Tuesday, 17 December 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
The next item is in the name of Senator Paddy Burke but he told me on the phone earlier that he would be delayed and that he may share time with Senator Mulherin. Is Senator Mulherin making an application to move this item?
I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for coming in to take this issue. As he knows, we have great plans for afforestation, planting more trees, as part of our battle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Without a doubt, forestry plays a very important part in carbon sequestration but all the evidence points to the fact that our system for licensing or planning forestry is not fit for purpose. The matter I bring before the Minister of State today arises out of complaints from people involved in the industry, particularly the Forestry Company in Cork. These companies are given licences to plant and to fell mature forests but there is a major problem. As the Minister of State knows, the planning process does not involve a planning application to the local authority.The planning process is not just a planning application to the local authority. It involves an initial application to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine for a licence. The forestry appeals committee hears objections or appeals against decisions made. However, it would seem according to those involved in the industry that very few, if any, licences are being issued from the Department and that there are major blockages in the forestry appeals committee system, which means that they cannot do any business. That might point to an issue with resources but, more worrying, the substantive issue that the decisions made by the forestry appeals committee decisions appear to be ad hoc. It does not appear to operate a system of precedent, case law or something akin to that whereby people objecting and those defending their case can be properly guided as to how the committee interprets the legislation. That is one aspect.
The other aspect is that these forests have a major impact on communities. Communities are complaining that they are not being consulted properly. There is a recommendation in the forestry guidelines that they should be consulted but that is not happening in many cases. Under the current system, if one wants to builds a road going into a forest, one has to get planning permission and go through the rigours of the local authority. However, if one wants to plant a vast forest that might have the same impact as building a warehouse in the middle of the countryside, one does not need planning permission.
There must be a more integrated approach in county development plans to ensure there can be a proper and robust teasing out of the balancing of land use and desirable forestry because we need forestry in the right place and with the right mix to avoid monoculture. Equally, we have to have consideration for communities and ensure that these forests are not overbearing and that they are a fair imposition on communities. One only has to look to the likes of Leitrim where there is vast afforestation and people are up in arms about it. We need to get the balance right but this cries of a system, in terms of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the forestry appeals committee, that is not fit for purpose. It needs to be reviewed in respect of the county development plan and the local authorities, but that is not happening. People are aggrieved. They believe they are not being listened to and that there is not a proper process in place to allow their concerns to be aired. There are also the people involved in the industry. This does not seem to suit anybody and the result is that it will not suit our objective to plant more forests. We have to go back to the drawing board and get this right. I hope we can begin that process here today. I acknowledge Senator Paddy Burke, who tabled this Commencement matter but who cannot be here owing to-----
I thank Senator Mulherin for taking the question on behalf of Senator Paddy Burke, who is delayed. I can see it is an issue the Senator is very interested in as well. I thank her for raising it.
I apologise to the Senators for the absence of the Minister, Deputy Creed, and the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, both of whom are in Brussels. As Senator Mulherin will be aware, the Minister is dealing with fisheries at an important meeting that is pertinent to her county. The Ministers are keenly aware of the current delays being incurred by applicants and have asked me to give some background to the issues to both Senators.
All forestry licences issued by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine are subject to public notification and consultation and third party appeal. As the planning body for forestry applications, it has an obligation to ensure that all licences are issued in accordance with relevant environmental legislation. The relevant legislation is continuously subject to change as a result of case law interpretation and so the Department's procedures must change in tandem.
Furthermore, decisions are subject to appeal to the independent forestry appeals committee. Some of the submitted appeals have been won by appellants through challenging the Department's procedures. These cases have required the Department to change procedures involved in assessing forestry licence applications.The appeals are connected to the appropriate assessment, AA, procedure. Article 6.3 of the habitats directive requires that where a plan or project is likely to have a significant effect on a Natura site, either individually or in combination with other plans or projects, it must undergo an appropriate assessment of its implications for that Natura site. The forestry inspectorate has been implementing an AA procedure established in 2013. However, as the FAC has identified issues with the procedure, and as recent European case law is interpreted within Irish courts, changes to the procedure have been made. The Department has taken several steps to help deal with these changes including engaging the services of external environmental consultants to assist with the necessary revision of the AA and the delivery of training for forestry inspectors. It is also currently recruiting additional ecologists to join the forestry inspectorate.
A major triage operation is also ongoing to categorise the large number of files currently on hand for consideration by the in-house ecology team. The purpose of this process is to categorise files for further action and to advance each to AA determination stage using external ecological consultants. Forestry licences continue to be issued, albeit at a slower rate than would be expected. However, it has been a good year overall for felling licences and to the end of November the Department has issued just over 4,000 tree felling licences which is still higher than any previous year and is 10% higher than the total for all of last year.
Forest roads payments are up by 35% in 2019 with 87.4 km built to date as opposed to 64.6 km in the same period in 2018. The FAC is an independent body but I understand that it is now starting to hear appeals on cases on the Department's new procedures. Three additional administrative staff have been assigned to the agriculture appeals office to give extra secretarial and administrative support to the FAC. The Department will keep the resources of the FAC under review in the event that additional resources are needed.
The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, and the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, are fully aware that this situation is causing difficulties, especially for landowners and forestry contractors. I wish to assure the House that departmental officials are actively working towards alleviating the current temporary disruption. I believe the robust and workable system now being put in place will result in an improved licensing system of benefit to all stakeholders.
The people involved in the forestry industry have raised the issue of the AA. They are concerned that the protocols and rules being designed for the new AA would be fit for purpose and compatible with appropriate and efficient regulation of the sector. There is the objective that it is done in an environmentally appropriate way but also that it complies with regulations. I am sad to see that once again we have issues around environmental obligations placed on the State arising out of the habitats directive. It has been the undoing of many of the planning permits granted for a road or a bridge and now there are problems in respect of forestry.
I would like to maintain my position. I do not feel that the system there at the moment for communities, adjoining landowners and the industry is fit and proper for purpose. The approach needs to be better integrated with the planning system operated by the local authorities because this is all to do with land use and getting the balance right. Even though there are some references to the planning authorities in the forestry regulations it is a box ticking exercise. It is not robust enough to put in place the ambitious plans we have for forestry and to do that fairly.
I have noted all Senator Mulherin's comments, particularly her additional ones, and I will convey those to the Minister and the Minister of State. Additional measures have been put in place, with additional staff and resources to deal with the issuing of licences, felling of trees and forest road construction. Forestry road payments are up 35% on last with 87.4 km built to date as opposed to 64.6 km in the same period in 2018.There have been improvements in this area. I note the Senator's concern for those who have experienced delays, particularly the contractors and farmers. Forestry is a popular type of farming in many areas, especially in the west, as I am sure the Senator knows. I assure her that the Department and its officials are actively working towards alleviating the current temporary disruption. It is important that the Department monitors this in the coming months to see whether we are getting the results needed, particularly in improving the licensing system. This is for the benefit of all stakeholders. We know how important that income is for farmers and so we must get that work done as quickly as possible, especially given the current environmental challenges in the industry, which the Senator noted.