I am aware of the establishment of the Social Economic Environmental Forestry Association of Ireland (SEEFA) and of their requests in terms of Irish forestry.
Let me say how seriously both myself and Minister of State Pippa Hackett, who has overall responsibility for the sector, take the forestry licensing issue. Significant time and resources continue to be devoted to dealing with the backlog and this is beginning to have the desired effect.
We have issued on average 118 licences per week in the last 12 weeks. This means that licences are issuing at nearly double the rate of applications received during this period and every week means a net reduction in the number of licences on hand. I remain confident that we will reach our target of 4,000 licences this year, having now issued 3,500 licences to 19th November.
While we are moving in the right direction, it is acknowledged that we must sustain and increase this momentum in order to address the backlog of licences on hand. As regards felling licences, we have issued over 830 private felling licences. In terms of roads, to date (19th November), the Department has issued 581 forest road licences for 234 km of roads. This is the largest amount by length issued in the last five years and exceeds our target of 125km for the year as set down in the Climate Action Plan.
It is the case that afforestation licences have not issued at the expected rate, we are addressing that and now have 10 ecologists dedicated to afforestation. We intend to increase this number by reallocating resources and recruiting additional ecologists.
We are also streamlining our processes in the afforestation area and we should begin to see an increase in the number of afforestation licences issuing.
SEEFA has asked for full implementation of the Mackinnon report within a defined timeframe. Project Woodland, as you are aware, is our framework for the delivery of the Mackinnon Report and is well underway. Members of SEEFA are also members of Project Woodland working groups and are contributing to the important work being carried by these Groups.
I am pleased to report that substantial work has been undertaken by all Working Groups and the Project Board of Project Woodland, with regular meetings held resulting in a high level of output in both terms of quality and quantity. The Project Board, published its second interim report on the 29th October, which updates on progress to date and is available at:
Of particular relevance to licensing is the external regulatory review. My Department has placed a contract for the regulatory review with report due by end February, 2022. It will review the existing statutory framework for the licensing of forestry activities in relation to environmental and public participation obligations in order that practical advice can be provided to the Department on how to work more efficiently within the existing legal framework.
In addition, an independent Systems Analyst is conducting an end-to-end process review with a view to licensing process improvement has recently completed an interim report on this work.
There has been significant work carried out on all other aspects of Project Woodland and some of these, along with the process and regulatory review, will inform the setting of definitive timelines for the delivery of forestry licences which has been raised by SEEFA. These include:
- A pilot project for pre-application discussions.
- Payment of an Environmental Planning Grant.
- A new Customer Charter for forestry.
- A Communication Plan that assists in conveying the multi-functional benefits of forestry.
- A review of the organisational structure of forestry within my Department.
- Commission of a Training Needs analysis.
- Definition of the backlog and associated dashboards.
- Actions relating to reduction of the backlog.
Of note also is that the regulatory review will consider the question of statutory timelines for the issuing of licences.
Specifically in terms of the immediate introduction of the environmental planning grant which has been requested by SEEFA, this proposal is currently under consideration by Working Group 4.
Other important work underway under Project Woodland is an inclusive and extensive public consultation on a shared national vision for a new Forest Strategy.
This has already commenced with a community engagement study being carried out by Irish Rural Link and a public attitudes survey taking place next week, with plans for deliberative dialogue and engagement with young people in the first quarter of 2022.
In respect of the integration of forestry and the next CAP, as outlined in the draft interventions that have been published by my Department, several tree planting measures have been proposed to be included in the CAP Strategic Plan.
Due to the long-term nature of forestry, it is not proposed to include forest planting measures in the new CAP measures, but a separate Forestry Programme which will be the successor of the current Forestry Programme 2014-2020 (extended to end 2022) will be developed.
A consultation on the draft interventions of the CAP Strategic Plan was conducted in August and September this year and I would like to thank all stakeholders for the submission of proposals on the further integration of tree and forest planting initiatives in the CAP Strategic Plan.
With the publication of the draft Environmental report on the draft CSP, stakeholders have a further opportunity to express their views on the CSP up to 8th December, 2021.
The planting of trees has the potential to play a significant part in our environmental priorities especially water quality, biodiversity and climate.
We remain committed to integration between the new Forest Strategy and the next CSP to ensure that measures in both will complement each other and lead to increased levels of tree planting. In support of this, it is worth noting that under the CSP, direct payments remain eligible to be made on areas afforested.
In conclusion, I recognise the momentum and progress made under Project Woodland and the increased momentum in terms of licences issued. I would also like to reiterate my commitment and that of Minister of State Hackett in ensuring that we maintain and improve on our licence delivery for the benefit of the sector, and that we work towards creating a shared national vision for forestry for the benefit of society as a whole.