Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Urban Regeneration and Development Fund

I am delighted this matter is being taken in the last week of the Dáil session because a decision will have to be made quickly on this important development. It is an iconic development on the North Quays of Waterford. Anyone who is familiar with Waterford will know the South Quays is where most of the development is. The North Quays has been underdeveloped for a long number of years. It provides a tremendous opportunity for positive development and there is a plan to transform the North Quays that, in turn, will transform the heart of Waterford city but also the south-east region.

Investors are prepared to put hundreds of millions of euro on the table to make sure this project is delivered. It will involve a hotel, office accommodation, high-quality accommodation and retail. It must include, and hopefully will include, the relocation of the train station in Waterford city to the North Quays.

I am disappointed the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government is not here because he hosted a meeting last week in his office with all Oireachtas Members with the exception of myself. He took that decision because he said he was only going to meet with, as he put it, or as the local Fianna Fáil Deputy put it, representatives of the Government and those who support the Government. Of the five Oireachtas Members in Waterford, I was the only one not present at the meeting, not by choice, but because I was excluded from the meeting which was unfortunate.

Having said that, I raised this issue on the floor of the Dáíl with the Taoiseach several weeks ago and asked him to raise this with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and, indeed, with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. The funding for this project must come from the urban regeneration and development fund.

The Minister of State is from the south-east region and he will be aware of the iconic nature and importance of this development, not just for Waterford and the south-east region, but also the fact that the ask on the State side and the need for funding from the Government has been on the table for years. This development was put forward several years ago. It is a strategic development zone, SDZ, as the Minister of State will be aware. The ask from the Government side is more than €100 million. It is significant investment but it is obviously an investment that needs to happen if we are serious about Waterford being a gateway city and the driver of economic growth, which it can be, needs to be and is for the entire south-east region.

When will a decision be made to ensure all the funding which is necessary to deliver this project is granted by the Government? A letter of comfort was given to those Oireachtas Members who were at the meeting held by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government last week where he said the Cabinet will make a decision when it comes back in September. Will that decision be the entire quantum of money which is needed? The developers are looking for funding certainty. They have put an awful lot of work into the planning application, the design and into this project. It cannot be a missed opportunity. It is hugely important that this funding is forthcoming. Without that funding from the Government the project does not happen and it cannot be let slip.

Will the Minister of State who is present give a commitment that when the Cabinet discusses this issue, it is the full quantum of money that will be either agreed or not agreed, and that this project can have the funding certainty it needs?

I thank Deputy Cullinane for raising the matter. I am fully aware that it is an important project for the south-east region and not just for Waterford city.

The North Quays was the subject of an SDZ order made by Government recognising the social and economic importance of the site to the State, and designating the Waterford North Quays for mixed-use development, subject to the preparation of an SDZ planning scheme, which has been done.

The national planning framework, launched in February 2018 as part of Project Ireland 2040, includes objectives to achieve both more compact urban growth within Ireland's cities and the significant further development of Waterford city. The urban regeneration and development fund is a flagship element of Project Ireland 2040.

Under the stewardship of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, the fund was established to support more compact and sustainable urban development, through the regeneration and rejuvenation of Ireland's five cities and other large towns, in line with the objectives of the national planning framework and national development plan. This is to enable a greater proportion of residential and mixed-use development to be delivered within the existing built-up footprints of our cities and towns and to ensure that more parts of our urban areas can become attractive and vibrant places in which people choose to live and work, as well as invest in and visit.

As part of the first call for proposals under the URDF Waterford City and County Council submitted a bid for Exchequer grant funding in respect of a major multifaceted proposal for the North Quays in Waterford. It is intended that the proposed largely transport-focused infrastructural works will open up the North Quays site, making it more accessible, and ultimately supporting the achievement of the broader objectives of the SDZ planning scheme.

On 26 November 2018, the then Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government announced initial URDF supports of €100 million for a total of 88 projects across the country, including €6 million of initial support for the Waterford North Quays proposal. Furthermore, in June 2019, URDF support of €30 million was ring-fenced in respect of the advancement of the overall North Quays proposal, pending further clarification of the project detail.

