I will utter a single sentence that will make things very clear. Much as it is proper for us to add conditions in respect of regulations that we give the Minister, it should also be proper for us to say that we do not wish to transfer power to a Minister to make regulations in terms of excluding a particular section of the Bill.
The amendment refers to the powers or elements that I ask for the Minister to include in the regulations that get made under section 9(d) and there are four key issues that must be addressed. For me, these are essential issues in terms of addressing problems that will come up. One is that there will be appropriate procedures to allow for the screening of projects regarding the environmental impact assessment and appropriate assessment. The Minister mentioned the strategic environmental assessment, SEA, of the regulations that is going to happen. That is the overall regulations and looks at their strategic environmental assessment. My reference to an appropriate assessment relates to the impact on a Natura 2000 site. It is very hard to see how an appropriate assessment of a scheme, which does not have a geographical specificity but applies to any area of planting of a certain size, potentially, anywhere, can satisfy the requirement for an appropriate assessment in terms of Natura 2000 sites. In such an assessment, one needs to ask when we plant here whether it has an impact on a nearby or related Natura 2000 site. Very blunt measures like simply the distance from a Natura 2000 site are not necessarily going to be sufficient to ensure that anything that gets planted under this provision will not need a further appropriate assessment. That is why I want it, even if it be a streamlined measure, to be different from the Forestry Act, in that there would be a screening whereby each project would have some mechanism where it is considered. The screening is not to do those things but is where there would be a consideration of whether this particular project needs an environmental impact assessment or an appropriate assessment. Somebody making that decision for each project is really important and needs to make it with clear criteria.
The other parts of my amendment relate to a concern that I mentioned to the Minister before and I refer to the loophole clause. It is more of an unravelled thread than a loophole in terms of the strip planting. The amendment states that there would be "criteria and limitations that shall apply to where a woodland area is greater than one hectare", and by "woodland area" I mean a native forest area. There is a concern that we end up with a situation whereby anything that happens to hit the 20 m width would end up falling into the native tree area. One may have a situation where one almost incentivises people to keep and trim expanding native tree areas so that they do not expand beyond the 20 m area, which, I imagine, is a perverse incentive that we do not want.
It is crucial to include "measures to protect existing biodiversity and ecosystems", which will be a core element of the scheme. I am very concerned that the hawthorn tree was defined as a shrub in the last debate. I say that because if we had a situation where hawthorn trees were dug up as one of the most core environmentally biodiverse pieces because they did not fit the criteria so that somebody could plant a willow tree then that is not good for nature or for biodiversity. We really need measures to ensure that does not happen because at the moment, it is not clear why that would not happen. It is crucial that we protect existing biodiversity and ecosystems. We do not want to create a perverse incentive where we just have lines of trees but lose nature and ecosystems. Even if those trees grow in ten or 15 years' time, then the actual pathways, pollinator pathways and wildlife corridors can be lost if there is a period of grubbing. I remember that we have had great lengthy debates here. I know that the Minister feels that this Bill has been here for ever but we had a lengthy debate on the Heritage Bill when we discussed hedgerows and how the impact of grubbing on biodiversity is very telling.
Last, I wish to address two core concerns that came through in the last Committee Stage debate. In fairness, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, has given me some traction on this matter but it is vital that it be addressed.
It relates to concerns about this scheme being used for commercial planting. The concern about willow planting or biofuel planting potentially coming indirectly under this scheme has been mentioned. Moreover, there is concern about the grants being given in respect of long-term forestry projects only. This part of the amendment is a reasonable compromise that addresses both these issues. It addresses thinning, and while thinning can be problematic, there are to some extent certain cases in which thinning might be needed.
Second, the amendment addresses the requirement for continuous cover such that if, under the Bill, areas of native trees are to be planted, continuous cover will be a goal and requirement. That is a little more than the 20% canopy requirement under the Forestry Act 2014. If we are saying we will do something special with these areas, the idea of continuous cover is a good one, such that there will not be, for example, any clear-felling and it will not be the case that something that has been planted will be removed wholesale. That is a core requirement. It will give some greater credibility to this scheme in respect of its impact on nature.
My contribution has been lengthy but I tabled four separate amendments which, for the purposes of expediency, have been combined. I hope the Minister will indicate how these issues are going to be addressed and, in particular, how he foresees the environmental impact assessment or other appropriate assessment unfolding. Is there a promise of protection against biodiversity destruction? What are his thoughts on the issue of continuous cover?