Ultimate guide to trees and tree preservation orders

Throughout the ages, trees have been hugely important to mankind, providing shelter, firewood, building materials and food, as well as having cultural and religious importance to civilizations the world over. Why do we decorate fir trees at Christmas? For centuries the evergreen has been a symbol of life surviving in the cold and dark, and in the 16th century German Christian communities made the link with the Nativity story, with decoration added to embody the festive spirit.

In more recent years, we’ve come to realize trees are also vital to the world’s ecosystems. Oxygen production and carbon capture, soil quality, biodiversity, global temperature control are all dependent on healthy tree populations.

Deforestation crisis

The world’s tree population has fallen drastically over the last two centuries. At around 13 percent, the UK has one of the lowest forest cover ratios in the developed world. In comparison, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the US all have over 30 percent. The need to protect trees has never been greater.

Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs)

In 1947, the UK government first passed legislation to empower local authorities to make designated trees (or groups of trees) subject of Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs). Such trees require planning consent before any work can be carried out. Moreover, in conservation areas, even if there is no TPO, you must advise the Local Planning Authority (LPA) of any intended work on trees with a trunk diameter in excess of 75mm at a height of 1.5m, and allow them 6 weeks to respond, before you can start work.

TPO impact on building projects

Plans for new builds, extensions and large building projects, whether residential or commercial, can be halted in their tracks by trees protected by a TPO. Checking for TPOs is one of the first things you should do when embarking on a project. Some LPAs may have maps (accessible via their website) which show the location of all protected trees. But in most cases, you will probably have to contact the council’s Tree Officer for information and advice.

TPO assessment criteria

The criteria upon which trees are assessed, when conferring TPO status, are factors such as age, size, species, historical or cultural value, their importance as part of the landscape and their contribution to the local environment. Decisions to grant or reject TPO planning applications are made by the LPA, balancing the pros and the cons of each case in the context of the above.

One council will have different priorities from the next, so it may pay to consult an independent local expert like a building surveyor or arboriculturist to assess whether your application is likely to succeed. In cases where felling is involved, consent may be given only on condition that one or more new trees are planted in a specified location.

Applying for planning consent

Anyone with trees in their garden, overhanging their garden, or in close proximity to a neighbour’s tree could be affected by the TPO rules. You need to know the status of your trees is “unprotected” before you do any work on them, otherwise you could incur a heavy fine without the necessary planning consent.

Ignorance is no defense. If a TPO is involved, your planning application may be for a crown reduction or pruning, to restrict growth of the root structure or maybe just to increase light penetration. As long as your proposal is not too drastic, consent will normally be given.

On the other hand, if your application is for complete removal of the tree because its proximity is an immediate threat to a building’s foundations, you will probably need an expert opinion from an arboriculturist or building surveyor to get consent.

Trees do not recognize boundaries. Branches will overhang adjoining properties, and roots will travel wherever they can find water. Often the root spread is much greater than the diameter of a tree’s canopy. If an overhanging tree is denying you light, or its roots are threatening the foundations of your house, you have the same rights as your neighbour to submit a planning application in respect of their trees.

Best practice would be to discuss it with your neighbour first. If they object, you do have the law (Party Wall legislation) behind you, but you may need to consult a building surveyor to make a legally enforceable ruling.

Applying for TPO status

Many TPOs are the result of individuals and building developers applying to their LPA for trees to be given protected status. They do this as a defense against other developers bringing the bulldozers in, and completely changing the character of a neighbourhood.

Get in touch

If you have any questions about the removal of a tree, or tree preservation orders, feel free to get in touch by calling 01273 031646.