The URDF support of the North Quays project, as with all other successful URDF proposals, is approved in principle subject to appropriate appraisal, and justification and advancement in accordance with the public spending code and other conditions appropriate to the approval of very high cost projects under Project Ireland 2040, including the requirements for a cost-benefit analysis of the project to be carried out.

Since June of last year our Department has been working with Waterford City and County Council with a view to assisting in its advancement and development of the appropriate appraisal of this high-value and complex project to meet the requirements of the public spending code. In that context, on 30 June the council submitted an updated economic and cost-benefit appraisal of its proposals, and this must now be considered by our Department in consultation with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform before a recommendation on further whole-project URDF support can be considered.

Our Department has already recouped €5.7 million in respect of costs incurred by Waterford City and County Council on the planning and development of this project, and further funding will be made available as the project advances through its various stages of development.

The Minister of State's response is a bit disappointing because there is nothing new in this that was not included in responses to parliamentary questions by anyone who has been raising this issue in recent years, except from the part stating that a new economic appraisal was submitted by the council which is now being evaluated. I do not know how many evaluations, economic or otherwise this project has had. I know there is deep frustration by those involved locally, including those on the council, that time and again this seems to be subject to economic appraisal, assessment and review. The people want delivery, and those looking to invest in this project in Waterford city want certainty that the funding will be forthcoming.

It does not even chime with what I call the letter of comfort that was given to Oireachtas Members from Waterford this week. It still states that only €30 million has been ring-fenced, which is welcome but a long way short of the overall quantum of money that is needed. I know that part of the transport element of the funding will come from elsewhere. However, between €65 million and €70 million will be required from the urban regeneration and development fund if this project is to go ahead.

I welcome that it references the transport element of it. I spoke to the Green Party leader, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on this. The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, knows the train station in Waterford as well as anyone else in this Chamber. It is in the wrong location. It would be fantastic and a game-changer if that train station was moved over to the North Quays. However, we do not need more reviews and appraisals; we need the money. Now is the time to show us the money and deliver this project to ensure that for once and for all Waterford and the south east get certainty rather than, time and again, announcements that are not followed through with the money that is necessary.

I agree with the Deputy entirely on the train station. I am very familiar with it and strategically its location is wrong for the future advancement of Waterford city.

The Waterford North Quays project is a very complex and high-cost project in a strategic development zone, SDZ. Therefore, it is critical that careful consideration is given to its planning and development, and the establishment of the correct combination of supports required to facilitate successful advancement and completion or the right blend of interventions that will contribute to the achievement of the broader objectives of the SDZ.

Following Waterford City and County Council's recent submission of an updated economic cost-benefit appraisal of its proposals, our Department can continue its work in consultation with colleagues in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on evaluating the council's justification of the proposed project composition cost, sequencing, and requested RDF funding support.

There has been a significantly changed environment in recent months and it is important that the robustness of the cost-benefit appraisal stands up from a public spending point of view. That is why we are ensuring we get the right blend here.

Water Supply

Ar an gcéad dul síos, gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle agus na daoine atá ag obair ina oifig for facilitating the selection of this Topical Issue matter.

We do not want to see another children's hospital saga. We in Tipperary are proud people and we are not anti-Dublin, but we think this project is daft. I thank Liam Minihan of Fight the Pipe campaign and I thank Independent councillor, Séamie Morris, and Emma Kennedy for her excellent report and analysis on this. Media reports have indicated that the cost of the project will exceed Irish Water's estimate of €1.3 billion in the national development plan and it is waiting for the tender document to come in.

I am disappointed that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government is not here. This is no disrespect to the Minister of State, and I wish him well in his new portfolio. As a Green Party Minister of State, I hope he will look at this and accept that it involves too much interruption to our landscape, going through people's lands, affecting the flora and fauna and all the different issues. He might get some of his colleagues in the Green Party who are serial objectors to object to this because it is daft.

The first thing that should be done is fix the leaky pipes. Of every litre of water that goes into the pipework in Dublin, 57% leaks before it gets to the houses or businesses. Some Third World countries, such as India, have had major investment in fixing leaks and they are able to do it, but we cannot do it in Ireland. I am told that Irish Water is all but bust. Many projects throughout the country, whether they be water and sewerage schemes or providing water supply to areas that need new borewells, cannot proceed. Irish Water has not got a cent. It was in serious financial difficulty even before the Covid crisis.

