Thursday, 5 March 2020
Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine
916. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he will address a series of matters (details supplied) about felling licences and road applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2615/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 916 and 958 together.
A commitment has been given to the development of a sustainable and viable forestry sector in Ireland and some €600m has been invested through the current National Forestry Programme. Furthermore, the Climate Action Plan 2019 enshrines the importance of the forestry sector to the achievement of national targets not least in the stated aim of planting an average of 8,000 hectares per annum of new afforestation. Successive Forestry Programmes since 1990 will result in considerable volumes of timber being harvested over the next 15 years and it is essential that the licensing system regulating this harvest is fit for purpose.
I am aware that there are currently delays to issuing forestry licences and I acknowledge that this is causing difficulties for some in the sector. Notwithstanding the delays in the latter months of last year, I also note that 2019 was a record year for the issuing of felling licences with over 4,100 licences issuing which was 10% higher than the previous year. In terms of afforestation licences processed, from January 2018 to the end of December 2019, licences have issued for 4,000ha that are available to plant.
I am aware also that 2019 was a challenging year for the sector as a result of market conditions for sawn softwood as well as increased competition from European sawmills who have created an over-supply in the UK market. This has presumably resulted in a proportion of issued licences remaining unused pending an improvement in market conditions.
The current licensing difficulties are as a result of the changes made to internal Appropriate Assessment Procedures (AAP). These were introduced in response to important Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) decisions and their subsequent interpretation by the Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC) and others. These changes are unavoidable and are largely beyond the control of my Department. As you know, my Department is the forestry licence consent authority and, since 2017, all licence applications are subject to a statutory public notification system.
Mindful that these new procedures would lead to requests for more Natura Impact Statements (NIS), with additional costs involved for applicants, my Department has opted, in most cases, to produce the Appropriate Assessment Reports and Appropriate Assessment Determination itself, instead of requesting applicants to provide a NIS. This should be of significant assistance to forestry companies, while it is still open to them to provide an NIS if they wish to do so. To facilitate this my officials have published a template NIS, with a guidance note and training for forestry professionals will be arranged shortly.
I accept the current changes to procedures are very significant and significant resources have been devoted to introducing a robust and workable system, which meets the legislative requirements. My Department is now meeting those needs as follows:
New forestry inspectors and additional administrative staff have been assigned to licensing. More forestry inspectors will be recruited in 2020.
- two new ecologists are joining the Department ecology team shortly.
- We have engaged external ecological expertise to help with the backlog of files. Four local ecologists have also been contracted in this week to provide extra support. This will be complemented by a tender to outsource ecological expertise, which has been published with a closing date of 13 March, 2020.
- Additional administrative staff have been assigned to the Agriculture Appeals Office to assist with the increased workload of the Forestry Appeals Committee.
- 3 planning officers have been contracted in to work with the Forestry Appeals Committee.
- A specialist mapping expert has been assigned to forestry issues.
The first appeals on licences, which have been determined under the new Appropriate Assessment procedure (where appeals have been submitted) were fast-tracked with decisions received, the majority of which were in the Department’s favour.
On 7 February, Minister Eoghan Murphy and I signed orders and regulations making provision for the introduction of the single consent system. This enables the Department to be the sole consenting authority for forest roads including an entrance from a public road, or material widening of an existing entrance. Applications for forest road works licences, that include such an entrance have been accepted since 14 February. I understand that applications are being progressed by forestry companies.
In conclusion, let me assure you that our long-term commitment to forestry is unwavering and that every effort is being made to resolve current issues. I acknowledge that the current situation is challenging, but it is a temporary disruption which, when resolved, will make for a better, more sustainable and fit-for-purpose forestry licensing system for many years to come.