorities, something I could not support.
First, we must acknowledge that ammonia production is a fact of life.
Its production, both naturally and from man-made sources, cannot be eradicated. As such, the net zero position adopted by the Green Party on the proposed moratorium is neither proportionate nor pragmatic.
In Northern Ireland, approximately 94% of ammonia emissions come from agriculture. I am sure that this Assembly does not need reminding how vital the agriculture sector is for Northern Ireland's economy, environment and people. Northern Ireland farmers and growers are a central part of rural economies and communities, providing secure jobs and driving growth in food production and diversified industries, such as renewable energy and tourism. Indeed, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, farmers have played a vital role in feeding the nation, and we all gained a greater appreciation for our local produce.
Some 70,000 livelihoods depend on the agri-food industry, which is worth £5 billion to the Northern Ireland economy. Those jobs also support many more in ancillary industries, such as transport, animal health supplies, construction and many more. It is no exaggeration to state that the local economy relies on our food production, which is known for its quality across the world. It is therefore vital that, instead of placing unworkable burdens on the sector around ammonia reduction, we must work with the industry on this issue and support it in what is already being done to tackle it.
Local research around the Making Ammonia Visible strategy is already providing Northern Ireland with relevant science to help tackle ammonia emissions on farms and inform the best course of action for the industry. As the Ulster Farmers' Union has stated, it was the industry's lobbying that resulted in an additional 28 ammonia monitoring stations being established in 2019 across Northern Ireland to help measure and understand the impact of ammonia emissions. I believe that credit must be given for the willingness being shown by those in the sector to engage and be proactive on the issue.
The Department is also aware of its obligations in the habitats directive, and recent actions have attested to that. Some £7·5 million of the farm business investment scheme has been allocated to capital investments. That will reduce ammonia emissions. Research into soil health and the outworkings of the green growth strategy will also address ammonia. I am aware that the Minister's Department is working on a dedicated ammonia strategy, and I welcome that. A discussion paper for consultation would be beneficial to formally engage with stakeholders and interested parties prior to such a strategy. The UK Government are currently engaged in a live consultation process on ammonia for England.
The motion also touches on the planning process. In many cases, delays with planning approval are hampering the ability of farms to reinvest and replace new buildings, thus reducing emissions. Contrary to blocking planning and construction, we should be encouraging the development of more energy efficient and environmentally friendly buildings.
The motion could have far-reaching consequences for major infrastructure projects, and its call for a review of approved planning applications may not only be totally unworkable but is unlikely to be even legally possible. For those reasons and others, I support the amendment.
I support the amendment, as I believe that we need to have a cross-departmental solution to reducing ammonia levels. I do not believe that a moratorium on planning will solve the current problem and, indeed, it could do more harm than good.
We currently find ourselves on a very dangerous path with ammonia pollution. Northern Ireland is going in the wrong direction. Where the three nations of Britain are cutting their ammonia emissions, here emissions have increased over recent years. DAERA has admitted that ammonia emissions increased by 20% from 2010 to 2018. As has been noted by other Members this evening, ammonia pollution is known to have a damaging impact on both biodiversity and human health.
Since it is a major issue in my constituency of Foyle, I would like to focus on the key role that ammonia plays in the formation of PM 2·5. By speeding up atmospheric reactions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, ammonia leads to larger concentrations of those very damaging, minute particles. Prolonged exposure is associated with increased mortality from lung and heart disease and is also linked to conditions such as dementia. It is therefore hugely concerning that Derry has been identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as exceeding safe levels of PM2.5. Across Northern Ireland as a whole, research by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) projects that poor air quality leads to 500 premature deaths each year.
It is also estimated that millions could be saved on healthcare costs if we were to reduce air pollution. Prevention is better than cure, both for human and economic cost. We need action that supports air quality and agriculture, but I have to tell the Assembly that I have received representations arguing that agriculture policy has gone in the wrong direction: specifically, that the Going for Growth strategy has promoted farming methods that have caused increases in ammonia emissions. We need to listen to the science, just as we need to be led by the science when it comes to the COVID health crisis.
