I propose to take Questions Nos. 257 and 259 together.
In 2019, my Department commissioned an independent review of the licensing process, by Mr. James Mackinnon, CBE. His document, Review of Approval Processes for Afforestation in Ireland, was published in November 2019 and included 22 “Ways Forward” for the Department and industry stakeholders.
There is a commitment in the Programme for Government to implement these recommendations and my colleague, Minister Pippa Hackett, is considering the appointment of an independent chair to oversee the implementation of the actions in the Report. Furthermore, the Forestry Programme Implementation Group (FRIG), which comprises of relevant stakeholders, will monitor that implementation. A review of the FPIG is underway to ensure that it is balanced and representative and it is hoped that those invited to be members will fully engage with the work of the Group.
I accept the current changes to procedures are very significant and they have been challenging to implement such is the scope and breadth of them, which has unfortunately meant that there have been delays in issuing licences. It has taken substantial resources and effort to introduce a robust and workable system, which meets the legislative requirements, and I believe we now have that in place. A majority of my Department's licensing decisions are being confirmed at the Forestry Appeals Committee which gives confidence in these revised procedures.
My Department has a detailed project plan in place for dealing with the current backlog and new applications, which includes significant investment in extra resources required to deliver the plan. These resources are a combination of additional ecologists, forestry inspectors and administrative staff where required.
The project plan is a targeted, process-driven approach which prioritises files in a manner which will result in an increased number of licences being issued in the short-term and will deliver a return to expected timelines in the longer term. Applicants who have or are prepared to submit a Natura Impact Statement, where appropriate, will be prioritised.
A Project Management Board, with a dedicated Project Manager, is overseeing and monitoring delivery. There will be a continuous review of the process, in order to effect efficiencies. A communication plan to keep stakeholders fully and regularly informed of progress, with 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 only applications which have a realistic chance of being planted, to ensure all applications are of the required standard and quality, and to submit NISs in accordance with the guidance provided.
There is also a commitment under the Programme for Government to review the forestry appeals process to ensure that it is aligned with other comparable appeals processes. That is why a draft amendment to the Agriculture Appeals Act, 2001 is being introduced. The public consultation period for the draft Bill recently closed, with almost 9,000 submissions received. These submissions will inform the updated version of the Bill which will be presented to the Oireachtas. The introduction of these amendments will be accompanied by an on-line portal on which forestry licence applications and site details will be easily accessible to any interested party
I am more than aware that the current situation is challenging, but it is a temporary disruption which, when resolved, will make for a better, more sustainable and fit-for-purpose forestry licensing system for many years to come.