We are going into this project as we went into the children's hospital project - blindfolded, hands behind our backs, gagged and everything else. The original cost for the children's hospital was €400 million and it is now approaching €3 billion. The original cost for this project was €1.3 billion. I can guarantee it will not be done for €2 billion and to do what? - to pump water from Tipperary all the way to Dublin, through your county, a Cheann Comhairle.

There will be serious pressure on this new pipeline. I could walk inside the pipe which has an enormous diameter. Imagine the pressure and the valves unable to slow down that pressure as they feed into a faulty weak disintegrated pipe system in Dublin with old pipes, lead, asbestos and you name it. There will be water breaks all over the place. It will be like someone dropped some kind of a bomb on the city.

I appeal to the Minister of State to stop this madness before it goes ahead. I salute the people who are opposed to this, not because they are anti-Dublin. I come from Tipperary, a county rich in resources. We also have many borewells. The entire town of Clonmel is supplied by mountain streams and borewells. Every other town and village, and most farms and private houses are supplied by borewells. Dublin must be the same and as is Wicklow, which is not far out the road. There are plenty of resources there to get this water locally. It is a fantasy project by the previous Government and fantasies are not good. The Government will need to make a U-turn on this before it is too late.

Why does Irish Water not consider desalination of seawater? Surely the new Government can be innovative with its new ideas and green energies. It is telling us all to retrofit houses, and do this, that and everything else. Why does it not examine this? It should stop this pipe now. Compulsory purchase orders, CPOs, and notices to treat will be issued. The land will never be the same again. There are problems whenever there is that kind of major excavation of the land. It is fine when a road is made because the road is made compacted, but the pipe will always keep sinking through the land. There will be considerable damage to the flora and fauna, and to the rich heritage in the lands it goes through.

I appeal to the Minister of State to use his muscle in this Government and show cause and have a proper investigation, taking into account the Kennedy analysis.

I thank Deputy Mattie McGrath for putting his points so well. Since 1 January 2014, Irish Water has had statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local level. Irish Water as a single national water services authority takes a strategic, nationwide approach to asset planning and investment.

Existing water supply sources and infrastructure for the eastern and midlands region do not have the capacity or resilience to meet present or future requirements in a sustainable way. In the greater Dublin area, some 82% of the water supply comes from the River Liffey. Some 40% to 45% of the total volume of the Liffey is abstracted to meet water supply needs, which is unsustainable. The level of dependency on this one source also gives rise to real concerns regarding the security of the water supply for the region.

A significant new water source is needed. As well as securing a reliable supply for the greater Dublin area, Irish Water's proposals to supply the eastern and midlands region will enable the provision of treated water to communities in north Tipperary, Offaly, Laois, Westmeath, Kildare, Meath and Wicklow. It would represent the biggest investment in Ireland's water infrastructure in more than 60 years.

This major project is still at the pre-planning stage of development. Once planning is secured and design of the final scheme is complete, detailed costs for this project will be made available on completion of the tender process, in accordance with the public spending code.

A preliminary design project cost estimate, which will be an input to the cost-benefit analysis, is scheduled to be published in 2021. Irish Water will be required to outline its position on the project's funding model and how it will ensure value for money in its efficient, effective and timely delivery to my Department. Given the scale of the project, it will also require sign-off by Government at key stages of project development in accordance with the public spending code.

As background, I should state that Irish Water delivers its services in accordance with its statutory water services strategic plan, published in October 2015. This sets out a high-level strategy over 25 years to ensure the provision of clean and safe drinking water, the effective management of waste water, environmental protection and support for economic and social development. Beneath that plan, Irish Water's funding plan for the period from 2019 to 2024 sets out a multi-annual strategic funding requirement of €11 billion to 2024. This comprises a €6.1 billion investment in infrastructure and assets and €4.9 billion in operating costs. This significant multibillion euro investment is being made to ensure the continued operation, repair and upgrading of the country's water and wastewater infrastructure to support social and economic development across the State and continued care of the water environment. It is strategically important for the future development of the country. We cannot meet our housing needs. As was proven by the hosepipe bans earlier this year, a secure and safe supply of water is vital. This requires us to look at all options to provide water for the country.

