Friday, 23 October 2020
Forestry (Planning Permission) (Amendment) Bill 2018: Second Stage [Private Members]
The issue we have here is with the definition of a development and what it means for the planning process. Large areas of planted land in forestry totally changes the landscape and is a permanent development that has a real impact on communities, the environment and local infrastructure, and it has a broader county and regional impact. Even the smallest development requires planning permission such as the change of use of a building, making a new entrance onto a roadway or building wall or a fence. The most positive developments, large and small, need planning permission but forestry, which grows 40 ft tall and has a massive visual and environmental impact, is outside the planning system. This anomaly needs to be addressed and that is what the Bill intends to do.
I want to make some general comments about the forestry system in Ireland because many people are not aware of how it works. Most of the land being planted is marginal in parts of the west and north west, where heavier soils and a wetter climate mean profitable agricultural options are limited. Many experts point out that this land is simply not productive farmland and forestry offers the best return to the farmer, mainly due to the grants, and also solves the country's carbon sequestration obligations. Some of this may be correct but closer examination reveals negative realities that also must be addressed.
The general model of afforestation in the State is large blocks of Sitka spruce trees, which are relatively fast growing conifer plantations, and a small mix of broadleaf species is planted around the perimeter. The trees are planted very close together in rows with open drainage shores running between them. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine grants cover the full cost of the planting and fencing of the land under the scheme and the land owner receives an annual payment of approximately €500 per hectare for the first 15 years. If farmers plant their own land, they will continue to receive the basic payment or entitlements they have under the CAP, which is usually another approximately €200 per ha on top of the forestry payment.
The first thinning of the forest happens after between 16 and 19 years, when every other row of trees is removed by specialist machinery and mainly used for wood pulp and wood chipping. The landowner gets paid for this timber at a rate per tonne. That second thinning happens seven to ten years later. This is better timber and gets a better price. Then clear fell happens after 35 to 40 years, so it is a long-term investment when all is cleared out. Replanting is one of the conditions of clear felling. The final timber product is used as a valuable sawn timber for the construction industry. Currently, clear fell timber can return up to €8,000 per hectare for the landowner. Overall the return for forestry is very good and it is all tax free.
The reason for the generous Government assistance for forestry is to encourage it as a means of reaching our commitments on climate change, as trees are viewed as the only way to absorb and store carbon, which is disputed by many. For a small farmer struggling to make a living on wet poor land in the west, it is an attractive option, as it is for investment companies and pension funds where the land can be bought cheaply and with the security of State funding for the planting and 15 years of payments. As a Government policy, grant aided monocultural afforestation has been successful in getting more land under trees.
The permanent change of land use is one of the clear consequences of this policy and for communities living in areas where forestry is replacing farming as a model of land use it has negative impacts. There is little labour involved in growing Sitka spruce. It closes down the entire countryside. The activity involved in traditional farming has a significant economic spin-off in the local area, with services being provided to the farm and products and materials traded with the farm. Normal farming activity creates opportunities and, in turn, this creates activity. The farm that is planted with Sitka spruce never needs new gates or fencing or anyone to cut fodder, bale it, gather it in, plough it or reseed it. There are no animals to feed or to care for. There is no vet to come to look at an animal or anyone to do any maintenance of the habitats or hedges, or anyone to come to fix the tractors or the farm machinery, or to maintain the sheds. Above all, the farm that grows Sitka spruce needs no farmer. No farmer will go to the market to meet other farmers or call on neighbours when they are in need because there are no needs. The planted farm becomes deserted and goes wild and uninteresting. The rural community that once survived on the microeconomy that the activity of farming delivered in an area also suffers decline and becomes deserted. The economic activity created by planting, maintaining, thinning and processing the conifers is very low as it is an industry that is highly automated. There is approximately one full-time job per 1,000 ha of forestry.
The look of these dark blocks of forestry on the landscape is not very appealing and for many people who live next to the forests they are a real eyesore of lifeless black deserts towering over their lives. The plantations grow tall and dense, and there are many disputes between local residents and forestry companies about the blocking of views and the shading out of light by the trees. Planning permission is not required for forestry, although it grows and becomes a permanent feature that dominates landscapes and breaks the horizon with immense visual impact. Many of our most beautiful picturesque views have been blocked out with conifers forests dominating the landscape, with farm after farm being planted in an area, leading to a concentration of forestry, particularly in County Leitrim and other areas. This has major environmental and visual impacts that have been ignored up to now, while the genuine complaints of local people are drowned out by a chorus from State agencies that we must meet our afforestation targets for climate change reasons.
When marginal land comes up for sale, local farmers depending on suckler cows and sheep find it difficult to buy it as the forestry companies, backed by hedge funds and pension funds, can always outbid them. This brings this brings us to another problem created by the afforestation policy, which is the change of land ownership from local farmers to international corporate interests that have the forestry maintained for them and thinned by forest management companies. The timber industry in Ireland has been built around the Sitka spruce model of forestry with the harvesting machinery for conifers and the transport and handling equipment in sawmills all developed for this type of timber.
