I propose to take Questions Nos. 901 and 907 together.
I am aware that there are currently delays to issuing forestry licences and I acknowledge that this is causing difficulties for some in the sector. The current licensing difficulties are as a result of the changes made to internal Appropriate Assessment Procedures (AAP). These were introduced in response to important Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) decisions and their subsequent interpretation by the Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC) and others. These changes are unavoidable and are largely beyond the control of my Department. As you know, my Department is the forestry licence consent authority and, since 2017, all licence applications are subject to a statutory public notification system.
The situation with regard to felling licences has significantly improved since the start of 2020. Since January, 649 felling licences were issued up to 8th May. These licences cover over 5,900 ha and a volume in excess of 1.6 million m3. My Department continues to issue new felling licences at an average rate of approximately 100,000 m3 per week.
In terms of afforestation licences, from January 2018 to the end of December 2019, licences have been issued for 4,000 ha that are available to plant. Again, since January 2020, 230 afforestation licences for 1,700 ha and 141 forest road licence for 50.7 km have issued.
I accept the current changes to procedures are very significant and significant resources have been devoted to introducing a robust and workable system, which meets the legislative requirements. My Department is now meeting those needs as follows:
- New forestry inspectors and additional administrative staff have been assigned to licensing. More forestry inspectors will be recruited in 2020.
- Two new ecologists have joined the Department ecology team, with four more to be appointed shortly.
- We have engaged external ecological expertise to help with the backlog of files. Four local ecologists have also been contract to provide extra support. Further, an ecology contract with 5 new ecologists is due to be signed very soon.
- Additional administrative staff have been assigned to the Agriculture Appeals Office to assist with the increased workload of the Forestry Appeals Committee.
- Three planning officers have been contracted in to work with the Forestry Appeals Committee.
- A specialist mapping expert has been assigned to forestry issues.
In conclusion, let me assure you that our long-term commitment to forestry is unwavering and that every effort is being made to resolve current issues. I acknowledge that the current situation is challenging, but it is a temporary disruption which, when resolved, will make for a better, more sustainable and fit-for-purpose forestry licensing system for many years to come.