An application for the Afforestation Grant and Premium Scheme was received for the person named in April this year. The assessment of the site takes in seven different SACs, two of which must be considered in-depth, due to the nature of the SAC and its proximity. The assessment of the application is on-going and is being in carried out in accordance with recently revised Appropriate Assessment Procedures (AAP) .
I acknowledge that changes made to internal Appropriate Assessment Procedures (AAP) has resulted in delays to many files. These are beyond my Department’s control as officials are obliged to implement changes to AAP that were required following important Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) decisions and their subsequent interpretation by the Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC) and others. All forestry licences issued by the Department undergo a legal consent process. Since 2017, all forestry licence applications received have been subject to a statutory public notification system and are subject to a statutory appeal system operated by the FAC.
Most appeals have been in connection with our Appropriate Assessment (AA) procedure. The Habitat Directive (Article 6.3) requires that where a plan or project is likely to have a significant effect on a Natura site, either individually or in-combination with other plans or projects, it must undergo an appropriate assessment of its implications for that Natura site.
Currently, we are amending the AA procedure in order to introduce a robust and workable system which will address the issues now faced. Introducing this system involves the recruitment of additional ecological expertise and changes in procedures for the forestry inspectorate. Last week, the Department advertised for ecologists and we also have access to external ecological support, which will be supplemented in due course. Inspectors have already undergone training and will receive appropriate support in delivering these new procedures; they are not on a work to rule. A categorisation of files affected by these requirements is also underway in order to best assess further action needed and by whom.
I am fully aware of the concerns of applicants, such as the person named, and other stakeholders in the sector, in relation to the AA process. My officials are in regular communication with stakeholders and they have been fully apprised of the issues involved and of my Department’s efforts to address them. They have also been advised of steps they can take to ensure that applications received are completed to an acceptable standard and to take account of any issues relating to sensitive habitats.