Agriculture accounts for 94% of total ammonia emissions, yet Minister Poots recently dealt with a backlog of farming applications by increasing the ammonia levels at which applications could be passed. That is certainly not to demonise the farming community: far from it. I have far too many family members involved in farming here in Northern Ireland, and they would not be too long in letting me know that I was not doing my job properly on their behalf. Farmers are the backbone of our local economy. Allowing such levels, however, raises the need to engage constructively with the sector to reduce emissions. DAERA recently opened tranche 3 of the farm business investment scheme, which will primarily fund ammonia reduction equipment. I am told that the farmers have been largely receptive to it. That is a welcome step, but it can be only one part of a long-term strategy that must also include a clean air strategy that sets legally binding limits on air pollution, with targeted interventions to address the sources. It is also imperative that DAERA publish its ammonia action plan as a matter of urgency.
Our poor quality of air in Northern Ireland is not only a result of high ammonia emissions. Our air is seriously damaged by the relationship between ammonia emissions and other polluting emissions. Those include nitrogen oxides from road traffic emissions, especially from diesel vehicles, and particles from residential burning of solid fuels, particularly the burning of smoky coal, which, amazingly, is still permitted in Northern Ireland.
My colleague Minister Mallon has set out her determination to support the switch from diesel and petrol engines to electric and hydrogen vehicles. Even the British Government are taking increasingly strong action in that regard, as we heard over the weekend. It is time for Minister Poots to show the same level of commitment and to prove that he is not just the Minister of Agriculture but equally the Minister of the Environment. At present, he is simply allowing an environmental —
First, I thank Clare Bailey and Rachel Woods for tabling the motion. I have listened with interest to the comments made and issues raised by Members. I appreciate and share all Members' concerns about the scale and complexity of the ammonia problem in Northern Ireland and the need to protect human health and our natural environment.
This is a complex issue, and the situation presents a significant challenge to finding a way to reduce the impacts of this air pollutant while supporting a profitable and sustainable agri-food sector, which is a point that the vast number of Members made. As planning Minister, I want to assure Members that I will do all that I can to ensure that our planning policies are evidence-informed and that our planning system works effectively. <BR/>I know that Ms Bailey is passionate about this matter, however, it is important to clarify that policy and statutory responsibility for this area lies with DEARA and that responsibility for determining the vast majority of ammonia-emitting planning applications lies with council planning authorities. Therefore, while my Department is responsible for planning policy, we rely on DEARA, which has the expertise and policy lead when it comes to assessing the impact on our wildlife and our natural ecosystems.
A number of Members referred to compliance with EU requirements. I am aware of the importance for all competent authorities, including planning authorities, to comply with EU requirements. This means carrying out appropriate assessments under the habitats regulations to assess the potential impacts of development on the environment, particularly in relation to European Natura 2000 sites, such as special areas of conservation (SACs) and special protection areas (SPAs). DAERA, as the statutory nature conservation body and consultee to the planning system has an important role to play in ensuring that planning decisions and permit authorisations are well-informed and compliant with European environmental law.
Planning has, at its core, a central focus on delivering sustainable development. That requires the consideration and balancing of environmental, societal and economic interests. My interest, as Minister for Infrastructure, is the health and efficiency of the planning system. I expect DAERA to provide the correct advice, as a statutory consultee to the planning system, and I expect councils in their role as local planning authorities to take that advice into consideration in determining planning applications made to them.
I am aware that DAERA is planning to go out to public consultation in the near future in relation to a proposed ammonia strategy which will include a review of its operational protocol. It is important that that happens quickly. It is my hope that it will further assist DAERA in fulfilling its roles as a statutory nature conservation body in providing advice to competent authorities who are undertaking the habitats regulations assessment required by article 6 of the habitats directive. I know that DAERA has been working with stakeholders to develop this strategy, which aims to deliver tangible and sustained reductions in ammonia. Hopefully it will help reduce the pressure on sensitive sites while facilitating the sustainable development of a prosperous agri-food industry.
I understand that the strategy is likely to incorporate a series of ammonia-reduction measures designed for implementation on farms here and that it will also focus on habitat protection and management to reduce the impacts on nature. I strongly welcome the work in hand to produce this strategy and have already made clear to Minister Poots my readiness to work with him to help the deliver the progress that we all want to see in this area. Given his statutory responsibilities in this area I have already written to him on this important matter.
