Thursday, 9 May 1996
Dáil Éireann Debate
6. Mr. Briscoe asked the Minister for the Environment the plans, if any, he has to address the problems caused by afforestation by a number of adjacent owners and by either a single owner or a number of owners over a period longer than three years in view of his announcement of 16 April 1996 in respect of controls for forestry. [9320/96]
14. Mr. Clohessy asked the Minister for the Environment if he intends to reduce the 200 hectare base required for planning permission in respect of forestry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6641/96]
55. Mr. Nealon asked the Minister for the Environment if his attention has been drawn to the fact that forests planted in close proximity to dwelling houses or trees can increase the danger of criminal attacks on elderly people living in isolated areas; the effects, if any, this will have regarding planning permission for afforestation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5398/96]
94. Mr. Dempsey asked the Minister for the Environment the plans, if any, he has to address the concerns of people regarding forestry that are not addressed in his recently announced regulations, namely forestry planted by more than one person or over a period of greater than three years. [9421/96]
It is Government policy to promote the development of a strong forestry sector which can contribute to sustainable development, bring economic benefits to the rural economy and have positive environmental and amenity aspects. Afforestation can also give rise to environmental problems, such as visual intrusion, acidification of water and rural isolation. To address these concerns, I recently announced a new package of measures relating to forestry development.
I have made regulations which substantially reduce the current threshold of 200 hectares at which planning permission and environmental impact assessment are required for afforestation projects. A new threshold of 70 hectares for initial afforestation will apply to all planting commencing on or after 1 October 1996. In addition, planning permission and environmental impact assessment will be required for cumulative afforestation, i.e., within 500 metres, by, or on behalf of, a single developer over a three-year period, where the afforestation would result in a total area planted exceeding 70 hectares. In considering environmental impact statements, planning authorities will have regard, inter alia, to the impact of proposed projects on dwellings.
I have also made arrangements with  my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry, that the forest service of his Department will introduce additional procedures for grantaided afforestation. From 1 May 1996, the forest service is to notify local authorities of all projects exceeding 25 hectares in respect of which grant applications are received. Additionally, local authorities are being asked to designate areas which they consider to be sensitive to forestry development for reasons such as the need to protect views and scenic areas, protection of the natural and archaeological heritage and the avoidance of rural isolation. Local authorities will also be notified by the forest service of all proposals, regardless of size for afforestation in these designated areas. Where a local authority is notified of a forestry grant application, any views given by the authority will be taken into account by the forest service in making its decision on any such application.
It is also the intention of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry to clarify and tighten the operation, and ensure enforcement, of the forestry guidelines which contain provisions on environmental controls for afforestation, including provisions on the appropriate distance of forestry from houses and roads.
Taken as a whole, the package of measures which I have outlined represents a very considerable development of the regulatory procedures applying to forestry development and I do not consider that it would be appropriate to introduce even more stringent provisions as this stage. My Department will, however, carefully monitor the effects of the new EIA and planning threshold, and the other procedures, and an overall review of the position will be conducted in three years' time.
I have also stated my belief that there is a case for removing the current exemption from planning permission enjoyed by afforestation which falls below the EIA threshold. Such a change would give greater flexibility in  imposing controls on forestry development than is possible under current legislation. I will, therefore, be considering appropriate provisions for amending legislation in the light of the experience gained through the non-statutory local authority notification system which I have introduced. Meantime, I believe that the measures which I have announced will be accepted as a reasonable and balanced approach, in the context of existing legislation, to addressing the legitimate environmental concerns which arise in the case of large-scale afforestation and in the case of smallerscale planting in sensitive areas.
Mr. Ellis: The Minister states that the new regulations will apply as and from October 1996. What action does he propose to take in regard to watercourses as it appears there is no direct statement regarding the distance from watercourses or the type of watercourses that will be considered? He said that afforestation can give rise to environmental problems such as visual intrusion and acidification which affects our streams and rivers. It is necessary to state clearly the distance from drains and watercourses that trees can be planted. Does he envisage that the regulations will be implemented with the full support of local authorities? Where the conditions are not complied with will local authorities have the same rights as under the ordinary planning legislation, namely, to stop work and seek restoration of the original facility as it might have existed?
Mr. Howlin: In regard to the matter of acidification, not all forestry projects cause or give rise to acidification. This depends on the type of plant and the type of soil in which the trees are planted. It is the job of the Environmental Protection Agency to monitor all our water quality. In the past three weeks I have launched the state of the environment report on water quality and every other aspect of the environment. It is a comprehensive statement of  environmental quality by the Environmental Protection Agency who will continue to monitor our water quality. We will take whatever remedial action is required to ensure that particular problems, such as acidification, are dealt with where they arise. It is not my intention to stipulate that trees cannot be planted within a certain proximity of a river or watercourse because that would be dependent on the type of tree to be planted and the type of soil in which it is planted.
Local authorities have been given a new power to determine if areas are suitable for forestry projects and their decisions will be passed on to the forestry service in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.
I do not wish to give the impression that all forestry projects are environmentally bad because, by and large, they are very good. We have one of the lowest rates of afforestation in the European Union and a very low rate compared with Scandinavia and other more densely populated countries. We want to increase the number of woodlands and I am anxious that a new range of native timbers and broad leaves are included in future projects. The new guidelines specify that all forestry projects should be ringed by broad leaf plantations so that the impression of a natural Irish forest is given from the roadside.
Under the regulations a new role by way of existing Statute has been carved out for local authorities. If, ultimately, I am required to introduce a new Statute law to deal with problems that cannot be dealt with under the regulations. I will examine the matter afresh.