There are also serious problems with the road damage from thousands of tonnes of timber being extracted over a few weeks. Local councils are always in conflict with forestry companies. If the planning process was used, these issues would be dealt with in the beginning and conditions could be put in place for forestry development. Making progress on our climate change obligations is the reason offered for the high level of grants and tax-free status for forestry.
There are also worries about the efficiency and effectiveness of the Sitka spruce forestry model as a carbon sink. In general, pine trees with needles are up to 30% less effective at absorbing carbon than broadleaf trees. The model of plantation in Ireland, whereby the Sitka spruce are planted very close together, is designed to produce timber with fewer branches and, therefore, fewer knots on the timber, as the trees grow straight up with most of the foliage at the top. This means only one third of the tree has carbon absorbing foliage and the canopy of dark needles shuts out the light, making the floor of the forest almost bare underneath. While evergreen, the spruce needles shed and are replaced. The dead needles are quite toxic to other plant life on the floor, again eliminating biodiversity.
For most people this is news because for them forests are good and healthy open spaces. This is the way it should be for everyone. Local people should want to live near forestry and should have a say and a real input into the process of large developments in their area because forestry is a large development. The Bill is about providing this opportunity to people and officially recognising the reality that everyone sees, which is that forestry is a development. The existence of a forestry licensing system is not the reason to exclude this development from planning, any more than the licence for a quarry does not exclude it from planning. A wind farm needs a licence to generate power but still needs planning permission.
The Bill states there has to be more than 5 ha of forestry for it to require planning permission. This is because I recognise that many farmers who want to plant some of their land would have 5 or 6 acres. This would not require planning permission. At present, the Government recognises that forestry of more than 50 ha needs planning permission, so this is recognised as a development, but where I come from, and I have looked at much of it in my parish and neighbouring parishes, farm after farm is planted. In one area I counted more than 200 ha of forestry in one block, comprising several farms that were planted over a number of years. This has a major impact on the environment and the landscape. To break it down, if we have planning permission for 5 ha of forestry, we can ensure we can do something about this.
When I was elected to Leinster House, I recognised several serious issues that needed to be dealt with in my constituency. One was having planning permission for people to build houses in rural areas. In most of Leitrim, people who want to build a house on their own land cannot get planning permission for it. However, they see forestry covering the entire place and pushing out the people.
I brought forward a Bill to deal with that. I also recognised that forestation was a big problem and I brought forward this Bill to deal with that. Every Deputy in this House is elected from a constituency and most of those constituencies will have their own small issue, whatever it may be, that is particular to that constituency. I recognise that this issue is one that is very much particular to my constituency but if we are to be true to ourselves we will have to do something for our own people. I would support any Deputy who raises an issue in this House that is affecting the community in their area to ensure they can do something to help them. I hope I will get the same support from every Deputy here when it comes to this Bill to put planning permission in place for afforestation for every area in the country but particularly in areas like County Leitrim, which have been devastated by afforestation.
The Government should allow this Bill to proceed to Committee Stage where we can deal with any legitimate issues or concerns that may need to be considered. If the Government rejects this Bill it will be seen as a Government rejecting rural communities. I ask it please not to do that and instead support my genuine effort in this Bill to give people, particularly those in County Leitrim, some say and some hope for their future.
I thank Deputy Kenny for the opening address on his Bill. I concur with many of the comments he made, many of which relate to broader forestry issues and are probably beyond the scope of the Bill. However, I thank him for them.
It is only a short while since we were in this Chamber debating the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020, which sought to align some aspects of the forestry licensing process with the planning process. As mentioned then, I and this Government are ambitious for Irish forestry. It can continue to deliver multifunctional benefits for our society, the rural economy and our environment. That will be key to delivering on many of the Government strategies and also on programme for Government commitments in this area. If that is to be achieved it will have to be underpinned by an appropriate regulatory regime.
I want to emphasise that I fully support a robust forestry licensing system. As we as a society balance our need to plant, build roads and fell trees we must protect our landscape and our shared environment. However, that does not mean we should have two parallel consent processes for the same development, which is what this Bill is proposing. If there were some obvious deficiencies in the current consent procedures for forestry licensing applications greater than 5 ha I would be the first to address them. I have seen what is currently involved in receiving approval and obtaining a licence. It is a comprehensive and rigorous process. Some would say it is too rigorous. I do not agree with that and I am glad we have a consent process that demands stringent assessments of forest licensing applications.
I will briefly reflect on what is involved. All applications to build a forestry road or plant a woodland must be completed by professional foresters. These applications must comply with detailed scheme conditions and requirements and they must be accompanied by maps and supporting documentation. Scheme conditions for afforestation have evolved over the years. Many of the concerns addressed by Deputy Kenny are reflective of previous policy. The commonly held view that planting does not take any account of landscape or the need for diversity in planting no longer holds true. All new planting must have up to 15% of open space and a minimum of 15% broadleaves. I believe we planted more broadleaves this year than ever before. That is a radical change from the legacy planting which is familiar to many people across the country and in Deputy Kenny's constituency in particular. These new conditions will make for more amenable woodlands into the future.
