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Cutting down trees without permission: law and legislation

Trees are incredibly important in so many ways and decisions to cut them down should not be taken lightly. Permission should always be sought before removing trees outside gardens and several different tree protection and preservation laws are in place to make sure this happens.

The value of a tree

As well as those in woods, trees in parks, gardens and on streets make a considerable contribution to the landscape. Trees outside of woods are an important resource to species in areas with little woodland cover, acting as a refuge in urban areas and on agricultural land. Where there is much more woodland cover, trees act as natural corridors between wooded areas. They also create biodiversity hotspots and are home to hundreds of different species, for example over 500 species are known to associate with oak trees. As well as having such an impact on wildlife and society, trees have a valuable role in carbon sequestration and storage.

Cutting down, uprooting or wilfully destroying a tree without permission is an offence (Photo: Darren Heaps/WTML)
Cutting down, uprooting or wilfully destroying a tree without permission is an offence (Photo: Darren Heaps/WTML)

Felling

Where a tree must be felled, it may be the case that a felling licence is needed. It is an offence for anyone to fell a tree, or treed area over 5 cubic metres, without one. However, there are exemptions where a licence is not needed, detailed on the Forestry Commission website. Conditions are set when a felling licence is issued, usually around having the area restocked and trees maintained for a period of time. The Forestry Commission discusses this condition with the applicant before the licence is issued. Licences for the thinning of woodland are not issued with a restocking condition. Advice from the Forestry Commission or relevant government department should always be sought. In Northern Ireland, licences need to be obtained from the Forest Service via the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

Possible penalties and fines

Cutting down, uprooting or wilfully destroying a tree that is subject to a Tree Preservation Order (TPO), is in a conservation area, or is over 5 cubic metres in volume is an offence if permission has not been granted, as is topping, lopping or wilfully damaging a tree in a way that is likely to permanently damage or destroy it. Those who damage or carry out work on a tree without permission may be fined up to £20,000. Serious offences may be committed to trial in the Crown Court where, if found guilty, an unlimited fine can be given. A prosecution may also be sought for felling without a felling licence. It is also possible for a notice to be given to replace any protected trees that have been destroyed. In Northern Ireland, the fine can be unlimited depending on the offence. When determining the fine, the court considers the financial benefit that has accrued or is likely to accrue due to the offence.

Protection through the planning system

Each devolved nation has developed its own planning policies and regulations to protect our trees from inappropriate felling. For example, Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage and Natural Resources Wales identify and protect Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), while in Northern Ireland an SSSI is known as an ASSI (Area of Special Scientific Interest) and is designated by the Northern Ireland Environmental Agency.

Formal conservation designations of an area can be made due to flora, fauna, geological or physiological features, or a particularly rare species. These areas are often home to ancient woodland or ancient trees. Permission is needed from the designated body for work to be done on the land unless there is an emergency. Surveys should be undertaken to assess the ecological value and potential damage that may occur, both during the work and once it has been completed. This includes any damage that may occur to trees.

Sites of Special Scientific Interest, such as Clanger Wood in Wiltshire, are protected by the planning system (Photo: Paul Glendell/WTML)
Sites of Special Scientific Interest, such as Clanger Wood in Wiltshire, are protected by the planning system (Photo: Paul Glendell/WTML)

Conservation areas

Conservation areas can be designated where there is special architectural or historic interest. This includes the character or appearance of buildings, landscape and public areas that are of special interest. The local planning authority must be notified of any planned work to a tree within a conservation area six weeks in advance so that it can be determined whether or how the work should take place, as well as if another form of protection is needed, such as a Tree Preservation Order. A notice period is not needed if the work is cutting down, topping, lopping or uprooting a tree with a diameter that does not exceed 75mm, or if it involves cutting down or uprooting a tree whose diameter does not exceed 100 mm for the purpose of improving the growth of another tree, for example tree thinning. If you need to carry out any such work, you should always check with your local council first.

Tree Preservation Orders (TPO)

A TPO is an order made by a local council to protect specific trees, groups of trees, or whole woodland areas. They can be put in place in response to a request from a member of the public and prohibit the cutting down, topping, lopping, uprooting, damage and destruction of trees without consent. Typically, the amenity value and nature of the threat to the trees or woods are assessed using several criteria, for example whether it is visible or accessible to the public. The impact of its loss on the local environment, its size and form, rarity, cultural or historic value, contribution to landscape, and other factors such as nature conservation and climate change can also be considered. Once a TPO is in place it is the landowner, rather than the local planning authority, that is responsible for the safety and condition of the tree and any potential damage it may cause.

If a tree is protected by a TPO, an application must be submitted before it can be felled or managed. The application has a consultation period, which is the perfect time for local people to contact the council and submit any objections.

How to protect a tree

If you are concerned about a tree, group of trees or woodland in your area and would like to protect them through the TPO programme, contact the tree officer (or equivalent) at your local council stating why you would like to protect them. A temporary six month TPO can be put into place and any objections must be within 28 days of this; after this time the TPO can be made permanent.

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