Andrew Doyle T.D., Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, has issued a statement on the temporary delays in the issuing of forestry licences. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, as Ireland’s national forest authority, has overall responsibility for approving applications for tree-felling, afforestation and the construction of forest roads. There have been delays in the issuing of licences due to necessary changes in the procedures surrounding Appropriate Assessment, a requirement as part of the approvals process.
Minister Doyle said “I am fully aware of the delays in the issuing of licences for afforestation and felling. While licences continue to issue every week, this has not been at the rate that we would like to see. This has caused some disappointment to forest owners, many of whom I have met recently. I want to take this opportunity to provide an update on the ongoing work to reform the processes to ensure that this temporary disruption is resolved quickly as possible. I also want to reassure landowners that every effort is being made to improve on the delivery of licences to bring them back into line with the expected timelines for delivery of these”.
In approving licences, the Department must ensure that all projects are compatible with environmental sustainability and in compliance with EU and Irish law. Each application must undergo detailed scrutiny regarding its environmental suitability, including site inspections, statutory referrals, public consultation, and the application of procedures around Appropriate Assessment and Environmental Impact Assessment. Recent European Court of Justice and Irish law rulings relating to the protection of Natura sites, i.e. SACs and SPAs, have meant changes to this process, specifically in relation to the Appropriate Assessment procedure. More transparent and robust procedures are being introduced which will demonstrate the process by which the Department arrives at a final decision regarding whether or not a project will adversely affect the integrity of a Natura site, either individually or in combination with other plans and projects.
Notwithstanding the current delays, the Minister noted that the afforestation sector has approximately 3,200 more hectares of approved land this year which is available to plant. Similarly, notwithstanding recent delays, 2019 has actually been a record year for issuing of felling licences with 3,866 issued year to date which is an increase of 23% on the same period last year.
The Minister added “While the introduction of these new procedures involves some regrettable disruption in the short-term, we have no option but to reformat the licensing process. We have a responsibility to ensure that all forestry applications are scrutinised and held to the highest possible environmental standards. I believe that in the long run these changes will enhance forestry’s reputation for environmental sustainability and will make for a more responsive licensing system. The Government has tasked the forestry sector with delivering on some ambitious targets for forestry under the Climate Action Plan to 2030 and reforming the approvals process now will ensure that the process is fit for purpose in delivering these targets”.
Introducing this new system includes the recruitment of additional ecological expertise and changes in procedures for the Department’s forestry inspectorate. Last week, the Department advertised for additional ecologists and has engaged external ecological support, which will be supplemented in due course. DAFM Inspectors have already undergone training and will receive on-going support and training in delivering the new procedures. A categorisation of files affected by these requirements is also underway in order to best assess further action needed and by whom.
The Minister concluded by pointing out that he has also commissioned a consultant to review the Department’s processes and procedures on forestry applications and approvals similar to an exercise undertaken in Scotland. This report will be finalised by the end of November. It is expected that this comprehensive review, which has taken account of the views of a wide range of stakeholders, will provide further opportunities to make the licensing processes more effective and efficient going forward.