What exactly do forest owners want to see done to ease the licences gridlock?

The Irish forestry sector’s throughput system is currently “crippled” due to hold-ups in obtaining planting and felling licences, according to one prominent forestry owner.

Daragh Little, managing director of forestry at Veon, spoke to AgriLand to outline the key problems in the sector at present – and why the situation is worsening.

With 1,700 licences currently outstanding in the system, Little was asked, as a forest owner, what specifically should be dealt with in the short term to alleviate this issue?

Suggested solutions

In response to this, Little outlined three key aspects that need to be tackled by the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine:

What drives a lot of the delays is what’s called the screening process, where they ‘screen in’ and ‘screen out’ applications.

‘Screen in’ means they have to go to ecology to be addressed. ‘Screen out’ means they go down through the normal channels and the ecology division doesn’t need to see them.

Also Read: Forestry licence logjam: ‘All we’re meeting is more paperwork…and no decision’

That generally is much faster, the non-ecology line. The issue with the Forest Service right now is that they have screened in approximately 80% of the applications that have come in to them.

“Normal planning would be around 20%, so they’ve over-screened. Their precautionary principle is far too precautionary.

The first thing you do is you get professionals in to basically re-screen all the applications to weed out those that shouldn’t have been screened in the first instance. And then run them off through the normal channels.

Continuing, the managing directer noted that the second issue is to look at how complex the other sites are and try to stream them into two lots of less complex and more complex “but not to throw the more complex under the bus”.

Noting that the latter sites have to be dealt with through ecology, with Natural Impact Statements, Little said the key thing is to communicate to people to make sure they understand where their licence application is and what they can do about it.

“Thirdly, I would throw much more resources at this – right now they need about 20 ecologists to get through this.

Frankly speaking, they don’t have enough, and their own plan backs that up, because they’re still not getting through the backlog.

“They need to get into crisis mode themselves, and start throwing resources at this, because I don’t think they are throwing enough.”

Medium-term targets

Moving from the short-term to medium-term targets, Little stressed that the Department of Agriculture needs to put in place a “transparent system that people can rely upon”.

Noting that the Minister of State with responsibility for forestry, Pippa Hackett, recently proposed an online portal where people can see the progress of applications, the director said:

“That’s all well and good; but it must be backed up by a process that shows people where the application is now, what the next step is and when it’s going to get there.

“Thirdly, they need to get their people to understand what a timeline and what a deadline is, because they simply don’t know. That’s in the Forestry Act in relation to felling licences.”

‘Embarrassing’

Little underlined the importance of getting to a situation where people can be satisfied that, when they put applications into the system, “they will come out in a timely manner”.

“Whether the decision is good or bad, one way or another you’ll know in a period of time.

Clients are ringing us up and we’re getting the blame for stuff we have absolutely no control over; it’s a really bad situation for a professional services company to be in, to be saying to clients ‘I don’t know where your application is’. That’s embarrassing and it should not be happening.

Commenting on the licences issue, he added: “It is staggering how we have got to where we are, it really is absolutely staggering – and the Forest Service was told this – back in 2013, when the 2014 act was coming into play – that they were leaving it wide open. And here we are.

“The system is completely crippled because they didn’t look forward enough,” Little concluded.