I am disappointed that the Minister of State has not given a cast-iron guarantee that all avenues will be explored, given that he is a member of the Green Party. I will repeat that we are not anti-Dublin or anti-development but almost every town and village in my county is at capacity with regard to waste water treatment, although some of the major towns are okay. Many have water shortages during dry summers. It is not so dry this summer but we still had a hosepipe ban despite all the rain in February. This is, as I have described it, a fantasy project. It will cost too much money. In addition to putting pressure on pipes that are already leaky, causing extra leaks, there is also the matter of all kinds of unsavoury substances such as tar leaching and seeping back into the pipes while repairs are being done. This is reckless.

I am sure there are many hotels and private enterprises in Dublin city that have had boreholes in their back gardens and backyards for a half a century or more. It is not true that the Liffey is the only source we can use. We have borewells all over the country so why not have them here? There is also the reservoir out in Blessington. We should also look at desalinisation of our seawater. Many other countries do this.

Irish Water is penniless and broke because the Government decided to do away with water charges. I know the value of water and how much it costs to produce. We all accept that. This is a fantasy project and other projects will be set back by decades if it goes ahead. It is not too late to stop this. We let the children's hospital become the big black hole it is now. This will be a long black hole right from Tipperary through Offaly and Kildare and on to Dublin. It will destroy other projects for decades to come. I ask the Minister of State, as a member of the Green Party, to stop this madness which will have an effect on ecology, land masses, farmers and people who want to carry on their business uninterrupted.

The delivery of the Shannon water supply project is a key strategic investment priority for Irish Water under the National Development Plan 2018-2027. The cost of the project will be identified and updated throughout the project development process in line with the procedures of the new public spending code, which seeks to address some of the cost estimation issues that arose in respect of the children's hospital.

This project is needed to address the capacity issues in the region, to support jobs in the economy, to address climate change and to ensure the supply is fit for purpose and can withstand extreme weather such as droughts and storms. It will enable the provision of treated water to communities in north Tipperary, Offaly, Laois, Westmeath, Kildare, Meath and Wicklow in addition to Dublin.

I take on board the point Deputy Mattie McGrath made so well with regard to going after water that is unaccounted for. It is vital that significant investment is made in going after unaccounted-for water in the greater Dublin area. The ambition in that regard needs to be really significant. Having had conversations and discussions with Irish Water, I know it is also important to look at groundwater abstraction and sources of water other than rivers. This is, however, a strategically important project.

There will be plenty of opportunity for all views on the project to be heard as it is developed and undergoes the various consent procedures. There will be a public element and a public consultation. That is the correct and proper forum to voice the public's concerns and any other general issues associated with this key strategic project.

Insurance Industry

I raise a Topical Issue matter relating to the difficulties facing insurance policyholders with regard to claims arising from business interruption. I can speak of two serious cases that have been brought to my attention by local retailers in recent weeks - and I am sure there are many more nationally - in which claims under business interruption cover were refused despite very clear wording in the policy documents.

Our way of life changed earlier this year with the onset of Covid-19 but the Irish public and our entrepreneurs held firm and rose to the challenge. We witnessed Ireland's community spirit come to the fore. There is an old tradition of the meitheal in Mayo. This is a fondly cherished rural tradition of neighbours coming together to save hay, cut turf and help others in times of need. I speak of the meitheal tradition because the community knows that, in the long run, everyone benefits from working together. It would be wise for insurers engaging in delay tactics when dealing with business interruption claims to think on the issues long and hard as things may go against them.

Uncertainty and fear lay ahead when the integrity of our businesses was challenged. Naturally, small business owners up and down the country checked their insurance policies to see what was indemnified under business interruption cover and what exclusion clauses applied. Many breathed a sigh of relief on reading phrases in their policies which included very clear language about infectious diseases. It looked like the insurers would be there for them. There were phrases suggesting that, in the case of closure, businesses would be covered against loss of profits.

I am sorry, Ceann Comhairle. I have a headache. I apologise.

Not to worry. I think the Deputy's points are understood. I call on the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming. I believe this is the first chance we have had to engage with him since his appointment. I heartily congratulate him and wish him success in the role he has taken on.

Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank Deputy Dillon for raising this matter. In his contribution, he outlined the importance of the issue of insurance cover during the Covid-19 pandemic and the difficulties people are experiencing with many of the insurance companies upon which we have relied over many decades. This is an issue which is cropping up all over Ireland. He has highlighted some particular issues with regard to the retail sector. What he has said about towns in Mayo is reflected across every town, village and city in the country.

I am aware that there have been many concerns expressed about how the insurance industry is responding to the needs of its policyholders in these difficult times, including with regard to honouring business interruption claims. The Government has been fully engaged with the sector on insurance matters since taking up office and will continue to be so engaged. However, I have to be straight, fair and upfront; what the Government can do and what it cannot do is clear. Neither the Minister for Finance, myself as Minister of State with responsibility for insurance nor the Central Bank can direct or require that insurers cover particular claims, including those resulting from infectious diseases such as Covid-19. Furthermore, it is not a matter for the Government or Central Bank to adjudicate on the validity of such individual claims.

Having said that, whether a business can make a claim in respect of loss of earnings because of closure due to Covid-19 depends on the specifics of its policy.

I understand that many businesses do not routinely have infectious diseases covered as part of their policies. In addition, many of those with such cover only cater for a schedule of listed diseases, and if such diseases manifest themselves on or in the proximity of the insured premises. Even in the case where infectious diseases such as Covid-19 are covered, there may be other considerations that will influence the decision of an insurer to pay a claim or not. It is important therefore for businesses to engage directly with the insurance broker on this matter.

Where a business believes that an insurer has incorrectly rejected a claim, it should either consider referring the matter to the Financial Services Ombudsman, FSPO, for adjudication or, where the claim is in excess of the FSPO €3 million limit, it may wish to consider legal action. We know many small businesses would find that very difficult but I understand that this is already happening in a number of cases.

Notwithstanding what I said at the outset, the Government has engaged with the sector and we have made it clear that insurers should not attempt to reject business interruption claims on the basis of interpreting policies to their own advantage. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, following on from correspondence with Insurance Ireland in March, held a teleconference with it on 17 April where he reiterated that some insurers, by adopting a blanket rejection of all business interruption claims, were doing the industry significant reputational damage and were not treating customers fairly.

It should be noted that the Central Bank has also been directly engaging with insurers on business interruption claims and as a first step, wrote to the CEOs of all the major insurance companies in Ireland. The Department of Finance has kept in touch with the Central Bank on this matter and in a call last week, it indicated that it is doing everything within its power to ensure that insurers comply with their legal obligations in relation to business interruption. In this regard, it is undertaking a programme of supervision and engagement with the larger insurance firms to ascertain their approach to dealing with specific elements of Covid-19, including business interruption claims. The Central Bank has indicated that this is a very significant role for it.

The Deputy should also note that the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and I met earlier today with Insurance Ireland to discuss a range of insurance issues, and business interruption formed a significant part of the discussions.

I thank the Minister of State. Does Deputy Dillon wish to comment further or does he want to engage privately with the Minister?

I will continue. I thank the Minister for providing an update tonight for the business owners who genuinely feel let down by insurance products that they thought they could rely on. In any case, it remains the case that retailers continue to be distracted by something they feel should be straightforward and takes away from them getting their business operating to the best of their abilities in the new normal. They have adapted to the challenges. However, it is unfortunate that some of the responses I have seen to date from insurers of business owners make much less sense than the wording itself.

I know the Central Bank of Ireland is actively supervising insurance companies and the responses arising from Covid-19. It seems that there are cases where the ambiguity is not favourable to the customer and those cases still need to be answered. In addition, I would appreciate if the Minister of State could outline what engagement the Department has had with insurance companies since the outbreak of Covid-19 and if there has been any specific dialogue on business interruption cover.

I thank Deputy Dillon for coming back with a specific question about the action that has been taken. The programme for Government has highlighted this issue as a key matter to be dealt with by the incoming Government. Already, there has been a meeting involving four senior Cabinet Ministers and the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, and I with representatives of small businesses. We met face to face with Insurance Ireland today, which is the representative body of the insurance companies and we agreed that there will be a meeting in September with it and several Cabinet Ministers to discuss this issue.

There is a case ongoing with the Financial Conduct Authority in the UK on this exact point. We believe that due to the similarity in our legal systems and insurance policies this could have a significant impact when the matter is decided in the UK courts.

