I propose to take Questions Nos. 329, 330 and 334 together.
There are currently 904 afforestation licence applications representing 7,400 hectares on hand in the Department and we are committed to dealing with these licences, along with felling and roads licences on hand.
The weekly statistics issued by the Department show clearly that there has been an increase in forestry licence output from mid-May with an average of 96 licences having been issued each week for the last six weeks. Last month was the highest month of the year so far with 411 licences issuing. It is not possible to say at this stage how many afforestation licences will issue in July.
I would like to assure the Deputy that, along with my colleague Minister of State Pippa Hackett who has overall responsibility for forestry, I remain committed to issuing 4,500 forestry licences this year, which is an increase of 75% on 2020.
To the 2nd July, 1,814 licences have already issued, with 115 licences issued last week. Of these 303 were afforestation licences, for 2,629ha. This is 7% up on 2020, in terms of the number of licences issued and an increase of 23% on the area licensed. The 4,500 licences issued will comprise of Afforestation, Forest Road and Felling licences.
Project Woodland, which was launched in February this year, has been set up with the objective of reviewing and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the forestry licensing system, as well as the creation of a shared national vision for forestry and the development of a new Forest Strategy.
Two working groups in particular are looking at the licensing situation. Working Group 1 is tasked with looking at the backlog. This Group has examined in detail the cases on hand and is producing specific recommendations for improving output, including a definition of the backlog, which will be brought to the Project Board for consideration. Working Group 4 is concentrating on licensing process improvement. A business analyst has commenced work on an end-to-end process review. In addition, proposals for a pre-application process and a planning grant are under development and will be submitted to the Project Board shortly. The Group is also actively considering how best to conduct a regulatory review of the licensing system.
While these initiatives are being developed, the Department continues to pursue continual improvement. We have recently reviewed the systems for the preparation of Appropriate Assessment Screening Determinations, Appropriate Assessment Reports and Appropriate Assessment Determinations. Improvements have been made to the system to optimise the time of the ecologists to concentrate on the ecology aspects of each application.
Currently, these improvements are only applied to private tree felling licence (TFL) applications, which has already yielded results with increased licences issued. The ecologists are working mostly on these felling applications in advance of the system being developed further to assist with forest road works and afforestation licence applications. These developments will take place over the coming weeks and I expect to see similar increases in afforestation licences issuing.
I believe that the framework now in place under Project Woodland, supported by my Department's commitment to continual improvement, will deliver on its objectives and I am hopeful that this will provide encouragement to farmers and landowners to go into forestry, or to realise the planting licences they have already received which comprises 5,500ha, and to avail of the attractive premiums available under the Department’s Schemes.