Dáil debates

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Forestry Sector

10:20 pm

Photo of Michael MoynihanMichael Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for the opportunity to raise this important issue on the floor of the Dáil. I take this opportunity to congratulate Deputy Calleary on his appointment as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and I wish him every success. As the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, is here as well I offer my congratulations to him and wish him well in his role also.

I raise the issue of the forestry sector. By and large, there is just one serial objector to a range of issues relating to forestry, from plantation, to felling and access roads for felling and that has brought the forestry industry and afforestation to a halt. We have heard many fine words about the need for further afforestation. I have had dealings with some companies that are trying to get planting licences, felling licences and road licences and they are at breaking point. The industry has almost been brought to a halt, as well as the ancillary industries that depend on afforestation. Many farmers were looking at planting earlier this year during the planting season but they have been affected as well.

I wish to bring a letter from one of the companies to the attention of the Dáil. It was in contact with me in connection with an application that was made by a private landowner who wanted to get approval for forestry in a townland in County Cork. The company has been experiencing a very difficult time in business due to the crisis in licensing within the Forestry Service. The company has currently approximately 134 afforestation applications totalling 11,035 ha., 30 forest road applications and more than 60 felling licence applications with the Forestry Service. Some of these files are with the Forestry Service since 2018. The Forestry Service currently has 1,800 files in the ecology department and 33 files are being referred to it every week. The Forestry Service is reported to be employing seven new ecologists and hiring new outside ecologists. The company has been advised by the Forestry Service that applications with ecology reports with Natura impact statements, NIS, will get priority within the Department, but we were informed this week that when the Forestry Service recruits seven ecologists the felling licence applications will get priority and leave people like my constituent waiting for approval without a timeframe for when he can expect to get his land planted. The company has spent over €20,000 on NIS reports, on the advice of the Forestry Service that applications with NIS reports would get priority. To date, the company has not received any approval of the files it submitted with NIS reports. It makes no sense to ask applicants to carry out these reports, sometimes at a cost of over €1,000, submit them to the Forestry Service and then wait for the overworked ecology department to examine every file, leading to further delay.

The company believes the best solution to the current difficulties in the Forestry Service is to recruit 15 outside ecologists for a six month period to clear the backlog of files awaiting approval.

That is a sensible suggestion and there should be an attempt made by the Department to get extra help because of the delay in getting these licences through the Department.

10:30 pm

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy Moynihan for raising this very important issue. Many Members of both Houses have been raising it with me. Along with the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, who has direct responsibility for forestry, I brought a memo to Government earlier this week proposing a number of initiatives for the forestry sector with a particular emphasis on licensing issues. These initiatives implement some of the commitments in the programme for Government on forestry. Their early consideration reflects the importance we attach to that sector's contribution to our rural economy and to the Government's environmental priorities. On foot of this memo the Government has approved the drafting of an amendment to the Agriculture Appeals Act 2001 to align the forestry licensing and appeals process in the planning process. We have agreed the announcement of a new scheme for the creation of native woodlands on State and other public lands. We have agreed the appointment of an independent chair, to be identified, to lead the implementation of the McKinnon report and we have agreed to develop a portal to help enhance public participation in forestry decision-making. We have identified as a priority the drafting of legislation to align the licensing and appeals process and we are keen to get all stakeholder views on this in advance of its consideration by the Oireachtas after the summer. This draft Bill will be published on Friday and we encourage engagement by all stakeholders and by the public with these proposals before their presentation to the Oireachtas.

My Department is the planning and consenting authority for forestry licensing. The commencement of the Forestry Act 2014 in May 2017 brought about significant changes in the consent process for forestry operations. Licences are required for afforestation, forest road construction and for tree felling. All licences must be issued in compliance with EU and national environmental legislation. The Act also made provision for third party submissions and established the forestry appeals committee. Recent case law from the Court of Justice of the European Union, CJEU, and its subsequent interpretation by the High Court, as well as decisions by the forestry appeals committee and others have required my Department to introduce new appropriate assessment procedures for forestry licensing. Appropriate assessment, AA, procedures are site-specific analyses required under the EU Habitats Directive and must be completed before a licence can be issued. The assessment is to judge whether the proposed forestry operation will significantly impact any designated Natura site.

The changes now in process are very significant but unavoidable and have led to delays in the issuing of licences, as Deputy Moynihan has described, because most files now require second stage appropriate assessment. To give the House an idea of the scale, my Department received some 6,000 licence applications in 2019 between felling, afforestation and roads. Felling licences are now valid for up to ten years and may cover several felling events such as thinning and clear-felling on the same plot. Landowners considering future operations have the opportunity of applying for a tree felling licence well in advance of any operation taking place. Afforestation licences are valid for three years.

My Department is intensively engaging with all relevant stakeholders on these issues and one such meeting took place this morning. I accept the current changes to procedures are very significant. Their scope and breadth is such that they have been challenging to implement. This has unfortunately meant that the current backlog and slowdown in licensing has arisen. It has taken substantial resources and effort to introduce a robust and workable system which meets the legislative requirements. I believe we now have that in place. A large majority of our licensing decisions are being confirmed at the forestry appeals committee, which gives confidence to these revised procedures.

Photo of Michael MoynihanMichael Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I appreciate the work the Minister and his Department are doing to try to resolve these issues. We need to be very clear on the appeals process as well. There has to be a time limit on the appeals. I know that, as the Minister mentioned, the hope is to tie in the licensing process with the planning process. At the moment there is no clear guidance on how long an appeal will take if an objection is made to a licence. That has to go through the appeals process. We need clear guidance in the legislation the Minister is contemplating publishing this weekend as to time limit. If a decision made by the Department is being appealed by a third party it should then go to the independent appeals board to be heard. That has to take place. It should be very clearly enshrined in the legislation that it should take place within a month or six weeks of the application.

There are people who were looking to plant trees in the spring of this year on the books. The time has elapsed and planting is not justifiable during the summer months. The Minister must be very clear in the legislation that there is a month or a six-week timeframe to ensure an appeal is heard in a timely fashion. A point that has been made by the company that has been in contact with me is the lack of ecologists. The Minister must get ecologists into his Department and get the backlog cleared. The applications currently there need to be assessed and then at least a proper decision will be made to grant the application. There needs to be recruitment by the Minister's Department to ensure that takes place as quickly as possible.

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy once again for his suggestions. I am happy to confirm to him that we are in the process of appointing ecologists and we will have a number of new ecologists in place in the Department by the end of the month. We have a detailed project plan in place for dealing with the backlog and new applications which includes significant extra resources. As I said, these will include ecologists, forestry inspectors and administrative staff. The project plan is a targeted, process-driven approach which will prioritise files in a manner which will result in an increased number of licences being issued in the short term. It will also deliver a return to expected timelines in the longer term. The project plan is being presented to all stakeholders, as have the key performance indicators, KPIs, for our proposed output. A project management board with a dedicated project manager is overseeing and monitoring delivery. There will be a continuous review of the process. A communication plan to keep stakeholders fully and regularly involved with progress and a dedicated central resource to deal with queries is a key element of the project. While much of the success of the project plan lies with my Department stakeholders also need to engage with it. This will require a commitment from forestry companies to submit applications that are of the required standard and quality and submit NIS in accordance with the guidance.

I am more than aware that the current situation is challenging and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and I are treating this as a priority. However, the significant investment in resources, both financial and human, by my Department, the implementation of our project plan and the legislative reform will mean the current situation is a temporary disruption that when resolved will make for a better, more sustainable and fit for purpose forestry licensing system which will last for many years to come.

The Dáil adjourned at at 11.39 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 30 July 2020.