Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Questions (539)

Jackie Cahill

Question:

539. Deputy Jackie Cahill asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his views on comments by an organisation (details supplied) regarding the delay in processing forestry applications; the number of applications received in each of the years 2015 to 2018 and to date in 2019; the number of applications that remained to be processed and a final decision made by 31 December in each year; the number of applicants waiting in excess of 12 months for a decision from the moment an application was received in each year, in tabular form. [26477/19]

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Written answers (Question to Agriculture)

My Department is the competent authority for the granting of licences for afforestation, tree felling, forest road works and aerial fertilisation. There are a number of considerations that are taken into account when assessing an application for forestry licences, and I would like to take this opportunity to outline these to you.

General Guidelines and Assessments

All forestry licence applications undergo a comprehensive vetting process to ensure that inter alia the landscape, environment and our archaeological heritage are protected. Every application is treated on its own merits and is examined with regard to its effect, if any, on its surroundings. There are a number of guideline documents, such as Forestry and Water Quality Guidelines; Forestry and the Landscape Guidelines; which are available on my Department’s website. Further, the Code of Best Forest Practice is a listing of all forestry operations and the manner in which they should be carried out to ensure the requirements for Sustainable Forest Management in Ireland are maintained.

Since the commencement in May 2017 of the Forestry Act, 2014, applications must be advertised to provide for 30 days public consultation. The public consultation process is assisted by the erection of site notices for all afforestation and forest road works licence applications.

A registered forester must complete an application for all afforestation, forest road works or aerial fertilisation licences. Applications for tree felling licences are accepted from private individuals or registered foresters and other agents. Applications are accepted throughout the year. An application may be commenced but will not be finalised until certain mandatory documents are received and acknowledged. It is at this point that the application is considered complete and advertised on my Department’s website. There is an average of 30 days between when an application is started and advertised.

In addition to this, referrals may be made to the local authority, Inland Fisheries Ireland, National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and An Taisce depending on the specific characteristics of the site concerned. These can include its proximity to water courses, designated European sites, or sensitive landscapes as defined by the local authority. Where an application wholly or partly falls within a designated site, no decision may be made until an opinion is received from NPWS.

I am aware that the introduction of the independent Forestry Appeals Committee, the associated appeals process and more complex Appropriate Assessment requirements have resulted in increased processing timeframes for forestry licences. In recognition of this and of the complexity involved, training both internally and with registered foresters took place in January and April this year. I anticipate that this training will, among other things, lead to an improvement in the quality of initial applications and lands being put forward for consideration, as this is so important in terms of processing time.

I know there have been delays issuing licences due to archaeological and ecology issues. Additional resources have been provided to undertake the archaeological review with two new archaeologists employed; significant work has been done to clear backlogs arising for this reason. In terms of ecology, the recruitment process for a new ecologist will shortly commence with a view to putting resources in place to meet the increased demand. Furthermore, parallel referral processes have been put in place in order that both the forestry inspector and the specialist archaeologist/ecologist may view a file at the same time; this is expected to lead to more timely communication with applicants where additional information is required.

Refinements have been recently introduced to the Department's mapping tool which may reduce the number of cases referred to archaeology. My officials have also issued a circular to registered foresters and other stakeholders encouraging the submission of Harvest Plan with tree felling applications; this will form part of the assessment itself, will be taken into account as part of the Appropriate Assessment process and could lead to a speedier assessment process.

Licence Applications

The following tables show the afforestation and forest road works licence applications received for the years indicated (*to 31st May 2019). This is the most accurate information available since the Forestry Act, 2014 was commenced in 2017, when the application process changed. Statistics for the period 2015/2016 are not readily available but will be supplied to the Deputy separately, however they are not comparable in that the environmental requirements, among other things, are now different.

Afforestation Applications

Year

Received (1)

Received & decided in that year (2)

Not available for decision at 31st December (3)

Available for decision at 31st December (4)

2017

1,409

828

514

67

2018

1,074

796

278

100

2019 *

409

109

N/A

N/A

Note: The table outlines decisions on applications received in the same year only; other decisions for previous periods also issued.

1. The total number of applications received in the year

2. The number of applications received and decided in that year.

3. The number of applications that were commenced in the year and were still with the agent or withdrawn and therefore unavailable for decision at 31st December.

4. The number of applications in available for decision on 31st December

Of the applications received in 2017:

- 72% of those that received a decision were within 100 days.

Similarly, for applications received in 2018:

- 57% of those that received a decision were decided within 100 days.

The Afforestation Grant and Premium Scheme is voluntary and applicants who receive approval to afforest are not obliged to plant. The conversion rates show that of the approved applications, less than 60% were actually planted.

Forest Road Works

Year

Total received

(1)

Received & decided in that year (2)

Not available for decision at 31st December (3)

Available for decision at 31st December (4)

2017

566

319

90

157

2018

728

288

98

342

2019 *

327

79

N/A

N/A

Note: The table outlines decisions on applications received in the same year only.

1. The total number of applications received in the year

2. The number of applications received and decided in that year.

3. The number of applications that were commenced in the year and were still with the agent or withdrawn and therefore unavailable for decision at 31st December.

4. The number of applications in available for decision on 31st December.

Of the applications received in 2017:

- 75% of those that received a decision were within 100 days.

Similarly, for applications received in 2018:

- 71% of those that received a decision were decided within 100 days.

Felling applications

Data on felling applications for 2017 - 2019 is as follows. Statistics for the period 2015/2016 are not readily available but will be supplied to the Deputy separately.

Year

Total received

Decisions Issued

2017

3,301

3,003

2018

5,969

3,603

2019 *

2,404

2,779

Felling licences can be obtained for a duration of up to 10 years. For this reason, applicants are now seeking one licence to cover several felling events scheduled for a number of years in the future. Previously, they would have sought several licences of shorter duration for each individual felling event.

The number of tree felling licence applications received up to the end of May 2019 has increased almost 93% on the same period in 2018 – 1,587 (2019) compared to 823 (2018). In turn, the number of licences issued has increased by 288% in the year to the end of May 2019 – 2,899 (2019); 747 (2018).