As everyone in the House is aware, the possible impact of forestry projects, or any development, on sensitive European sites must be carefully judged. In the past 18 months, the Department has developed and introduced a suite of robust appropriate assessment procedures. This needed to be done. We have a well-resourced ecology unit within the Department to deal with appropriate assessment cases.
As we look to the possible impacts on European sites we look to archaeological impacts also as we must protect our unique archaeological heritage. In cases where a site is more than 50 ha an environmental impact assessment, EIA, is mandatory. In cases where a site is less than 50 ha the Department will carry out a sub-threshold screening for an EIA. If we were to ask for planning permission, what would that add to the process?
The reason my Department is the competent authority is precisely because it has the expertise to adjudicate on what is a unique development, and forestry is considered a development. We have had to change the way we do things to respond to European Court of Justice judgments and we have shown a willingness and an ability to do so. Jim Mackinnon, who carefully reviewed our approval process, said that one clear strength of Ireland's approval system is that we use qualified foresters to assess licence applications. He pointed out that this is not always the case in other jurisdictions and that a lack of that silviculture knowledge can lead to problems, something we do not have here, thankfully.
In response to Deputy Kenny's proposals I must point out that forestry in this country is treated as a development and regulated in that fashion. It is a consented activity and much more regularly assessed than crops such as horticulture, for example. I believe that adding a second planning authority on top of the work of my Department would not add any benefit other than additional cost to and a regulatory burden on farmers and other applicants.
It is important to note also that the decisions on licences are not taken in isolation. The Department's spatial systems identify projects that need to be referred to prescribed bodies. These include inland fisheries, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, An Taisce and the local authorities, which are widely consulted in many forestry applications. We also refer cases, as appropriate, to the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, for its views. I am pleased that local authorities have a direct influence on individual applications and I support that.
The views of the public also play a crucial role in any consent system which may impact the environment. The Aarhus Convention protects the public's right to access information on environmental matters. This allows them to have their say in decision making. The forestry licensing system respects that right. Every forestry development, no matter how small, even one as small as 0.1 of a hectare, is open to public consultation. The neighbour next door is able to send in a submission to the Department outlining any concerns he or she may have. That also applies to environmental groups or any other interested party. Ireland has the strongest public participation in forestry decision making in Europe.
Deputies will be aware that I recently introduced the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill to this House. I am pleased to say that it has been commenced and regulations to give effect to its provisions have been introduced. The main purpose of the Act was to improve the functioning of the Forestry Appeals Committee. I remind Deputies that any interested parties may appeal a decision of the Department to the Forestry Appeals Committee. The committee is entirely independent of the Minister in terms of deciding upon individual appeals cases. Again, it seems that there would be little sense in having two such appeals bodies, which would be An Bord Pleanála, should we have a planning approach to it, deciding on the same or similar matters, which is what the proposal in this Bill outlines.
One clear message I am getting is that most people want immediate improvements to the appeals process and quicker turnaround times. It is well known that we have faced challenges in issuing licences and that the Forestry Appeals Committee had a backlog of appeals. We have taken steps to address both of those delays. It would be a great shame if an unnecessary extra level of bureaucracy was now introduced, which undoubtedly would frustrate the process.
Let us consider what is at stake here. There are ambitious programme for Government commitments on forestry. I am committed to making all efforts necessary to deliver on those commitments. To do so we must have a responsible and responsive consent system. The delivery of more than 8,000 ha of new planting and the construction of 125 km of forest roads per year, as set out in the Climate Action Plan 2019, is challenging enough. Putting further barriers in that path for no discernible added value is at the very least undesirable in the current climate.
No one can be immune to the effect of the current delays on the forestry sector, particularly on sawmills. This is an industry which provides jobs and supports rural economies at a time when the economy is under pressure. All of us use the wood products produced as a result. As I mentioned, we are working hard to improve that situation, deliver quicker approvals and improve the appeals system. That is why we cannot afford to support a Bill which in all likelihood would negatively impact on the delivery of licences for no discernible benefit.
The proposals being put forward today would be a disincentive to potential applicants. There would be an increased level of complexity in dealing with the two consent authorities and additional costs would be incurred in paying for submission fees and, potentially, appeal fees. Appellants would be affected as well because they would not know which of the consent authorities to apply to, and might even have to apply to both. This would again involve additional costs for those who wish to take part in a consultative process.
I have heard nothing from the proposer addressing the likely impact on local authority planning departments if this Bill were passed. Those departments would face significant additional cost and resource burdens and there would be a duplication with the resources necessary in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to issue licences. It is estimated that between 1,000 and 2,000 extra planning permission applications per year would go through local authorities. This goes way beyond forestry issues and could displace other urgent development applications. Has any consideration been given to the impact this could have on citizens who await other decisions from local authority planning departments?
I confirm that the Government opposes this Bill on the grounds that it brings no added value to the forestry licensing system. On the contrary, I believe it would add cost, complexity and further delays to an already overburdened process.
I am sharing time with Deputy Harkin. I thank Deputy Martin Kenny for bringing this Bill forward as it is worth debating. We must decide what kind of system we are going to have. Will we have a system with the councils or have the joke of a system that we have at the moment right around this country? The Government talks about forestry but we do not have forestry in Ireland at the moment. I will give the Minister of State a statistic. Some 25,000 tonnes of timber logs have been imported from Scotland in the last month. That is a fact. That is the same as 200 ha of fully-grown timber coming into Ireland. That is happening because the system here has just failed everybody.
