There is something truly bizarre going on in our forestry sector – and it was highlighted very strongly during the week, when those involved in forestry protested outside the Dáil.
In case you reckon controversy over forestry licences isn’t really going to impact on you, I would recommend you check out the price of timber these days.
Timber for the construction industry has shot up so much it has been estimated to add €15,000 to the cost of constructing a new home in Ireland.
The really bizarre bit is that we are importing ship loads of timber from Scotland and elsewhere at huge prices – because those involved in the industry here cannot get licences to plant, trim or harvest the timber they have already grown.
We are importing expensive timber during a housing crisis, apparently because of delays at the Department of Agriculture in processing licence applications.
Well, that’s the one-way narrative portrayed last week by the industry. The reality is a little more nuanced.
This isn’t just an inefficient civil service story, but a tale about the implementation of an appeals mechanism introduced in law back in 2017.
Since then, anybody has the right to file an appeal to the Forestry Appeals Committee. The number of appeals has rocketed since the legislation was introduced. The total number of appeals received in 2017 and 2018 combined was 231.
In 2019 it hit 489 in respect of 311 licences. Last year it was closer to 700 appeals.
In many cases these appeals are about the wider environmental impacts that forestry could have. An EU Habitats Directive has also brought in further checks to the licensing process, which has added at least another 30 days.
However, the backlog for licences is running at close to two years in some cases.
The Government has moved to try and improve the situation by introducing new rules to streamline the process, which reduce the grounds on which appeals can be taken.
According to a report conducted by industry specialist Jim MacKinnon in late 2019, the appeals were almost exclusively from third parties and a decision on a licence can affect multiple appeals.
“Leitrim accounts for 15pc of appeals, while one individual appealed nearly 20pc of decisions,” the report said.
But rather than see a multitude of appeals as just negative and time-wasting, the figures suggest many of them have reasonable grounds, based on the rules that apply.
For example, the committee set aside licence decisions in 39 of the 74 appeals cases decided between the end of October 2020 and December 18, 2020, according to figures compiled by TheJournal.ie.
There are clearly underlying problems in the sector which are more nuanced and complicated than there simply being not enough pen pushers in the Department processing forestry licences.
Some of those issues were discussed in the MacKinnon report.
When comparing the industry in Ireland to Scotland, he found that pre-application consultation was very much the exception here, because of perceived tensions between the inspectorate’s enabling and regulatory roles.
A higher political priority has been given to the forestry programme in Scotland. He referred to “a widely perceived cultural antipathy, arguably resistance, to forestry from many farmers and increasingly some rural communities, which is not replicated to the same extent in Scotland.”
In Scotland, the conversion rate of licence approval to planting is over 90pc. In Ireland it was just 64pc in 2019.
The MacKinnon report also talked about a lack of support across various state bodies in Ireland, compared to a more unified approach in Scotland.
The Irish Farmers’ Association wants a one-off amnesty on licensing, which would mean those still awaiting a licence to trim or harvest or build a road for timber access could just go ahead.
Given the additional costs for everybody who ends up using timber – whether for DIY, house-building or anything – it is a tempting suggestion. But given the high percentage of licence appeals that are actually upheld, there is also a case for ensuring the industry gets more of what it is doing right.
Perhaps some parts of the country, most notably Leitrim, have simply reached saturation point with these kinds of trees which cover nearly 20pc of the county’s landmass.
Importing costly timber when perfectly good timber is standing in the ground at home is economic madness. But this is an industry and a regulatory process that still has some improving of its own to do.