I thank the Chairman and members. To clarify one point, Mr. O’Doherty is not present because I had understood from the communication I received from the secretariat that there could only be three of us. I just want to make that clear. I am happy to be accountable to this committee at any time and I want to make that clear too. I will quickly run through the opening statement and we will be as helpful as we can after that.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to update the committee on matters relating to forestry. I know the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, also updated it last month and that it receives our weekly updates on licensing output.
I want to start with licensing. The committee will be aware that two judicial decisions, People over Wind and Peter Sweetman v. Coillte Teoranta, in 2018, and The Heather Hill Management Company CLG v. An Bord Pleanála, in 2019, changed the manner in which licence applications had to be processed in the most profound way. The net result of these judgments was that approximately 80% of licence applications had to be screened in for a comprehensive ecological assessment compared with just 2% before that. At the time, the Department was simply not set up for that volume of assessments.
In addition, the number of appeals against licensing determinations exploded. It went from 21 in 2017, to 150 in 2018, to 321 in 2019 and it peaked at 582 in 2020. For a period, virtually every Coillte licence was being appealed. Dealing with this volume of appeals was hugely time-consuming for staff at a time when the system was struggling to deal with licence applications. Equally, the appeals structures we had established were not designed to deal with these kinds of volumes.
This combination of events, combined with a licensing system that was never designed to cope with such a sudden and significant change in the number of appropriate assessments and appeals, led to a significant backlog in licence applications. Responding to these pressures has not been easy. The frustration of those in the industry, of those in nurseries trying to sell stock, of forestry companies and farmers trying to get licences to plant, thin and fell trees, and of sawmills trying to get timber for processing, is perfectly understandable. In framing its response, the Department has been acutely aware of the pressures on these people. However, it is also aware of its obligations to all citizens to ensure that its systems and processes are compliant with the legal framework established to protect the environment, and to ensure that citizens have the right to the kind of public engagement envisaged under EU law and the Aarhus Convention. In her report on the implementation of the Mackinnon report on forestry, Ms Jo O’Hara said: “Stakeholders from across the spectrum are not fully persuaded that the current interpretations of the European Directives as they apply to forestry are correct - but for a range of different reasons”. Therefore, for every person out there who thinks the Department is excessive in its application of environmental regulation when it comes to forestry, there is someone else who thinks the opposite.
This is how the Department has responded to date. In regard to appeals, we introduced primary legislation to align the forestry appeals system with the planning system. The legislation complied with the Aarhus Convention but introduced fees for appeals and submissions, allowed for oral hearings, and allowed the forestry appeals committee to subdivide so it could hear more appeals.
The system is working much more effectively now. The forestry appeals committee has approximately 50 outstanding appeals to hear, which is considerable progress when one considers it once had almost 1,000 such cases on its books. It is now on track to meet its commitment to a two-month turnaround for any new appeal received.
On licensing, we have significantly increased the resources in our forestry divisions. The number of ecologists has increased from one in 2018 to 27. The number of forestry inspectors has increased from 40 in 2020 to 61 now and we have a system that is capable of issuing more than 100 licences a week. In July the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, wrote to the committee to explain there would be a significant but temporary fall-off in the number of licences issued in July and August. This was because a new statutory instrument introduced by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage in late June required us to introduce an additional 30-day consultation period between the completion of an appropriate assessment report and the issue of a final appropriate assessment determination.
This meant appropriate assessment reports could not proceed to determination, new procedures had to be developed, some applications had to be manually examined to redact information that would, if published, have breached general data protection regulation, GDPR, rules and documents had to be input into the forestry licence viewer for second stage public consultation. All of this was unfortunate but unavoidable. That second period of consultation is built into our system now and we have resumed normal service, with 136 licences issued last week and 110 issued the week before. While we expect a high level of output to continue, of course it will not be the same every week. However, the administrative burden associated with this process was greater than anticipated. We lost eight weeks of high output as a result of this development. It will have some impact on our ambition to issue 4,500 licences this year but we will continue to focus our efforts on issuing licences at a high rate on a consistent basis for the rest of the year.
I am aware there has been some concern expressed recently at the pace at which afforestation licences are issuing; the Chairman has mentioned it himself. The Department has taken immediate steps to rectify this by dedicating additional resources specifically to afforestation. This includes a team of ten ecologists that now works specifically on afforestation. Our aim is to issue more of these licences in the run-up to the planting season this autumn. This will add to the 5,700 ha already available to the sector. As always, we encourage all landowners to proceed with that licence.
The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, has established Project Woodland as a collaborative project, with working groups representative of stakeholders looking at the backlog, reviewing licensing processes, developing a vision for the forestry sector that citizens, communities and farmers can get behind and looking at the Department’s organisational and administrative structures. In the context of that exercise, the Department has taken on a full-time external project manager to manage the project. It has taken on a systems analyst to examine and make recommendations about the way we do business and the IT systems underpinning our approach. It is procuring an end-to-end regulatory and process review sought by the working groups. This review will examine the EU and national legal framework, will examine the licensing regime in comparable member states and will make recommendations. The review group will work closely with the systems analyst and engage with the working groups in this regard. As we are now in a position to shortlist a preferred bidder, this is at a very advanced stage. We are developing a proposal for a grant to contribute to the cost of environmental reports for applicants, which we will put to the working groups shortly. It is looking at how it can develop a pre-application consultation, again on foot of a request from the working groups, and is facilitating a public consultation on the development of a vision for the forestry sector that will feed into the new forestry strategy to be developed next year.
In the meantime, the Department is working with companies to improve the quality of information provided with licence applications. Companies have received individual feedback on felling licences and we conducted the same exercise for our forest roads. Good quality responses are being received from the forestry companies. It is important that this continues and we will continue to play our part in ensuring that we make clear the type and quality of information we require. This has been key to increasing output recently and will remain the case. This is even more important for afforestation applications where the regulatory questions can be more complex and rely on detailed assessments from the applicant.
Forestry can provide a really important range of societal benefits; from a climate change and biodiversity perspective, from a public amenity perspective and from a rural and economic development perspective, which is critically important. Building a vision for the sector around which all strands of society and public opinion can coalesce will be an essential element in developing an effective strategy for the next ten years. We need to rebuild confidence in the licensing system and that there are immediate and more strategic imperatives that make that critical. We are working hard to make that happen. I am confident we are making progress. I thank members for their attention.
I wish to address one thing the Chairman said at the outset, which I have seen in various dispatches, about the facility to increase the number of licences issued in the week immediately preceding a committee. I wish that were true because if it were, it would mean we could just turn on the tap and issue increased numbers of licences. If we could do that we would just keep the tap on all the time, to be frank. However, it is just not the case. It would be such an obviously transparent tactic it would be ridiculous. We do not do that. The licences issued in the past two weeks are the fruit of work that has gone on over the past three or four weeks. We cannot just press a button and increase the number of licences. I just wish to be clear about that.