Since 2010, the Department has never hit a target. Between 2016 and 2020, it only hit 56% of its so-called climate change targets under forestry. The show goes on, the joke goes on, and 12,000 jobs are being lost. The target number of felling licences to be issued in August was 75 and we achieved 56. In September, it was 120 and we achieved 60. We will be lucky if we get 2,000 ha done this year.
Deputy Kenny introduced a Bill about septic tanks for one-off rural housing, which I support. If someone applies to a rural local authority for planning permission, it can do an EIA and screen things out. At the moment, applications are going into the Department and I do not know what it is doing with them. Maybe the officials are making little paper planes out of them and flying them across to each other but they are there for a year or two and some of them are there for four or five.
I was not going to bring up the Mackinnon report but the Minister of State mentioned it and spoke about what Jim Mackinnon said. On 13 October, Deputy Sherlock asked if the Government was going to implement the Mackinnon report. We have documentation that shows the former Minister, Deputy Creed, had the procurement done to appoint a person, whose name we knew. The procurement document was put together by the former Minister of State, Andrew Doyle, and the then Minister, Deputy Creed. At the moment, there is no Minister in control of forestry. The same people have been at the same thing for the last ten years. If I was involved in the job, I would have left it because I would be ashamed of the results we have had. In its answer to Deputy Sherlock, the Department said that the chairperson will look at the feasibility of implementing the Mackinnon report. I am not blaming the Minister of State or any other Minister for this because none of them are in the job long enough to be blamed. The Department is saying it will keep control of forestry. The politicians will come and go and the Department will do what it wants. We should not be talking about broadleaf or narrow leaf, spruce or biodiversity, because this circus has gone on too long and no one can shout stop. All I am saying is that we should be allowed decide whether permission is sought through a planning authority. In fairness to every planning authority in this country, if one of them is beside a designated area or within 20 km of it, it is the appropriate authority to screen something out. The planning authorities do it for houses day in, day out.
I do not know about all the other box-ticking exercises because the applications for forestry licences are so complicated now, one would want about ten people ticking boxes. There is one drop-down box where, if it is ticked wrong, 600 more questions come up. That is how we have made them, to make sure we slow everything down.
The timber is coming in now. Timber is going to come in from Germany and Paddy in Ireland will be looking at the trees growing with no money in his pocket and the timber coming in as per usual. The same is happening with the peat we are bringing in through Drogheda for mushroom compost. That is the Ireland we live in now. This is green Ireland, the great Ireland and great environment we are going to create. I do not see any reason this Bill cannot go to a committee where we can tear it apart and flitter it but we need to do something. We have no forestry programme in this country because we have closed our eyes and constantly believed the Department was going to do this, that and the other for four or five years. I am not blaming Ministers for this but by Jesus, if we do not cop on, soon we will not have any industry in this country. Some poor devils with payments of €200,000 a year are about to lose their machines.
I thank Deputy Martin Kenny for bringing this Bill to the House. I support it as it is an important Bill. I listened to the Minister of State and it was difficult to know exactly what she meant. On one level she seemed to agree with the principle of what Deputy Kenny was proposing but on another level, she claimed it was too complicated and would be a parallel system, etc. She spoke of a system that was working and of forestry policy, but we do not have a forestry policy. We have state aid, grant aid and tax incentives. We follow the money, not the policy, because we do not have policy. We are told we need to plant more trees, as if that in itself would solve the problem, without thinking at all about the settlement patterns we have in this country. We cannot imagine that it is like Scotland, France or the vast areas in certain countries where nobody lives. We need a proper forestry policy that takes into consideration where people live.
The Minister of State spoke of 15% broadleaf. When the European Commission approved the state aid requirement in order that people could be paid grant aid to plant forestry, it requested 30% broadleaf. Up to a year ago, the Government was telling the Commission that it would be 30% so I am fascinated to hear it is now 15%. I raised the issue of Sitka planting in Leitrim with a very senior EU official and he said that Leitrim is a national sacrifice zone for Sitka spruce, which is a phrase I have used many times and needs to be said again. Those were his words, not mine, and they are as powerful as one can get. One of the reasons we need planning permission for forestry is that in 2019, two one-off houses were granted planning permission in County Leitrim. I do not know how many hectares of forestry were involved, though I am sure Deputy Kenny would, but hundreds if not thousands of hectares were planted the same year.
Staying with the EU, the Minister of State mentioned the environmental impact assessment directive.
One thing we do not do here is look at the cumulative effects. As the Minister of State knows, the Commission wants to take Ireland to court for that, which is once again an indication that we have no policy. I am fascinated to hear a Green Minister of State say that the Aarhus Convention is working. I spent 15 years in Brussels and all I ever heard from citizens was that there was no proper access to justice and that part of the Aarhus Convention.
