That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the provisions of the Forestry Act 2014 to provide for planning permission for all forestry developments over 5 hectares; to amend the Planning and Development Act 2000; and to provide for related matters.
Planning permission for forestry is something that is needed throughout the country. It is important to state that the plantation of forestry is positive and is something that our society needs. Planning permission is needed for almost every development that happens in the State. If a person wants to put a different type of gate on his or her house or paint the roof a different colour, he or she has to obtain planning permission. However, forestry can be planted without practically any planning permission at all. Planning permission is only required in order to plant more than 50 ha of forestry, which is a very large area. As a result of this, very few people have had to apply for planning permission at all over the years.
What we are really concerned about here is the type and scale of forestry that is evident in many parts of the country and the visual, environmental and societal impact it has.
The visual impact is certainly something I see in my part of the world, where we have large areas of forestry, mainly, Sitka spruce and pine forests, which grow and block out people's light. In many places on the landscape we see them break the horizon. They completely destroy people's lives. Many people built or bought houses with a beautiful view of a lake or mountains and within a couple of years forests grew in front of them and they have no right to object and no right to say anything to anyone about it.
Support for the Bill comes from many agencies and groups throughout the country. Birdwatch Ireland supports obtaining planning permission for forestry. Other farming and environmental organisations also support obtaining planning permission for it. Local authorities throughout the country have passed motions in recent years to try to do something to regulate afforestation. It is more than 30 years since the first motion was passed by Leitrim County Council looking for the obtaining of planning permission for forestry. That motion was supported by all parties.
There is cross-party support almost everywhere in rural Ireland to do something about this problem which we continue to see. Local authorities have huge issues in that regard, particularly in the case of roads. Forestry is considered to be a crop which people grow. When we harvest most crops, they do not have an impact on the road structure, but when forestry is removed, it means trucks coming out with 20 or 30 tonnes of timber onto small country roads and destroying them. Local authorities have no way of preventing it from happening. Of course, new entrances are also made in places where places there were never entrances before. All of these issues continue to blight the landscape and cause huge problems.
We also have issues where forestry was planted in areas which have become landlocked. In my constituency there are many large blocks of forestry of 20 ha, 30 ha or 40 ha that have never been thinned or extracted. They cannot be extracted because there is no way in or out to them. They were simply put there because there were very good grants available. People make money on grants and leave the trees to die eventually or to be blown away in the wind. This is a huge problem that needs to be addressed.
The environmental cost of planting the wrong type of forestry is part of the problem that needs to be addressed. One of the ways to address it is through looking at the need for planning permission. As well as the visual impact, in seeking planning permission the environmental impact is also looked at. There is monoculture as pine needles block out the light. If anyone goes into a forest of grown pine trees, he or she will be under a complete canopy across the top. The pine needles fall and nothing grows. It is like a desert inside and there is complete silence. There are no birds or wildlife, yet we are talking about biodiversity.
We really need to get hold of and understand the problem, which is the wrong type of forestry is grown. We have to regulate the industry and ensure we will not destroy communities by having the wrong type of forestry in the wrong place. It has to be done properly, with continuous cover. It needs to be done in places where people want it. It is a very poor sign of our society when people object to the growing of trees beside them. We need to sit up and listen and realise there is something wrong and that it is a problem that needs to be addressed. The way to address it is through the obtaining of planning permission in order that people will know what is going on in their community, that they will see a sign going up and that they can object to it if they believe there is a problem. It does not necessarily have to be a problem but a positive way forward. What we should be doing is finding positive ways forward in order that local authorities and public representatives will have a voice in dealing with this issue. Through the Bill which I propose and commend to the House, we suggest planning permission be required for any block of forestry of more than 5 ha. I commend the Bill to the House and seek support for it.