Belfast Telegraph

121 alleged breaches of tree protection orders... but just one prosecution

By Linda Stewart

Tree Preservation Orders have been branded “completely ineffective” after it emerged that only one case out of more than 120 alleged breaches led to a prosecution.

In the past three years, Department of Environment officials have investigated 121 enforcement cases relating to felling, uprooting or damaging trees protected by Tree Preservation Orders (TPO) and 17 (14%) were ‘remedied’ or had planning permission granted retrospectively.

According to Environment Minister Alex Attwood, who revealed the information in a response to a written Assembly question, 43% (52) of the cases investigated did not breach planning control.

In 19 cases, prosecution was deemed “not expedient”. ‘Remedied’ means that an agreement was made informally (14 cases). One case was immune from enforcement action, meaning it happened more than five years ago.

A Co Tyrone man was fined £5,000 at Omagh Magistrates Court in November last year for breaching a TPO — the only prosecution in the last three business years.

Green Party MLA Steven Agnew, who put the question, said: “There is no point having legislation on the books if there is no political will to enforce it.

“Strict enforcement of the new higher fines which can total up to £100,000, will act as a deterrent to those who take down trees that have a protection order on them.

“Trees that have been growing in situ for 400 or 500 years are the natural equivalent of our built heritage and therefore need to be respected and protected.

“As it stands the attitude seems to be to cut the trees down first and seek permission later.

“The figures speak for themselves. Prosecutions for breaching Tree Protection Orders are not being taken seriously as there has only been one prosecution in 121 enforcement actions.”

George McLaughlin, vice chair of Prehen and Environmental Society, said he found TPOs designed to protect one of the few remaining tracts of ancient woodland in the north-west have proved “completely meaningless”.

Planners gave the go-ahead to a development of four luxury homes even though the developer’s own survey showed scores of trees would be affected, he said. They cited “public interest” for allowing the development in a nature reserve that harbours one of the north-west’s few red squirrel colonies.

“The woods used to stretch for hundreds of acres — now it’s down to an 18-acre site,” he said. “We have found TPOs are completely ineffective.”

Mr Attwood said that when determining what action is to be taken, the department has a general discretion on whether to take enforcement action against a breach of planning control.

“It does so when it considers it expedient, having regard to the provisions of the development plan and any other material consideration. Priority will be given to those breaches where, in the department’s opinion, the greatest harm is being caused,” he said.

A DOE spokesman said: “As enforcement is a discretionary power, the department does not pursue minor breaches of planning control, if no significant harm is being caused for example, where trees are dying or dead.”

Background

A TPO is a statutory protection afforded to trees under the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991. It is a criminal offence to cut down, lop, top, uproot or wilfully damage a protected tree in a manner likely to destroy it, without the consent of the department and on summary conviction you could be fined up to £100, 000 and on conviction on indictment, to an unlimited fine. Currently consent is not required for the removal of dead or dangerous trees.

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