We have no forestry policy and that has created two groups, those who are totally opposed to planting and those who fully support it. They cannot find any middle ground and there needs to be middle ground because we need to plant trees for many different reasons. We need to keep our sawmills moving and plants such as Masonite in Leitrim need timber. Equally, we need to involve farmers and to promote agroforestry, especially under Pillar 2. I believe that is what the Minister of State will do. When we talk about planting more trees, we need to take into consideration where they are being planted and the impact that they have on the landscape and the people who live there. The reason there is such a visceral hatred of trees in parts of Leitrim is because people's homes are being surrounded by Sitka spruce. They are marching across the landscape and people feel as if there is nothing they can do.
The Minister of State has a significant job ahead of her. Planning permission for forestry will form an important part of that proper forestry policy that takes into consideration where people live and who will be involved, such as farmers, and that the incentives will go to farmers. The Ceann Comhairle is being generous with time. I cannot impress enough on the Minister of State that she has a difficult job to bring these groups of people together. If she can manage that, she will do a good job, and Deputy Martin Kenny's proposal is a good place to start.
I joined the robust debate on the delay in the forestry licence three weeks ago. At the time, it was lively. The Rural Independent Group was assured by the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, that the Bill would strengthen the present system, allowing more people to look at the licence system without delay. In reality, nothing has happened. I understood that the forestry appeals committee was to immediately split into divisions so that multiple appeals could be dealt with simultaneously, and nothing has happened. I understood that oral hearings were to cease and that there was to be an appeals process without oral hearings, and again, nothing has happened. I understood that additional resources were to be allocated to increase the capacity of the FAC. I understood that the rapid acceleration in the rates of appeals being processed was being taken on board. The Government needs to enact the legislation.
I call on the chief forest service inspector to explain why this has not been enforced. How do we clear the backlog? There are currently approximately 20 appeals heard per month and time is wasted on oral hearings. Sawmills have run out of timber. No planting programme is in place for the year ahead. Staff are being laid off throughout the country. The industry is in crisis. I want answers as to why nothing has happened. Who is responsible for the failure of what the Minister of State said was being enacted three weeks ago? Is it the senior chief forest service inspector or does the responsibility lie with her or the Minister, Deputy McConalogue? This industry is in crisis. I call on her to set a target of 30 appeals per week to clear the backlog and to try to get confidence back in the industry.
Other Deputies have asked about planning commissions. Limerick is no different from any other county. Planning permissions are being rejected all around our county because they are using the 2040 plan. If the Minister of State does not get her act in gear, she will have destroyed forestry in this country and 12,000 jobs. The buck stops here. Who is responsible for the jobs? Who is responsible for the forestry? Who is responsible for results? If the persons who are responsible cannot do their job, they should get out of it. We can see the failures in certain Departments on delivering on issues such as this across the country. I ask that if people cannot do their job or enforce what they are supposed to enforce, they should get out of it and give it to somebody who can actually do it. When it comes to the 2040 plan, all it has done is stop the building of houses in rural Ireland. That is what it has stopped in Limerick and other counties, because of the environmental impact. If the Government cannot get that right, how does it expect to get forestry right?
I thank Deputy Martin Kenny for introducing this Bill, which I fully support. It is only a few weeks ago that we were discussing forestry here in great detail. The Minister of State was not prepared to take any amendments at the time. It looks like she is in the same frame of mind right now, that it is her way or the highway. Does she realise that there are 12,000 jobs at risk in rural Ireland? Forestry and timber are critical for anyone who cares about rural development and rural jobs in Ireland. There are 500 jobs in my own constituency with GP Woods in Enniskeane in west Cork and its associated companies. This is a €2.3 billion industry.
The industry estimates that 2 million tonnes of timber are held up in the appeals and licensing application process in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. This is enough timber to build 100,000 houses. Timber shortages are close at hand. There will be an immediate problem for Ireland's housebuilding programme when timber starts to run short. Imports are expensive and hard to come by right now, with strong demand for timber worldwide. GP Woods has managed to source some supply and it will start to arrive next month, which goes against everything they have stood for. It is being shipped across Europe, there is an environmental impact and it supports jobs outside our own country.
The appeals debacle is also holding up many afforestation projects and farmers are the collateral damage. They are stuck in the middle. They cannot plant and they cannot harvest. The Government and the Green Party cannot hit their tree planting targets while all this is going on. Delays are killing the tree planting programme. Imagine that 1,500 ha will be planted this year when the Government's target was meant to be 8,000 ha per annum. The impact on our climate change goals is substantial. Tree planting is a key weapon in the fight against climate change. The difference will be millions of tonnes of CO2 left in the atmosphere because the trees have not been planted to soak it up. We need to use more wood and the way that we get it is to plant our own forest and to stimulate more use of wood in our built environment. It is critical for legislation to be implemented quickly and then backed up by resources. The Department must be ready and able to implement the reforms contained within the Bill immediately once it is approved by the Oireachtas. There can be no delays in making this happen. Will the Minister of State assure us that this is under way?
The fee is critical and must be introduced immediately. She must ensure that all necessary resources are in place to make the reforms work. Legislation is no good unless people are hired to enable the output of the FAC to increase. I understand that the committee is in the process of hiring additional personnel. It is critical for this to happen immediately and for the numbers to be sufficient.
