Trees & Planning

Before you get your planning application together, be sure to consider how trees on site could affect your project, says Mike Dade
by Mike Dade
30th November 2012

Trees can be a great asset on a plot, providing an attractive, mature setting to a new home, plus much-needed shade and shelter in the garden. They’re an important factor in planning, too, and their preservation is given a high priority. In some instances, they can be a significant hindrance to building, or even prevent it altogether. So, what are the key facts you need to know about trees and planning?

Protected trees and the law

It is a criminal offence to damage or destroy a protected tree, so the first thing to check on a plot is whether any are subject to a tree preservation order (TPO). An order can apply to individual trees, groups of trees and whole areas of woodland.

In conservation areas, all trees are treated as though they’re subject to TPOs, with the exception of fruit trees. This protection applies to trees over 75mm trunk diameter, although trees up to 100mm diameter can be felled to facilitate the growth of others. Bear in mind that just because trees are protected, doesn’t mean you can’t ever fell them. What it does mean is that the council will attach greater weight to their preservation when deciding your application. Nevertheless, they can agree to their removal, perhaps where the trees aren’t that special or when compensatory planting would be better located or be of more appropriate species.

Tree surveys and assessment

When you make a planning application, the forms ask whether there are any trees on the site or nearby that could be affected by the proposed works. If the answer is yes, the council will expect your application to be accompanied by a tree survey. If this shows that trees could be affected, then you’ll need an ‘Arboricultural Impact Assessment’.

This additional survey identifies the trees – plus their size, age, species and quality – then rates them against criteria detailed in British Standard 5837:2005. The report also sets out the required root protection areas for the trees, which is based on their size and age. The likely impact of the works on the trees is then assessed and recommendations given as to which could reasonably be felled to facilitate the build and suitable measures to protect those remaining.

Problem plants on site

Trees can be a restrictive factor on where you can physically build on site. They can also obstruct light and views, and can interfere with visibility at the access from your plot onto the road. Don’t assume that just because you don’t mind a tree close to your house, the local authority will be happy with it.

Protected trees can be felled where they’re creating a nuisance, damage or danger. Where trees are affected by or in the way of your build, you have a number of options as to how to make progress. First up there’s negotiation, probably involving replacement planting proposals. Next up is further assessment, both of the trees themselves and also to show that they add little to the local landscape or local character. Your other option is the so called ‘pre-emptive strike’ approach, which involves removing the problem trees before you make a planning application.

Let’s look at each of these in more detail:

Negotiating with the planners

Putting forward proposals for replacements with your application is a good way to deflect objections to the loss of existing trees. But do look carefully at what species any replacements should be and where they would be best deployed. There might be an advantage in getting advice from a garden designer, so that an integrated landscape proposal can be put forward. Councils routinely impose landscaping conditions when granting permission for new houses anyway, so having a scheme drawn up before an application goes in might save having to prepare one later.

Further assessment

Occasionally, a second inspection of a tree reveals issues not evident at first. In one example, a fine protected lime tree was preventing an extension to a house, but a second opinion on its health revealed a cavity in its trunk that significantly reduced its life expectancy and justified its felling.

The question of the importance of a tree in landscape terms is inevitably quite subjective, but if you feel a tree report has over-egged the importance of a tree, have a close look yourself. Planning is generally most concerned with public views of a property so check views from all roads and footpaths in the vicinity.

Pre-emptive strike

If trees on your site are in the way but not protected, you’re entitled to remove them. However, this ‘pre-emptive strike’ approach tends to alarm neighbours who in turn might tip off the council’s tree officer. Tree officers can take exception to not having been consulted, despite the fact that you’re not under any obligation to do so. You have to weigh the possibility of making enemies (and creating objectors) before you’ve even submitted your application against the risk of your site being rendered undevelopable if the council decide you can’t remove trees that would obstruct your build.

Note that councils sometimes impose TPOs when planning applications are made, just to gain that extra element of control and prevent any pre-emptive felling, so if you’re going to fell, be sure to do it well in advance of your application. Land where a tree, especially a large one, has recently been felled may be subject to ‘heave’ where the soil swells, taking up moisture previously claimed by the tree. This needs to be taken into account in your foundation design, so make sure you notify your building designer.

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