The Central Bank does have a role and it is examining the issue at the moment. From the outset, we considered this primarily as a business issue that needs to be dealt with based on a straightforward business approach. If people believe they had a proper policy, which specifically listed various diseases, this should be interpreted as broadly as possible.

Furthermore, I know it may be difficult for some businesses seeking to reopen when they have this hanging over them but I ask the Deputy to highlight to the businesses in his constituency that the Government has made a number of other supports available to the small businesses to which he referred in the July jobs stimulus. I ask the Deputy to engage with his constituents directly on the 50 other avenues that form part of the July stimulus which may help the businesses he is concerned about to get firmly back on their feet as quickly as possible, notwithstanding the fact that the insurance issue is an ongoing one that is not fully resolved to our satisfaction to date. I will keep in touch with the Deputy on this matter.

Forestry Sector

Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for the opportunity to raise this important issue on the floor of the Dáil. I take this opportunity to congratulate Deputy Calleary on his appointment as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and I wish him every success. As the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, is here as well I offer my congratulations to him and wish him well in his role also.

I raise the issue of the forestry sector. By and large, there is just one serial objector to a range of issues relating to forestry, from plantation, to felling and access roads for felling and that has brought the forestry industry and afforestation to a halt. We have heard many fine words about the need for further afforestation. I have had dealings with some companies that are trying to get planting licences, felling licences and road licences and they are at breaking point. The industry has almost been brought to a halt, as well as the ancillary industries that depend on afforestation. Many farmers were looking at planting earlier this year during the planting season but they have been affected as well.

I wish to bring a letter from one of the companies to the attention of the Dáil. It was in contact with me in connection with an application that was made by a private landowner who wanted to get approval for forestry in a townland in County Cork. The company has been experiencing a very difficult time in business due to the crisis in licensing within the Forestry Service. The company has currently approximately 134 afforestation applications totalling 11,035 ha., 30 forest road applications and more than 60 felling licence applications with the Forestry Service. Some of these files are with the Forestry Service since 2018. The Forestry Service currently has 1,800 files in the ecology department and 33 files are being referred to it every week. The Forestry Service is reported to be employing seven new ecologists and hiring new outside ecologists. The company has been advised by the Forestry Service that applications with ecology reports with Natura impact statements, NIS, will get priority within the Department, but we were informed this week that when the Forestry Service recruits seven ecologists the felling licence applications will get priority and leave people like my constituent waiting for approval without a timeframe for when he can expect to get his land planted. The company has spent over €20,000 on NIS reports, on the advice of the Forestry Service that applications with NIS reports would get priority. To date, the company has not received any approval of the files it submitted with NIS reports. It makes no sense to ask applicants to carry out these reports, sometimes at a cost of over €1,000, submit them to the Forestry Service and then wait for the overworked ecology department to examine every file, leading to further delay.

The company believes the best solution to the current difficulties in the Forestry Service is to recruit 15 outside ecologists for a six month period to clear the backlog of files awaiting approval.

That is a sensible suggestion and there should be an attempt made by the Department to get extra help because of the delay in getting these licences through the Department.

I thank Deputy Moynihan for raising this very important issue. Many Members of both Houses have been raising it with me. Along with the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, who has direct responsibility for forestry, I brought a memo to Government earlier this week proposing a number of initiatives for the forestry sector with a particular emphasis on licensing issues. These initiatives implement some of the commitments in the programme for Government on forestry. Their early consideration reflects the importance we attach to that sector's contribution to our rural economy and to the Government's environmental priorities. On foot of this memo the Government has approved the drafting of an amendment to the Agriculture Appeals Act 2001 to align the forestry licensing and appeals process in the planning process. We have agreed the announcement of a new scheme for the creation of native woodlands on State and other public lands. We have agreed the appointment of an independent chair, to be identified, to lead the implementation of the McKinnon report and we have agreed to develop a portal to help enhance public participation in forestry decision-making. We have identified as a priority the drafting of legislation to align the licensing and appeals process and we are keen to get all stakeholder views on this in advance of its consideration by the Oireachtas after the summer. This draft Bill will be published on Friday and we encourage engagement by all stakeholders and by the public with these proposals before their presentation to the Oireachtas.