There is a belief in the sector that at least ten extra people are needed. The forestry appeals committee, FAC, should be targeting getting through more than 20 appeals per week instead of the current 20 appeals per month. The concept of the FAC meetings in divisions is critical. The running of multiple divisions in parallel is what will achieve the throughput. The other important reform is the removal of an automatic right to an oral hearing. The FAC should decide that oral hearings are required in only a minority of cases.
In the longer term, we must move away from the licensing system in forestry and change the regulatory model. It should not be necessary to apply for a new licence at every stage in the process. That is a waste of time and resources, and it is inhibiting the development of the sector. In other countries there is greater reliance on a forest management plan that is approved, implemented and monitored. It is a far more efficient system. The Department has failed the industry badly in this area for the past number of years. This industry is coming through the Covid-19 crisis well, yet it is being damaged by our failure to provide an adequate regulatory platform. Without the platform being right, the industry cannot grow and prosper.
The reason I stayed in the House tonight, because I have to return to the Mizen Peninsula, is that I want to fight tooth and nail for 500 jobs in west Cork. There are 12,000 throughout the nation. GP Wood has run an excellent company in the past number of years in west Cork. It is employing people from Bandon, Dunmanway, Drimoleague, Skibbereen and Bantry. There are also the suppliers and the lorry drivers. These jobs are in jeopardy at present, yet we are talking about importing timber into the country. That is phenomenal. I also support every farmer who has suffered due to serial objectors. Their intention, I presume, was to save forestry, but they have had the opposite effect. Only 1,500 ha will be sown this year in this country instead of 8,000 ha. The people who are objecting should hang their heads in shame, given what they have cost us in this country. Farmers have been great supporters of the growth of trees, but they are totally opposed to it at present until all these measures are rectified. With jobs on the line as well, I certainly will support this Bill.
I wish to put on the record that we still do not have the Minister of State's speech. I would appreciate, a Cheann Comhairle, if your office would contact all Departments for speeches in future. At this stage, it appears we will be able to get it from the Oireachtas website because it seems our staff are much more efficient than those in the Department. I do not know how hard it would be to just email it to Members. Perhaps I missed it, but I asked some colleagues and nobody appears to have it.
Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle.
I commend Deputy Martin Kenny on the work he has done on this issue. Make no mistake, he represents the views of the people of not only County Leitrim but many other communities. That has been well and fairly articulated by his constituency colleague, Deputy Harkin, tonight. The Minister of State is new to the job and I know she has an interest in this area, but she appears to have made the same mistake that many Ministers make when they arrive in a new Department. She believes the officials in her Department are acting in good faith. The Department, particularly the forest section, has made an absolute hames of forestry policy in this State. We learned this week in the agriculture committee that the native ash tree, one of the trees synonymous with our country and which is associated with one of our most popular national sports, is likely to become extinct. Some genius thought it was okay to allow the importation of ash into Ireland. Who would believe it? Not only that, it was imported from countries that were known to have a prevalence of dieback. That was imported into the State as part of our so-called forestry policy and, according to the evidence provided to the committee this week, will more than likely ensure there is no ash at all in this country. That is a travesty, and just the latest in a long line of travesties when it comes to forestry policy.
I am a massive advocate for forestry. Forestry can play a crucial role on many different levels. I have said that on numerous occasions and I will continue to say it because there are opportunities in it for rural economies. We have heard other speakers talk about the jobs involved in local forestry. When forestry policy is carried out correctly, it can be a vibrant industry, not something that is just left sitting for up to 30 years after which a couple of large multinational corporations come in, take the benefits from it and destroy the local roads while they are at it. It can be something that can thrive and keep a local timber production industry going and keep people employed in its administration and maintenance. When forestry is carried out correctly, there can be an associated tourism benefit with it.
Forestry policy should be good for the environment, but what have we done in the constituency of Deputies Martin Kenny and Harkin? We have allowed forests to be planted on bog land. This is the ingenious forestry policy employed by the Department. We have damaged the environment by planting forests. The land was more beneficial to the environment before it was touched than when it was planted. That should ring alarm bells for the Minister of State. An entire local community is up in arms, and rightly so. I have walked the roads of the communities along with Deputy Martin Kenny in my capacity as a Member of the European Parliament. I have walked them not only with local representatives and communities but also with international forestry experts. I am sure the Minister of State is aware of the European organisation, Fern. Deputy Martin Kenny and I took its representatives to County Leitrim. They addressed public meetings and spent days on end doing what I hope the Minister of State will do some day, which is looking at the forestry and what it means for biodiversity, local economic development and for community buy-in. Fern included County Leitrim in a publication as an example of worst practice, so all over Europe, governments and agriculture Departments are shown an example of how not to do forestry.
Does the Minister of State accept there is a massive failure in policy? That would be a good place to start, whether she comes from that position or she thinks that what we have is broadly okay and just might need tweaking. Too many of her predecessors have thought the latter. If she accepts there is an absolute failing, she must make a decision on where she should look for the answers. She will have to make a call as to whether she looks within her Department and to the people who have stood over and allowed this situation to develop. If she decides to do that, we are on the road to nowhere. Some 1,500 ha was mentioned with regard to what will be developed this year. That is a stark, clear statistic. If the Minister of State does that, we will continue with failed policies, perhaps tweaks here and there and thousands of jobs and opportunities lost.