It is important that this new strategy provides clarity and certainty in terms of how the ammonia situation can be addressed effectively. It should also enable greater certainty for planning and allow councils to determine planning applications with confidence. In the interim, it is important that planning authorities and DAERA continue to engage on individual planning applications to keep the system moving and to ensure that environmental obligations and requirements are met.
In relation to the call in the motion to review approved planning applications for ammonia-emitting projects, this would not be appropriate for my Department, particularly while DAERA is working on the ammonia strategy.
I am content with the current planning policy position, as set out in the strategic planning policy statement (SPPS) for Northern Ireland. That makes it clear that planning permission should only be granted to those projects that will not have an adverse effect on protected sites, such as our special areas of conservation and areas of special scientific interest (ASSIs).
As the Member will know, those applications are determined by councils, as the planning authorities. One of the issues here is that Shared Environmental Services is providing information and responses on planning applications, which is very much relation on more up-to-date information and modelling.
Difficulties are coming into play as tensions grow between those responses and those from DAERA, which is operating on a more outdated operations protocol.
Will the Minister explain to the House to whom the Shared Environmental Service is accountable? In a number of cases that I have been involved with in my constituency, it has taken quite a belligerent attitude. When you push it, it says, "We are waiting on DAERA to give us some guidance". Is the Shared Environmental Service accountable to DAERA, to councils or to the Minister's Department?
The Member will know that my Department has an oversight role. He will also know that there is a two-tier planning system. He will also know how the Shared Environmental Service operates. However, I come back to the point: DAERA is a statutory consultee in this process; it provides responses and is using data that is not as up to date as that of the Shared Environmental Service. That is the difficulty. That is why I have written to Minister Poots, urging him to bring forward an ammonia strategy — an updated ammonia strategy — so that we can resolve some of those tensions and, as I said earlier, keep our planning system moving.
I note the proposed amendment to the motion calling on my Department to review the planning application process in consultation with the farming and agri-food industry and the DAERA Minister to ensure that planners have access to all the appropriate guidance on ammonia. As I have indicated, DAERA has policy responsibility for the impacts of ammonia; it also acts as the statutory consultee on this issue in the planning application process. Given DAERA's area of responsibility in relation to farming and agri-food, which a number of Members highlighted, I would fully expect those sectors to be closely engaged in that work as it progresses. I am satisfied that planning policy, and the planning application process, remains fit for purpose. It should work effectively in considering the impacts of ammonia emissions, informed by advice from DAERA as the statutory consultee on nature conservation.
I have listened intently to Members, and I assure them that my officials will continue to engage with DAERA officials on this, and on any other measures, to address the ammonia issue at a strategic level.
I want to turn to some of the points that Members raised that I did not address in my opening remarks. Ms Bailey said that the Department for Infrastructure planning policy was not fit for purpose. I suspect that perhaps she was referring to DAERA's operational protocol. Ms Bailey also made a number of points in relation to the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. However, that falls outside my departmental responsibility. Nevertheless, I want to assure her that the strategic planning policy was agreed by the then Executive and is considered appropriate and fit for purpose. It makes it clear that planning permission should be granted only to projects that do not have adverse effects on Natura 2000 sites. Ms Bailey also said that anaerobic digesters are operating without planning permission. That is a matter for the local council planning authorities to investigate, in line with their planning enforcement powers.
Mr McQuigan said that he had great sympathy for the Infrastructure Minister. I hope that that is not the first and last time that I hear a Sinn Féin Member say that, as I have taken those comments close to my heart. He said that he recognised, as did many Members, the scale of the problem and that it required a more nuanced solution. He said that a moratorium would not solve the problem. In fact, it might even exacerbate it by preventing the upgrading work of farmers to adopt more environmentally friendly practices. He said that he was very much in favour of a climate action Bill, the green new deal, and I very much agree with him. He also made the point that there are too many unknowns to agree a moratorium and emphasised the importance of working with farmers and of coordination across the island. I agree with him on those points.
Ms McIlveen worked methodically through the three asks in the motion. She made it clear that she could not support the motion, not because she does not recognise the scale of the problem but because she believes that a more pragmatic solution would be beneficial. She made the point that a moratorium would grind the system to a halt, with detrimental impacts on strategic infrastructure projects across Northern Ireland.
