Seanad debates

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Forestry Sector

10:30 am

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. Ireland has a forestry industry that provides approximately 12,000 badly needed jobs throughout the country, particular in rural areas, including my county, Tipperary. It contributes some €2.3 billion to the economy annually and plays a major role in combating climate change. The importance of the forestry industry is underscored in the programme for Government, which outlines that trees and forests store carbon, clean the air, mitigate water movements, prevent soil erosion, provide habitats for flora and fauna and provide an attractive amenity for the public.

This is all being threatened, however. Tree planting has ground to a halt and our sawmills are running out of timber. This has been caused by the introduction of a new regime for forestry licensing and a failure for this new process to provide the licences that are needed to plant new trees and fell them. This is an issue which has been debated at length in the House and the Dáil and in various committee meetings. Furthermore, the problem has been exacerbated by the additional backlog of projects under appeal with the Forestry Appeals Committee. Despite the passage of emergency legislation only a few months ago, namely, the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, the crisis has persisted and the reforms that were to flow from the legislation have not yet materialised.

Forestry is now in the midst of a full-scale crisis that threatens the future of the industry. Industry representatives have been clear in stating that forestry is on its knees due to the prolonged and ongoing inaction of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Despite the coming into force of the recent Act, the crisis has worsened and urgent intervention is needed to save jobs and salvage what is a vital industry.The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has repeatedly failed to deliver on the commitments to produce the required number of forestry licences. It has not met any of its targets and has repeatedly refused to admit that its process is not delivering.

Last week, it was reported in the Irish Independentthat a staggering 4,600 licence applications are backlogged in the forestry service. This was despite that fact the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has consistently stated that approximately only 2,000 forestry licences were backlogged. As reported in The Irish Times, the representative body for the industry in Ireland, Forestry Industries Ireland, has written to the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and leader of Fine Gael, and the leader of the Green Party outlining that the forestry industry in Ireland is in full-scale crisis, and asked them to intervene directly to save the industry.

Given that the Department has failed to get on top of the situation, the industry has called for three steps, all of which were included in the letter sent to the three party leaders. The first step is to place the forestry division of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on an emergency footing, redeploy personnel to deal with the crisis and recruit and outsource additional managers and personnel immediately to deal with the backlog of licences. The second step is to set out specific targets for licensing, and hold the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to account by closely monitoring output through a temporary emergency oversight unit based in the Department of the Taoiseach. The third step is to insist the forestry appeals committee reforms its approach and increases its output, as enabled by the Forestry Act.

I have four questions for the Minister. Is the current number of backlog licences 2,000 or 4,600? If it is 4,600, how did the Minister and Department officials previously conclude the number of backlogs were 2,000 and state it repeatedly in Dáil debates? Can the Minister outline when the backlog was cleared, with reference to a specific date and timeline? Will the Minister specifically address the three steps identified by the industry to resolve the crisis?

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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Let me acknowledge there are delays in the issuing of forestry licences and there are currently real challenges and difficulties in the sector as a result. I fully recognise the impact this is having on the sector. My immediate priority is to resolve the issues which have led to this backlog and issue licences in the volume needed for this important sector to continue to contribute to our rural economy. My Department is working with a great degree of urgency to accelerate the pace at which licences are being issued, and to ensure the system in place stands the test of time and meets all the legal requirements. Together with my colleague, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, I have met many different stakeholders on this issue and continue to engage intensively with all parties to try to resolve this.

I am more than aware of the importance of this sector. I know it has significant potential for income generation on farms, for the creation of rural jobs, and for the provision of woodlands for public enjoyment. Forestry also has a key role to play in meeting our national climate and biodiversity objectives. That is why the building of a sustainable forestry sector is a key priority in the programme for Government. This means building economic resilience in full compliance with relevant environmental legislation.

The background is that my Department is the planning and consenting authority for forestry licensing in Ireland. Licences are required for afforestation, forest road construction and tree felling. These must be issued in compliance with EU and national environmental legislation. Third parties may make submissions on licence applications and there is provision for appealing forestry approvals to the forestry appeals committee.