If, however, the Minister of State comes at it from a different angle, which I hope she will, where she accepts there is a failing and that it has to be addressed, who will she look to for answers? There is nobody better than Deputy Martin Kenny and the community he represents with this legislation. This is a choice. Yes, there is a licensing regime in the Department, but local communities do not trust the Department in this regard. They do not believe it has their interests at heart. They trust their local authority to a far greater degree.
That is because their local authority is made up of people who actually come from their communities, live in their communities and who have planning experts in place. They say they are probably more frustrated than anybody because they see bad planning practices happening all the time. They see big land grabs taking place where local farming communities are denied the opportunity to purchase land because big pension funds are coming in and purchasing the land or big agri-businesses and blanket planting it with Sitka spruce in order to offset emissions that they are building up somewhere else. That is not what forestry should and could be used for. I hear all the time about the proportions that need to be in place of 15% broadleaf but 15% does not come close to what we need. It is not even a fraction of what is needed.
We have invasive species in forests that are not suited to the Irish environment. I mentioned that I go through forests. I love forests. There is nothing I love more than walking around Rossmore Park or Dún na Rí forest park or Lough Key Forest Park. Anywhere I go I love to walk around a forest. A forest is something that people should want to visit and it is something people should want to live beside. When the people who live beside forests are telling the Minister of State that they feel the place is suffocating them and is taking every piece of life out of their community then there is a problem. I urge the Minister of State to do something bold and imaginative and to show a bit of vision in allowing this Bill to go to Committee Stage. Let us have a debate on it and if there are genuine issues then let us thrash them out. If the 5 ha should be 6 ha or 10 ha, let us thrash that out but I urge the Minister of State to show a bit of vision where her predecessors did not. This is a massive opportunity for the Minister of State and I fear that she is just letting it slip by, and that she is just going along the route the officials have set out for her. She will be gone in five years' time and the officials will still be in place and they will still be pursuing the same failed policy. I believe that would be a travesty.
I thank Deputy Carthy. The Minister has heard a number of very passionate contributions following Deputy Martin Kenny's almost poetic introduction to the Bill. Perhaps the Minister of State would like to respond. She has five minutes if she wishes.
I thank the Deputies for their passionate contributions. I could see from the comments that were made that there is a shared vision. I would like to think I share that vision with them of a much better forestry model, one that is good for the environment and where communities will want to live beside forests and be surrounded by the right type of forests. That is my intent and my vision for forestry.
Deputies Harkin and Carthy highlighted the 15% minimum target for broadleaves. I agree that it is a minimum and that it could well be more. That is certainly something I will look into. This year so far, of the trees planted, 36% are broadleaf so we have done quite well, even in a bad year and I hope we can improve on that in the future. There is a wider context here in that the State is facing a very big challenge at the moment. We have testing and uncertain times and the demands on public services and the public purse are substantive. To introduce another layer in terms of a requirement for planning permission for forestry when we have a system in place to deal with forestry would involve unnecessary duplication not only of effort but of resources in particular at this time when neither would be good practice.
My Department has a cohort of experts to deal with licensing applications. I am on the record many times acknowledging the problems of the past; the poor planning decisions; the poor ways we planted trees that were, for example, too close to rivers and too close to homes. Members should be aware that it would not happen today. The system has changed, even in the past 18 months, and it is something I want to improve further in the future. The licensing system has improved in recent times and is robust. The resource implications of looking at the issue from a planning perspective as well as a licensing perspective is a highly unnecessary duplication. As I indicated in my opening statement, we engage widely with a number of bodies, including local authorities. Currently, local authorities play a significant role in many forestry applications. They are consulted if there is a question of a scenic area being affected or if a proposed forest is close to a Natura site, so it is not as if local authorities have no part to play in the process currently. They play a very useful part.
As part of the forestry licensing system, all parties have direct access to the appeals committee. The Bill proposes that parties would have to access the forestry appeals committee, FAC, and also An Bord Pleanála. The question is which they would choose. That is another unnecessary layer. We have worked hard to improve the system within the FAC.
In response to Deputy O'Donoghue's comments, the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill was enacted on 8 October. We have three committees now ready to hear the scheduled hearings. That shows how quickly we have moved since the enactment, which is only a couple of weeks ago. I hope that will result in a turnaround in the number of appeals heard.
Open and transparent access to information is an important part of the planning process and the forestry licensing process. We will shortly echo the access that exists for planning applications in the forestry licensing process by the launch on our website of a forestry licence viewer. This online portal will make available easily accessible information on forestry licence applications in alignment with the current planning process. If we accepted the Bill we could potentially have two systems whereby applicants would have to look at the planning site and the forestry licensing process.
Deputy Fitzmaurice mentioned the Mackinnon report, as I did in my opening statement. I have plans to implement further changes as soon as possible. I intend to look anew at the Mackinnon report. The purpose of appointing a chair is not to implement the report but to advise the Minister on implementing the report. I certainly will look at that very shortly and I look forward to doing so.