Patsy McGlone said that we were discussing, through the motion, water quality, agricultural diversification, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, and agricultural poverty. He suggested that it might have been more appropriate for the DAERA Minister to have been with you this evening to respond to the points that were made.
He made the point that we have had a three-year absence of the Executive and that, perhaps, this has played a contributory role to the delay in the publication of a new ammonia strategy. He highlighted that this was clearly the responsibility of DAERA, and that he hoped that we would see an updated ammonia strategy sooner rather than later.
Mr Beggs described the moratorium option as the nuclear option, and he said that it would affect every farm in Northern Ireland and the entire rural community, and that he believed that it would be counterproductive in its impact in the longer term.
Mr Blair also recognised the scale of the problem, but he highlighted the importance of consulting with those who would be affected in identifying and implementing a solution. He framed the approach as one of frameworks, structures and goals, and of working closely with the agricultural sector.
Mr Irwin also described the moratorium as almost a nuclear option, and he said that it would be detrimental to the agricultural community, which is crucial to our economy and supporting up to 100,000 jobs. In his view, a better way forward is one that is in balance. However, he emphasised that this does not mean sitting back and doing nothing. He called for a joined-up approach across Government and I very much agree with that approach.
Mr Boylan raised the issue of the Planning Act, the review of the Planning Act and the role that that might play. As I have said previously, planning permission should only be granted to projects which do not have adverse affects on their areas of special scientific interest and so forth. As I said in response to the comments that were made by Mr Allister, I think that the difficulty here is the outdated operational protocol that is being utilised by DAERA. The difficulty here, with regard to the some 19 applications that are stalled, is the tension between the responses that are coming from DAERA and those in the Shared Environmental Services, which is using much more up-to-date modelling work. That is why I am very keen to see the updated ammonia strategy being brought forward by my colleague Mr Poots.
Mr Harvey said that the solution that was being proposed under the motion was not proportionate or pragmatic. He emphasised the importance of food production to our economy. He also highlighted some of the proprietary work that has been undertaken by DAERA on updating the ammonia strategy and, again, he talked about delays in the planning process. Again, I make the point that those delays are very much around the tension in the responses from the Shared Environmental Services and DAERA, but I hope that that can be addressed.
Ms McLaughlin talked about the fact that Northern Ireland is going in the wrong direction, with our rising ammonia emissions, compared to other places across these islands, and she highlighted that this was a particular issue in her constituency. She highlighted the impact on human health, as well as the environmental impact. She talked about the need for a long-term strategy and also emphasised the role of a clean air strategy as part of the solution.
I thank all of the Members who have contributed to the debate. I suggest, perhaps, that the Green Party has brought this motion out of frustration, and that is why it has very much been addressed at the Infrastructure Minister. However, the important issue here is to ensure that DAERA's new ammonia strategy and the review of its operational protocol is brought forward as quickly as possible to provide certainly and clarity for all stakeholders in the planning system, and to ensure that planning applications are not delayed. That is why I have written to the DAERA Minister to urge this, and I will continue to engage with him on this important matter.
I thank the Minister for her response to the motion. Indeed, she recognises the frustrations of the Green Party in bringing forward this amendment. However, I think, if I do a summary around the Chamber, that most Members here recognise that this sort of a blanket ban or moratorium on planning would be detrimental, not just to our farming community but to the wider economy.
With regard to winding up, I do not want to repeat what other people have said because a lot of stuff has been covered here. However, I believe that farmers are up for actually this, and they are up for this for a number of reasons. Farmers are environmentalists. The North, according the land parcel identification system in DAERA, is made up of a jigsaw of 750,000 fields, which are individual parcels of land, and our farmers maintain those green fields — our emerald island and our green and pleasant land — in the way that they are, which is as carbon sinks and with the natural beauty that we have. You see that in our postcards that you see all around the world. The other reason is that it is not efficient. That is because ammonia is nitrogen and nitrogen blowing off your fields onto other habitats is not very efficient; it is better off in the fields and within the grass to make the grass grow instead of making its way in the wind to other habitats.
Again, that highlights the importance of the cross-border issue. Teagasc made the point that progress will be undermined if one jurisdiction here on the island is making good progress in reducing emissions and the other is not. In areas such as County Fermanagh, where Rosemary, my colleague on the Agriculture Committee, is from, the ammonia might get there by coming across from the South of Ireland on the south-westerly breezes. Indeed, that might happen from North to South as well.
