17 August 2020
The public’s ability to appeal forestry decisions is compromised in a new Draft Heads of Bill, environmental NGOs have warned.
The Environmental Pillar, a coalition of 28 environmental groups, wrote to Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity Pippa Hackett last week and urged her to reconsider the current consultation process around the Draft Agriculture Appeals (Amendment) Bill 2020.
The consultation opened on the Friday of the August Bank Holiday weekend and runs for 28 days, during which the Oireachtas is in recess.
The time period prevents “effective engagement” of the public, the Pillar said, and limits the ability to engage with elected representatives on the matter.
“A crucial safety valve mechanism”
The right to appeal decisions that affect the environment and local communities is a “crucial safety valve mechanism”, the Environmental Pillar stressed, and one that is compromised by the terms of the Draft Heads of Bill.
The Bill, if passed, would restrict who has the right to appeal such decisions and it gives the relevant Minister the power to impose fees for appeals and limits environmental NGOs rights to appeal, according to the Pillar.
The document also lists restrictive criteria for qualifying as an environmental NGO and establishes a, “new degree of control and influence over the Forestry Appeals Committee and its operation”, the environmental coalition went on to say.
The potential implication of the appeal fees would also present their own financial barrier, as individuals and groups in counties with 70 to over 100 afforestation applications a year, “could be looking at paying out appeal fees of over €15,000 to €27,540”, according to IEN Environmental Law Officer Attracta Uí Bhroin.
A number of steps could be taken if Minister Hackett were to reconsider her approach, which according to Environmental Pillar spokesperson Andrew St Ledger would include, “developing a new overall programme for forestry, with a reformed grant system to support that, and a compliant and effective decision-making system”.
If implemented, these measures would then ensure that appeals would be “less needed”, Mr. St Ledger added.
Dr. Elaine McGoff of An Taisce found the Draft Heads of Bill to be “very disappointing” and referred to the appeal restriction and lack of focus on improving the forestry system itself as “backwards”.
“This would mean that the problematic decisions will continue to be made, but far fewer people will be in a position to challenge them”, Dr. McGoff said.
Taking to Twitter to address the Pillar’s concerns, Minister Hackett said that “no one will be prevented from making a submission or appeal on forestry licensing” and stated she would be revising the membership of the Forestry Programme Implementation Group.
Dr. Elaine McGoff responded saying, “with all due respect Minister this is not what your Bill says,” and noted that the Bill would introduce the concept of a “relevant person” and propose strict criteria for who would qualify as an environmental body.
“Anyone falling outside of that would indeed be prevented from taking an appeal,” she added.