Turning to the future of forestry in Ireland, the licensing system is integral to it. We face many challenges but we also have a vista of new opportunities. We want to build a model that is more sustainable, which attracts farmers, holds the attention of businesses, is good for communities, is good for the environment and biodiversity and is good for local rural economies.
In conclusion, if we do introduce more complexity and cost at this stage, it will strongly hamper our efforts. Therefore, I reiterate our opposition to the Bill.
The Minister of State said that adding duplication or additions would further delay the process and make it more expensive. I am most interested in her notion that planning departments in local authorities throughout the country would be swamped and unable to cope. In my parish in County Leitrim, only two houses have been built in the past ten years. The planning units will have absolutely no problem coping with the workload. The last time the Green Party was in government, it worked hand in glove with Fianna Fáil to support developers to cover the country in houses. We had nothing but ghost housing estates all over the place. The planning authorities were able to cope then and they will have no problem dealing with the forestry issue. Indeed, they want to do it. I spoke to somebody in Leitrim County Council in recent weeks about what happens when there is a consultation on a licensing application. The person told me the applications are always replied to and sent in, but the council staff know it makes no difference. They know they will not be listened to. He said the only reason they send the applications in at all is that if somebody checked, there would be blue murder if the council had not made any response.
They know it is not listened to. They are totally discounted and have no say in the situation whatsoever.
The Minister of State spoke about the licensing process. Everybody knows it does not work. The forestry policy does not work. There should be a planning policy first which would then consult with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine rather than the other way round. That is the problem. I suggest that planning is put first. The local authority not only looks at afforestation but also at every other development in the region, along with the environmental, societal, tourism and other impacts.
The Minister of State would be against ribbon development, as I would be against it in most cases. She would not like to see one house after another along roads stretching out through rural communities. Nobody has any problem, however, with ribbon development of forestry with townland after townland covered in trees and no people left. That is the reality for many people living in many parts of County Leitrim.
Recently the Minister of State's party colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Noonan, came to Drumkeeran in north Leitrim to visit the site of a landslide near the Dawn of Hope Bridge. That landslide was caused by afforestation. A landslip occurred on the top of a mountain that was covered with blanket bog. It had been planted with forestry when it should not have been touched for a whole range of environmental reasons. The local authority staff on site told us that if they had any say in it, they would not have allowed that forestry to be planted there. However, they had no say in it. It is still the same today.
The Minister of State can try to hoodwink me and everyone to the effect that, somehow or other, it is going to be different this time. We all know it is going to be no different because the same people will be in charge. All they care about is the timber production industry and feeding that industry. They do not care about the people or the damage they do to the rural environment. They care about nothing else but timber production.
The Minister of State indicated that local authorities have got some sense of being able to have a duplicate of a process and that there would be two processes happening. Somehow or other, it is felt that if the local authorities were doing it, they would not have the expertise. They have the expertise, however, for every other kind of development that arises. If somebody wants to put up wind turbines or install a farm of solar panels, the local authorities have the expertise. A local authority has to dig deep, find the expertise and provide it. In general, they do it very well, yet the Minister is not prepared to trust them with afforestation. That just baffles people.
The reasons the Minister of State put forward for opposing this are basically nonsense. Everyone knows that the process that the Minister of State is putting forward as the one that works is the process that has failed. It has failed rural communities, biodiversity and everything to do with the environment. The only people who have profited are the small handful who make all the money. The Minister of State wants to continue with that process.
As my colleague said earlier, it is time to do something bold. It is time to stand up to the people in the Department and say that we want to do it differently. There has been much controversy about the mother and baby homes and another Green Party Minister, for whom I have a great deal of respect, is being led by the nose on that matter as well. The Minister of State should not be like that. She must do something bold and different. She must stand up and have a little bit of gumption in respect of this matter. Ordinary people will appreciate it if she makes a stand. Even if she thinks she will be unpopular among the handful of advisers around her for doing so, it will pay dividends for her. If she bends over, is pliable and goes with the flow, as everyone who gets into government wants to do, she will not be there very long.
That is a travesty because I understand that green politics are international. Many young people have a huge grá for the environmental process and what the green movement is about throughout the world. However, when the Greens get into government in places like Ireland, they cock it up. The Greens should not do proceed to Committee Stage where we can debate it and work it out. We can then make progress because we want to work with the Minister of State and not against her.
Please do not set us up for another failure. The Minister of State should not say to the people who live in rural County Leitrim, who have been failed for so long, that she is going to preside over further failure. Do not do that; do something bold. She should support this Bill to go to Committee Stage. We will work with her and will try to do the right thing because I want to see afforestation that is positive for my local community. I want to see jobs in my local community but what we have is not that. The Minister of State said that it is historical. I can tell her that it is right now. I can bring her to places where farms and lands have been planted with thousands of acres of forestry. There is nothing else there for people. That is wrong and it should not happen. There needs to be a better process.
The Minister of State should do the right thing, in her own interests and in those of her party. She should show people that she is prepared to do something different. She should show that she will not be led by the forestry industry and its people in the Department who are driving this. She should stand up for the ordinary people who are the victims in all of this. She has that opportunity and I hope she takes it on this occasion.