Wednesday, 27 November 2019
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
43. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the steps being taken to resolve the serious backlog in the issuing of felling licences; and the way in which he plans to deal with the difficulties landholders of small pockets of on-farm forestry face regarding planning permission for small access roads and environmental assessments similar to those needed for large scale forestry. [48950/19]
My question is on farm forestry and plantations that come in under the forestry schemes. In recent decades we have had farmers engage with it and do small scale plantation. I am saying this to both the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle. We are coming near the stage where farmers will be thinning and harvesting those plantations. Some of the regulations around that are onerous. The regulations need to take the scale of the plantation into account.
I acknowledge applications to my Department for forestry licences are facing unacceptable delays at present. I am glad to have the opportunity today to give some background to these delays and to provide details on what is being done to alleviate the issue. These delays are as a result of changes made to internal appropriate assessment procedures, AAPs, which are beyond my Department’s control. The Department is obliged to implement changes to the AAPs that were required following important Court of Justice of the European Union decisions and their subsequent interpretation in the High Court and the forestry appeals committee.
Currently, we are amending the AAPs in order to introduce a robust and workable system that will address the issues now faced and which will deal with the backlog. Introducing this system involves the recruitment of additional ecological expertise and changes in procedures for the forestry inspectorate. Notwithstanding these current difficulties, we have issued 3,929 felling licences this year, compared with 3,136 issued in 2018, with 71% of licences being approved within four months.
Small access roads do not require planning permission unless an entrance is created to and from public roads. We have been working with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government to remove the requirement that forest entrances on public roads, apart from national primary routes and motorways, require planning permission but certain legal issues have arisen that are now being considered by both Departments. With respect to environmental assessments, any forest road development that is shorter than 2,000 metres does not require an environmental impact statement to be submitted with the licence application.
I thank the Minister of State for the reply. The delays will become a significant problem and they continue to escalate. These small plantations need to be accessed for harvesting. The European Court of Justice decision was taken but it has left us in a ludicrous position. I am an environmentalist but the Minister of State and I, as well as anybody with a bit of common sense, know that if a person wants to harvest a small plantation, the environmental impact on the surrounding area depends on the scale and would be smaller with a smaller plantation. This is bananas. Is it possible to get some of the bureaucrats in Europe to look at some of these plantations? We cannot treat a small plantation in the same way as one that is 40 or 50 times its size. This is a real problem that must be tackled at the European level. I accept a case was taken and won, with the European Court of Justice making its ruling. It is the reason I have put the question. This will create major blockages. There must be an environmental impact assessment of a 15 km radius of each plantation. It is bananas.
We may share many of these opinions but we are bound by the constraints of the judgment. We are trying to remove the onus on the applicant to do the environmental impact assessment and there has been engagement with the Marine Institute and others. We are currently developing a new system of screening in and screening out and getting outside consultants to help with the ecological assessment. We are seeking clarification on the legal position and we are working with the industry. To that end I commissioned a report by Mr. James MacKinnon, which we will accept tomorrow and I hope to publish on Friday, and it deals with the procedures and processes in question.
We are clear in our recognition that this is a challenge that we must get right. We have had engagement with the forest appeals committee's new chairman, who has extensive experience with An Bord Pleanála, on the procedures and to get guidance on how we can best progress. That is in light of how so many cases are now going through an appeals process. It is another matter that the Deputy has not raised but it is certainly there and causing problems.
I accept, from what the Minister of State has outlined, that efforts are being made to try to deal with this. It will cause real problems with biomass and lumber supplies. We are trying to move towards on-farm forestry as a sustainability goal that is good for the environment and for farming. My party certainly supports and promotes this, as have others. The problem is that small plantations are sometimes on the edge of farms and on very marginal land. That was sensible when the trees were planted. These regulations will paralyse the harvesting. Having an environmental impact assessment for a 15 km radius around a tiny plantation of forestry is absolutely nuts by any measurement. Surely this can be conveyed to somebody in Europe. There are no other words for this. I accept the Minister of State's comments that the Department is bringing in consultants but there must be every effort to deal with this. This should not be on our radar. I could understand a small environmental assessment of a limited area around a plantation.
As I said, we are acutely aware of the challenges and the implications of not getting this sorted for the sector. It affects approvals, new plantations and felling. There is pressure to have enough timber to plan for the period ahead. We are working on this and we are confident we will have a solution. That is all I can say.