Farmers are environmentalists. They are up for it. It is not efficient for nitrogen to blow off land in that way. The ecological damage that is caused by nitrogen leakage is costly and that is not sustainable.
We supported the views of the expert working group. It said that the way to deliver a strategy is to avoid putting more nitrogen into our production system and to try to retain the nitrogen that is in the production system and not to have it being released into the atmosphere and going across borders and on to ecological sites.
West of the Bann, virtually everywhere is within 7·5 kilometres of a Natura 2000 site. Two thirds of those sites are in counties Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh. If the proposal was implemented, we would see a moratorium on not only everything to do with agriculture but to do with everything. All soil systems that have nitrogen in them have the potential to create ammonia. We see a blanket ban, effectively, on farming and all types of development. Living in the west, as we do, we do not have a motorway or a railway. The last train left Fermanagh in 1957; the last train left Omagh in 1965; and they never came back. The motorway stopped when it hit the Bann for some reason. We do not have motorways, we do not have trains, and we do not have broadband. Are we going to impose more scrutiny to try to block future development and thwart the Executive's plans as well? That is not going to happen.
There has been progress. I know from the figures that have been quoted today that it does not look like that, but farmers are doing their best. A lot of work is being done through AFBI and Teagasc in the South, looking at the animals' diets and genetics. The farm business improvement scheme is out there at the minute. We are at tranche 3 of tier 1. It is targeted towards ammonia-reducing equipment, and there is a good uptake.
My point is that this type of a blanket ban would be crazy, given the impact on the environment and the economy. We must also remember that farmers are our food producers. During the current pandemic, they are designated as key workers. It does not matter whether you live in a rural area or an urban one; you still go down to your local shop for your milk, bacon, eggs and sausages. Those do not grow on trees; they have to be produced by farmers. Our farmers, as food producers, are key workers. I know farmers. I am from a rural area. I live beside a bog. We all appreciate the importance of maintaining such sites and the biodiversity connected to them, but we must also be mindful that it is important that we support our rural economy and our food security and supply.
I thank everybody who spoke on the motion and the amendment. It has been an interesting debate. There seems to be a consensus that we need to have a system in place that provides clarity for farmers and that enables them to farm sustainably while being economically viable. There also seems to be a consensus that we have a problem but, over the years, have done little to nothing to fix that problem, which we have created. In order to tackle the ammonia crisis, everything possible needs to be done to encourage and develop good practice. We must, at the very least, ensure that we are complying with our legal obligations in Northern Ireland. I would like Members present to really consider the nature of the policy of agriculture intensification and the expansion being pursued by the Executive and to ask themselves whether they are ready to stand by the threat to public health, the destruction of our biodiversity and the cost to human lives and well-being that comes with that.
I thank the Member for giving way. I want to put on record my support for her party's motion. Does she agree with me that, whilst the Executive parties might have been at each other's throats last week over other issues, they seem to have each other's backs tonight on this issue?
That is an interesting one. I thank the Member for his intervention. We will see how it goes.
We have the data, the research and the science. We have all the information that we could possibly need, but what we need to do is act. A moratorium does not need to be a long, drawn-out measure. That is very clear. If we are to get to grips with the harm that we have created and allowed to happen, we need to stop, draw breath and assess where we are. That is called creating a baseline, from which we can start to make things better. That is possible, and it can be quick, but it needs political will, so, on the Member's intervention, let us see.
A number of issues were raised, although I probably do not have time to go into all of them. One of the issues was why the Infrastructure Minister is here instead of the AERA Minister. I was happy to hear others address that. This is a cross-cutting issue, and we cannot deal with it properly if we continue to act in silos. Like any action on climate change, pollution and the biodiversity crisis, this has to be seen as a whole. We know that the problem exists and that we created it, but we have not taken action to address it. We therefore need to try something different and introduce other avenues. That is why we put a focus on planning and not DAERA.
