Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Questions (1196)

Fiona O'Loughlin

Question:

1196. Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his plans to increase the number of staff in his Department in view of the significant waiting times being experienced by farmers applying for afforestation and tree felling licences; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19951/19]

View answer

Written answers (Question to Agriculture)

My Department is required to carefully assess all forestry licence applications to ensure that, among other things, environmental and landscape considerations are taken into account and that appropriate prescribed bodies are fully consulted.

The table below shows the number of hectares for which approval to afforest has been granted along with the hectares actually planted, for the last two full years and for 2019 to 30th April. The right hand column indicates the conversion rate, that is, the percentage of land that is actually planted following approval. In 2017 this was 55% and increasing to 58% in 2018. This means that my Department approved far more land than was actually planted.

Afforestation applications (ha)

Year

Area of ApplicationsReceived

Area Approved for Planting

Area Actually Planted

%ConversionRate

2017

11,483

9,980

5,538

55%

2018

8,612

7,005

4,036

57%

2019*

2,234

2,289

1,126

49%

* To 30th April 2019

Application Process and Public Consultation

The steps in processing an application include;

1. The submission of certain mandatory documents and acknowledging a complete application;

2. Public consultation and referral to prescribed bodies. This includes referral to the National Parks and Wildlife Service and local authorities;

3. Referral to the Forestry District Inspector, who reviews the application along with any submissions received;

4. Referral to Department Ecology or Archaeological services;

5. Further information requests, which may be Natura Impact Statements or flood reports - these may require waiting until certain times of the year for the report to be compiled;

6. Appropriate Assessment – every application is subject to these procedures, with regard to the potential impact the proposal may have on the site or surrounding environment.

Tree Felling Licence Applications

The commencement of the Forestry Act, 2014, in May 2017 saw a surge in applications for tree felling licences. This is due to a number of factors, which include;

1. A promotional campaign to remind those considering felling or uprooting trees that a tree felling licence may be required before felling takes place;

2. Tree felling licences are now valid for 10 years and a licence may be granted for a number of operations, e.g. thinning and clear fell, over the course of the validity of the licence, within the one site.

3. A significant area of the national estate both privately and publicly held, that was planted in the 1980s that is now coming to maturity and requires felling and replanting.

In terms of resources, my Department is constantly keeping this under review in order to try and meet demand. Obviously, the recruitment of new resources has to be done in a way which takes into account overall DAFM needs and competing priorities. In recent times for example, we have recruited two Grade III Archaeologists and trained to assess forestry licence applications. This has led to a significant decrease in the waiting times for approvals which require an archaeological referral. My Department is committed to the preservation of archaeological artefacts found within or near forestry sites. Archaeology staff liaise with the National Monuments Service and provide a high standard of guidance to their Forestry colleagues, on applications with archaeological concerns.

In relation to the Forestry Appeals Committee, the Forestry Act, 2014, was commenced in 2017 and the independent Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC) was established. Applicants or third parties dissatisfied the any decision on or condition attached to a forestry licence may make an appeal to the FAC within 28 days from the date of decision is provided.

In 2018, 1,082 completed applications for afforestation licences were received and acknowledged. Decisions issued on 861 applications. A total of 5,969 tree felling licence applications were received in 2018, with 3,603 licences issued. It is important to note that the balance of cases are not necessarily awaiting further work as it is not unusual for completed applications to be received and acknowledged by my Department, but subsequently withdrawn by the applicant. Further, applications are received on a daily basis, therefore, applications received late in 2018 would be decided in 2019. The timeframes in which forestry licence applications are finalised and decisions issued are under constant review. In April this year, 95% of afforestation applications, not referred to outside bodies or internally, were issued a decision within 70 days from the date advertised. Forestry personnel make every effort to ensure that high-quality decisions are made within the timeframes outlined here.