My Department is the planning and consenting authority for forestry licensing. The commencement of the Forestry Act 2014 in May 2017 brought about significant changes in the consent process for forestry operations. Licences are required for afforestation, forest road construction and for tree felling. All licences must be issued in compliance with EU and national environmental legislation. The Act also made provision for third party submissions and established the forestry appeals committee. Recent case law from the Court of Justice of the European Union, CJEU, and its subsequent interpretation by the High Court, as well as decisions by the forestry appeals committee and others have required my Department to introduce new appropriate assessment procedures for forestry licensing. Appropriate assessment, AA, procedures are site-specific analyses required under the EU Habitats Directive and must be completed before a licence can be issued. The assessment is to judge whether the proposed forestry operation will significantly impact any designated Natura site.

The changes now in process are very significant but unavoidable and have led to delays in the issuing of licences, as Deputy Moynihan has described, because most files now require second stage appropriate assessment. To give the House an idea of the scale, my Department received some 6,000 licence applications in 2019 between felling, afforestation and roads. Felling licences are now valid for up to ten years and may cover several felling events such as thinning and clear-felling on the same plot. Landowners considering future operations have the opportunity of applying for a tree felling licence well in advance of any operation taking place. Afforestation licences are valid for three years.

My Department is intensively engaging with all relevant stakeholders on these issues and one such meeting took place this morning. I accept the current changes to procedures are very significant. Their scope and breadth is such that they have been challenging to implement. This has unfortunately meant that the current backlog and slowdown in licensing has arisen. It has taken substantial resources and effort to introduce a robust and workable system which meets the legislative requirements. I believe we now have that in place. A large majority of our licensing decisions are being confirmed at the forestry appeals committee, which gives confidence to these revised procedures.

I appreciate the work the Minister and his Department are doing to try to resolve these issues. We need to be very clear on the appeals process as well. There has to be a time limit on the appeals. I know that, as the Minister mentioned, the hope is to tie in the licensing process with the planning process. At the moment there is no clear guidance on how long an appeal will take if an objection is made to a licence. That has to go through the appeals process. We need clear guidance in the legislation the Minister is contemplating publishing this weekend as to time limit. If a decision made by the Department is being appealed by a third party it should then go to the independent appeals board to be heard. That has to take place. It should be very clearly enshrined in the legislation that it should take place within a month or six weeks of the application.

There are people who were looking to plant trees in the spring of this year on the books. The time has elapsed and planting is not justifiable during the summer months. The Minister must be very clear in the legislation that there is a month or a six-week timeframe to ensure an appeal is heard in a timely fashion. A point that has been made by the company that has been in contact with me is the lack of ecologists. The Minister must get ecologists into his Department and get the backlog cleared. The applications currently there need to be assessed and then at least a proper decision will be made to grant the application. There needs to be recruitment by the Minister's Department to ensure that takes place as quickly as possible.

I thank the Deputy once again for his suggestions. I am happy to confirm to him that we are in the process of appointing ecologists and we will have a number of new ecologists in place in the Department by the end of the month. We have a detailed project plan in place for dealing with the backlog and new applications which includes significant extra resources. As I said, these will include ecologists, forestry inspectors and administrative staff. The project plan is a targeted, process-driven approach which will prioritise files in a manner which will result in an increased number of licences being issued in the short term. It will also deliver a return to expected timelines in the longer term. The project plan is being presented to all stakeholders, as have the key performance indicators, KPIs, for our proposed output. A project management board with a dedicated project manager is overseeing and monitoring delivery. There will be a continuous review of the process. A communication plan to keep stakeholders fully and regularly involved with progress and a dedicated central resource to deal with queries is a key element of the project. While much of the success of the project plan lies with my Department stakeholders also need to engage with it. This will require a commitment from forestry companies to submit applications that are of the required standard and quality and submit NIS in accordance with the guidance.

I am more than aware that the current situation is challenging and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and I are treating this as a priority. However, the significant investment in resources, both financial and human, by my Department, the implementation of our project plan and the legislative reform will mean the current situation is a temporary disruption that when resolved will make for a better, more sustainable and fit for purpose forestry licensing system which will last for many years to come.

The Dáil adjourned at 11.39 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 30 July 2020.