I propose to take Questions Nos. 1001 and 1002 together.
I fully recognise and appreciate the impact the current forestry licencing delays are having on the sector. The targets for the sector's needs are not measured in numbers of licences but in the overall targets for each category, namely:
- Afforestation: 8,000 hectares as set out in the Climate Action Plan
- Roads: 125km as set out in the Climate Action plan
- Felling: 4million m3 as set out in COFORD's Roundwood Forecast
My Department issued 2,593 licences in 2020 representing 4,365ha of afforestation, over 5 million cubic metres of timber for felliing and 131km of forest roads. It is my immediate priority to increase the number of licences issued.
The Deputy will be aware of the delays caused by changes to the licensing system, which means that a significant number of cases now need ecological input to comply with environmental requirements. We are tackling these delays by means of a systematic project plan. We have invested heavily in resources including the recruitment of additional ecologists, forestry inspectorate and administrative staff, with extra resources to be added in 2021. This has already resulted in an increase in the number of licences issued, and the last quarter of 2020 saw the highest number of licences issued last year. In fact, the number of licences issued in January was the highest number issued in a single month, 349, since July 2019.
Along with Minister of State, Senator Pippa Hackett, who is responsible for forestry, it is my intention to increase the number of licences issued to 4,500 in 2021 which would be an increase of 74% on 2020. We also plan to fill the Coillte felling requirement for 2022 by October and to clear the backlog of files currently with ecology by the end of the year. Ultimately, the aim is to meet the objective of determining a felling licence within four months of receipt, as set out in the Forestry Act 2014 and to achieve the 18 week timeframe for other approvals as set out in the Farmers Charter.
We have also implemented changes to the functioning of the FAC and acted quickly to propose and implement the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act. I have significantly resourced the FAC and four appeals committees are now set up and hearing appeals. The FAC is now hearing an average of 60 licences per month representing an increase of 150%. This increase in output means that applicants are being given certainty in terms of whether they may proceed with their licence. The FAC in consultation with the Agriculture Appeals Office is currently reviewing ways in which greater efficiency can be achieved across the four divisions of the FAC.
I would like to reiterate my commitment to supporting the forest sector and to building on the recent progress, so that a continual improvement in delivery is achieved.