Wednesday, 19 May 2021
Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine
180. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine further to Parliamentary Question No. 1107 of 28 April 2021, his views on whether most of the 4,500 hectares will not convert to planting given the length of time to obtain the approval which forces landowners to opt for other forms of income from the proposed area; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26705/21]
The Department is committed to addressing the backlog in licences and has in place an initiative under Project Woodland to improve the rate of licensing. The target is for 4,500 new licences this year which is a 75% increase on last year.
As to the issue of the conversion of licences to planting, approved afforestation licence applications are valid for three years, from the date the licence decision issues (allowing 28 days for appeal), during which planting may commence.
There are several reasons why an applicant might postpone planting or even decide not to plant. These could include changes in personal circumstances, change of land ownership or simply a change of mind in how an applicant’s land will be farmed.
Other applications are speculative with a view to increasing property values with an approved site. Some other landowners may decide to lease their land. Of course, delays in receiving a licence may also be a factor. Departmental officials are in regular contact with industry stakeholders and this issue is raised with them.
Whatever the reasons, it is very clear that unused afforestation licences of this scale are not sustainable. It is in everybody's interest that planting is substantially increased. The resources required to process such licences are significant. There is an onus on all applicants and foresters to ensure that all applications will proceed to planting once decided. Similarly, of course, there is an onus on the Department to process them as quickly as possible.
Working with Minister of State Pippa Hackett who has overall responsibility for forestry, I remain hopeful that the framework now in place under Project Woodland will address our current difficulties and will result in a licensing system which meets the needs of new applicants. I encourage those that have approval to go ahead to plant and to unlock the generous annual premiums available to forest owners.
181. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the reason licensing targets are consistently being missed by over 50% given all the resources now available to the Forest Service and the Forestry Appeals Committee; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26758/21]
It is not correct to say that licensing targets are being missed by 50%. There has been an increase of 11% on the number of licences issued year to date compared to the same period last year. Felling licences are up 18% in the area licensed and 27% for the volume of timber. To date, 110km of forest roads have been licensed, which is 88% of the commitment given to license 125km of forest roads this year. Finally, the area of afforestation licensed is up by 18% to date at some 2,000ha.
I expect the Department to issue 4,500 forestry licences this year, which is an increase of 75% of the output in 2020 and 25% of that commitment has already been delivered.
Regarding appeals, since the commencement last October of the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 2020, additional resources have been deployed to the Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC). The FAC can now sit in up to four divisions of itself, which has made significant inroads into the backlog of appeals. Since the new legislation, the FAC now schedules on average 57 appeal hearings per month, up from about 24 per month. This increase in the number of hearings each month, provides clarity and certainty to all parties – applicants and appellants – and I am advised that the Committee expects, once all older cases are dealt with, that from the 3rd quarter of this year there will a turnaround time of two months on appeals.
My colleague, Minister of State Pippa Hackett who has responsibility for forestry, has established Project Woodland, to work with stakeholders to examine all aspects of forestry, including a review of processes with a view to reducing the licensing backlog. This process is being implemented intensively and the Working Groups are meeting regularly and I understand are shortly due to come forward with recommendations in some cases.
The Working Group dealing with the backlog is working on publishing a process and targets for its reduction and other improvements to the system and structure are being examined. The Working Group examining process improvement is looking at improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the various licensing process so that they deliver better results, fully address legal and regulatory requirements and deploy resources as effectively as possible.
Along with Minister Hackett, I remain hopeful that the framework now in place under Project Woodland will address our current difficulties and will result in a licensing system which meets the needs of forest owners and new applicants.