Mr. Nealon: The new controls have not gone far enough. Areas much smaller than 70 hectares should be subject to full planning permission. The Minister has made some progress, but does he agree that there is not a clearcut provision in the new regulations which states that neighbours and other interested people should be alerted if planting, which can visually intrude and  isolate families, is proposed in an area? Does he agree this is a serious omission? Will he take steps to ensure that a minimum notice of planning permission, such as that required for house building, is inserted in the new regulations?
Mr. Howlin: I hold a strong view on the environmental aspects of afforestation but it is not shared uniformly by those involved in forestry. When these regulations were being drawn up my officials and I engaged in protracted discussions with forestry interests, not all of whom warmly welcome them. However, they are a major advance on the current provisions.
In the fullness of time normal planning provisions will probably apply to forestry projects but that will require the introduction of new primary legislation. I do not have a closed mind in that regard.
Mr. Ellis: I agree with Deputy Nealon. The Minister should introduce legislation specifying that two months' prior notice should be given when it is proposed to plant land. A major difficulty in our area is that many people do not discover planting is about to take place until the machinery starts the work and surrounding lands are devalued as a result.
The Minister referred to specific types of trees which are not suitable for planting. Will he make it mandatory that spruce or trees liable to produce acid are not planted within, say, 20 metres of a watercourse?
Mr. Howlin: The type of trees planted is primarily a matter for the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. The environmental impact and planning requirements come within my ambit of responsibility. I operate within current Statute and cannot make primary law by  way of regulation. I have an open mind in regard to full planning permission for forestry projects, but I want to see how these new proposals pan out. In particular, I want to see how local authorities react. Under the regulations I have signed into law, local authorities may designate areas as unsuitable for forestry. If it is felt that planting in a specific area would obliterate a scenic amenity or isolate houses the relevant local authority may designate the area as sensitive and not suitable for forestry projects. A balance can be struck between forestry projects that are essentially good and ones that isolate individual families or obstruct scenic views. The regulations I have introduced go a long way towards achieving that.
Mr. Nealon: It is pointless implementing good regulations if people are not notified when planting is proposed. Will the Minister introduce a system under which notice of planting must be given so that the local people can object to the council if it would cause isolation or obstruct views?
Mr. Howlin: I have answered the Deputy's question three times, but I will do so again. I do not have the power to apply normal planning permissions to forestry projects unless I introduce primary legislation. I have specified in the regulations that notification of proposed planting must be given to local authorities. Under the new powers in these regulations, local authorities can intervene on behalf of the people about whom Deputy Nealon is concerned. I have reduced the threshold from 200 to 70 hectares and I do not recall getting many questions about this until now. I have introduced radical new environmentally positive procedures and I want to see how they will work. If they do not have the necessary impact and projects continue to have a negative environmental impact, I will re-examine the regulations and consider introducing primary legislation.
Mr. Deasy: I acknowledge that afforestation is primarily a matter for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry, but I compliment the Minister for the Environment on his initiative. A threshold of 70 hectares is excessive and should be reduced considerably.
The Minister spoke about the necessity to protect views and scenic landscapes. Much existing forestry intrudes on that type of view. Has the Minister any intention of trying to solve that problem in areas where views of the sea and mountains are obliterated by trees? Also, the 70 hectare rule will not affect the man or woman who wishes to plant a single row of trees which may well block the view of a scenic area.
Another aspect the Minister might take on board relates to a health issue. In an area of my constituency a large family, whose children suffer severely from asthma, has had a forestry project planted right around their house. Medical opinion is that the children will suffer much more from pollen proliferation resulting from the planting of excess forestry in the area. I have probably caused Deputy Quill to sneeze by mentioning asthma, pollen, etc. I would like to hear the Minister's views on the medical problems which may be created by such plantations.
Mr. Howlin: In relation to existing plantations, there are no powers available to me to take the action the Deputy suggested. I can do nothing about damage — if that is the correct word — that has been done to date. Where there is a visual amenity to be protected, it is a matter for the local authority to designate an area as unsuitable for planting. That is the power I have given, rather than going to the absurd level of requiring an environmental impact assessment  for planting every tree. Some sort of balance has to be struck.
I did serve as Minister for Health for a period, but I do not regard myself as qualified to comment on particular health matters. Obviously I have great sympathy for anybody who is surrounded by trees and suffers from asthma or from the impact of being allergic to pollen. However, I have no comment to make about it.
Mr. Ellis: The Minister has indicated he is willing to consider introducing primary legislation if his regulations fail. Will it be necessary for county development plans to designate sensitive areas or will it be possible for the county councils to designate them on an ad hoc basis as necessary? As the Minister is probably aware, a number of counties are at present renewing their county development plans, and if such areas are not included it will cause problems and create a time lag. Are there any proposals with regard to conditions concerning the reafforestation of clear-felled land within a given period, because such areas are becoming a major eyesore up and down the country?
Mr. Howlin: I intend to issue guidelines on designation which will go to every local authority. Designation will not necessarily be part of current plans. If that is not the legal position I will revert to the Deputy, but it is my understanding that that is the case.
Mr. Ellis: The second part of my question related to clear-felled land being left unplanted for a rather long time mainly due to the fact that Coillte gets the benefit of the extra premiums on virgin land which it does not get for land that has already been clear-felled.
Mr. Howlin: The Deputy is straying directly into the area of responsibility of my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry. Whatever experience I had in Health, I have none in that area.
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