Why a moratorium? A moratorium is needed because we need to see whether we are meeting our existing legal commitments. The debate has, again, been shaped around this being about farmers versus the environment. That is an absolute false narrative. Farmers did not create the problem. Our Executive did, and they did so through economic incentives. We need to reverse that. That has also been pointed out by the sector itself. The Ulster Farmers' Union wrote to every MLA ahead of this debate. Even it has pointed that, while ammonia emissions from farms can be reduced, that can add additional costs to farm businesses, and a balanced way forward is needed to ensure a sustainable future for family farms. That raises a question about why farm businesses are being expected to foot the bill for the harm caused by Executive strategies.
There were other issues and concerns about the impact on farmers. Farmers are asking for help, but we have had an inadequate response so far. DAERA and the Environment Agency have reports, meetings and discussions with the sectors. They wring their hands when they tell us in Committee that they are very aware of the problem and that they know they are not doing enough. What are they going to do? How long will we sit back, hand-wring and rub our chins? We need to commit to reforming our system to get ahead of the problem.
I now come to the amendment. I know that most here have expressed support for the motion as amended, but what the amendment serves to do, compared with the motion, is replace the call for a moratorium — we have to ensure legal compliance, and we know from the Department and its agencies that they are unsure whether their policies are legally compliant — with the call "to conduct a review" so that planners:
"have all the appropriate guidance on ammonia and are led by science and data".
I would like to reiterate, first, that the problem here is not just that planners do not seem to be aware of the guidance and their legal obligations, in many instances from the start, but that the guidance itself is deeply, deeply flawed, and the Minister has recognised that. It is not appropriate, has not been legally proofed and is open to being legally challenged. Guidance must be led not just by science and data but also by compliance with our laws.
The amendment also calls for a consultation with the farming and agri-food industry and the Agriculture Minister to understand the impact on the farming and agri-food sector. I most certainly welcome such a consultation and point out that the effects of ammonia are not experienced solely by those in the industry. Ammonia is a public health issue. It is an environmental issue too, and we would invite consultation with rural groups, medical professionals and environmental NGOs, as well as the wider public.
Lastly, and most starkly, the amendment removes the mention of the need to be compliant with the law, and that is important for how we do business. It removes mention of the need to avoid further worsening the crisis. For me, that is perplexing, given that we all acknowledge the problem. For that reason, coupled with a lack of action to date from the Department, despite knowing the problem, we looked at how to do this differently, through tightening the planning system.
In July, the House debated and voted in support of a motion acknowledging the climate and biodiversity crisis. I know that Sinn Féin actively acknowledges the urgent need to include biodiversity in climate actions, but that will require far-reaching and radical actions to create the solutions. UUP representatives have openly and publicly spoken about the growing need for, and the duty of, lawmakers to step up urgently and be aspirational in policymaking. Well, we are the lawmakers.
The SDLP stated in its 2019 manifesto that:
"protecting the environment is not an expensive political hobby horse. It is a moral, economic and health imperative... That demands a tough new look at planning policy to create a new approach to development that respects and nurtures local habitats."
Those are all big ideas and big words, indeed. Yet, it is hard to view them as anything but disingenuous when they are not backed up by action.
Do I need to remind you all of the cross-party Climate Change Bill signed by most parties in the Chamber, which puts legal obligations to address climate change and biodiversity loss?
I thank the Member and I agree absolutely with him, which is why, if we go into any consultation process, we should do so not just with industry but with wider sectors, the public and local communities as well.
Environmentally, it seems that we all know how to talk the talk, but walking the walk seems to be a different matter. Members are being presented today with the opportunity to step up and support tangible action and to say, "Enough is enough". I invite you all to seriously consider how much destruction of wildlife and damage to human health you are prepared to stand over, because this one, simple issue has been going on for nearly a decade, and we have done nothing.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly notes with concern the scale and complexity of the ammonia problem in Northern Ireland; further notes that critical loads of nitrogen deposition at which ecological damage occurs have been exceeded at 98% of Northern Ireland’s special areas of conservation, in some cases by 300% or more; recognises the need to reduce further overloading of critical thresholds; acknowledges that emissions do not recognise borders; and calls on the Minister for Infrastructure to conduct a review of the planning application process to ensure planners have all the appropriate guidance on ammonia and are led by science and data to mitigate ammonia emissions; and further calls on the Minister for Infrastructure to consult fully with the farming and agri-food industry and the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs on this review to ensure that the impact on the farming and agri-food industry is fully understood.