The perceived lack of political priority given to forestry is a major concern and State bodies are not as engaged in helping deliver the afforestation programme as they could and should be, a new report has found.
It has recommended fees for forestry appeals and for blockages in the licensing system to be urgently addressed.
The report was an external review of Ireland’s forestry licence approval process and was conducted by former senior planner with the Scottish government James Mackinnon CBE.
'Overburdened with paper'
The review found that forestry policy and practice in Ireland is overburdened with paper, much of it not written with users in mind.
“It is all too easy to provide an electronic link to some lengthy report, but that practice is by no means exclusive to the Department. The inclusion of the planting target in the Climate Action Plan has been welcomed, although concerns were expressed that tree planting might become exclusively focused on carbon sequestration with the wider benefits of woodland – economic, social, environmental, health and wellbeing – lost sight of,” it said.
It also said that significant hurdles remain if the Irish Government's planting target is to be met or, ideally, exceeded.
“The Department, together with Coillte, should explore ways of ensuring the viability of an initiative which offers an opportunity to increase, potentially significantly, the rate of new woodland creation which is essential if the target in the Climate Action Plan is to be met."
Mackinnon said that there are a number of actions that can be taken to raise the profile of forestry, including:Considering an elevated status for the minister responsible for forestry.Including forestry in the Department's name.Having the Taoiseach's Department represented on forestry programme implementation group.Ensuring the climate action delivery board acts where planting rates continue to falter.Using Taoiseach's speeches to promote the case for forestry.Providing a Taoiseach foreword to updated statement of forestry policy.
The current blockages within the licensing system have to be addressed as a matter of urgency, according to the review.
It said this will require a much more pro-active approach to casework management than appears to be the case at present.
Pre-application discussions must be introduced, it recommended.
“These discussions should focus on the matters that need to be addressed in licensing and related applications and the information required to properly inform decisions on potential impacts on various environmental receptors.
“Embedding pre-application meetings should result in consistently higher quality applications. This can be further enhanced by requiring an environment report (ER) to be submitted with applications.”
Rights of appeal
The report goes on to say that the case for placing third party rights of appeal on forestry on similar financial basis to planning is unarguable.
“Fees should be introduced as a matter of urgency for making a submission on an application and lodging an appeal. These should be in line with the comparable planning fees.”
Commenting on the report, Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture Andrew Doyle said the Government has set some ambitious targets for the forestry sector not least in the Climate Action Plan.
“I commissioned this review to ensure that collectively we are fit for purpose to help deliver these targets. I would like to thank James for his comprehensive report and for delivering it in such a timely fashion.
“I know that he met with a long list of industry stakeholders, the environmental pillar, Department staff and other interest groups during his time in Ireland. I am grateful for their time and constructive input which will no doubt add import and relevance of these findings.”
He encouraged all stakeholders to take the time to study this report carefully, adding that he and his Department will do likewise.
“It contains a number of important recommendations on which we all need to reflect. Implementation of the plan is now a priority. I propose to publish a detailed implementation plan early in January next after discussions with stakeholders on the forestry programme implementation group,” he said.
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