Recent case law from the Court of Justice of the European Union and their subsequent interpretation by the High Court, as well as decisions of the forestry appeals committee and others, have required my Department to introduce new appropriate assessment procedures for forestry licencing. These unavoidable changes in the licencing system, which take account of case law on the environment, have resulted in delays in the issue.

The most significant of these changes came in mid-2019 with a High Court ruling on appropriate assessment procedures, which had immediate implications for forestry licencing. The new procedures introduced involved major changes and have been challenging to implement. The changes involve a more detailed screening process of all European sites within 15 km of the project area and other European sites hydrologically linked.

Appropriate assessment is a site-specific analysis that is required under the EU habitats directive, which must be completed before a licence can be issued. The assessment is to judge whether the proposed forestry operations will significantly impact any nearby designated Natura site.

The changes in process introduced to meet these environmental requirements are significant. This has led to delays in the issuing of licences, as most files now require second stage appropriate assessment. There have also been a large number of appeals, which resulted in a backlog of appeals cases.

My Department receives forestry applications and issues new licences every week of the year. This means there is a constant turnover of applications and a work list which has these applications at various stages of processing. We currently have approximately 4,700 files on hand for processing. The primary backlog, however, is with the 2,000 licences requiring ecology input. Generally, the remainder of licence applications are not subject to the delays currently being experienced with licences requiring ecology input. To give some context to our output, we have issued 2,300 licences this year to date, almost 600 of which have issued in the last two months.

I will briefly update the Senator on the staffing allocation around this. We now have 16 full-time equivalent ecologists working on forestry licencing, which is up from just two this time last year. We are continuing to recruit ecologists and will be adding to this team very soon. Ten new permanent forestry inspectors are joining the Department's team, four of whom are starting this week. They have been supplemented by four temporary forestry inspectors and all are immediately allocated to working on licencing. That gives an indication of the seriousness and the resources which are being attached to this to address the backlog, in the full understanding of the pressure the industry is under at the moment, and to try to resolve that situation by bringing a volume of timber into the industry through the issuing of licences. I thank the Chair for her discretion.

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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It is important to point out that this happened long before the Minister came into the Department. I take on board and totally accept the seriousness with which the Minister takes this. The worry is whether the Department and the officials take it with the same seriousness, but I trust the Minister's leadership on this.

The Minister said there are 4,700 files for processing but only 2,000 are primary backlogs. What is the difference between those? There are 4,700 files in there. Obviously, therefore, it is a backlog for the people who have files in there and they are waiting.

The Minister must have an indication from the 600 that have been processed in the last two months of when he will be able to clear the backlog. Has he any idea of that? In fairness, from my constituency in County Tipperary, approximately 740 people are employed directly in the forestry sector. The Minister is aware these jobs are insecure now with lack of timber. I am thinking of Dunnes Sawmills in Drangan and Sheehan Sawmills in Ballyporeen. These are good jobs and good people who have been in the industry for 25 years and 40 years, respectively, and who give back an awful lot to their communities. We need to make sure we can save this industry and make it viable going forward. The Minister might answer the question on when the backlogs will be cleared or give a prediction, if possible, of when they might be cleared.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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Some 4,700 files are in hand, 2,000 of which require an ecology input and assessment. Those require much more work and are where the delays have primarily occurred. The others, which do not require an ecological input, tend to be processed more quickly. As I said, so far this year, 2,300 licences have been issued to date.

The fact the number of licences being issued has not been what is required by the sector has caused many problems and difficulties, and a real crunch now. We are doing all we can in the Department to address it. As I outlined in terms of the additional resources, there are 16 ecologists now compared with two this time last year and that is increasing. The number of additional forestry inspectors coming in to address this is increasing capacity all the time. The immediate priority is getting volume into the system to address the supply challenges and scale that up, and in doing so deal with the backlog.

I cannot say at this point how long dealing with that backlog will take. We are doing all we can to address it and to increase immediate volume supply. Then, into the start of next year, I will be able to give a clear guideline in terms the scaling up of resources and where we are with addressing that backlog.It is certainly my intention and that of the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, to ensure that this backlog is addressed. The immediate priority is the challenging situation in which many in the sector and many sawmills find themselves. We, in the Department, are doing all we can to address that and take it seriously.