Belfast Council is to look at ways of transforming the Tree Protection Order system, with a view to demanding legislation change from Stormont.
At the full meeting of Belfast City Council this week, elected representatives agreed to commission a paper looking at improvements to the orders. TPOs fall under the control of Northern Ireland’s eleven councils, but the limits of them were set by the Stormont Department for Infrastructure.
Councils use TPOs to protect individual trees, groups of trees and woodlands, and may use them if removal is likely to have a significant impact on the local environment and its enjoyment by the public. If a tree is protected by a TPO, council consent must be gained before it can be pruned or felled.
It is a criminal offence to cut down, lop, wilfully destroy or damage a protected tree without the council’s consent. Trees in a conservation area are automatically protected as if a TPO is in place, and anyone proposing to carry out work on trees in a conservation area must serve the council six weeks' notice of the intended works. Fines can be issued up to £100,000.
Last year councillors from across the political spectrum and locals were in uproar after the Department for Infrastructure removed 14 trees on the Lagan Towpath at Stranmillis without environmental impact assessments, as part of the Belfast Tidal Flood Alleviation Scheme.
The council decision this week to look at transforming TPOs originates from a motion forwarded by Green Councillor Áine Groogan. It states: “This council supports reform of the TPO system, and will advocate to the Department for Infrastructure, asking for a review of the current legislation to move to a system that gives automatic protection to all trees, requiring notification and approval for the felling of all trees, notwithstanding the usual exemptions around health and safety around any others, to make the legislation workable.”
The motion was not agreed but was passed at the full council after an Alliance Party amendment.
Alliance Party Councillor Eric Hanvey said at the meeting: “I am sympathetic with the issues. We have seen major problems with the current system, and things happening that are unbelievable in terms of the trees that are cut down, and the reasons given.
“I am willing to look at changes to that system, look at how to improve it, but it isn’t clear to me exactly how this system outlined by Councillor Groogan would work. I am worried about making policy on the hoof.”
He asked for an amendment that council officers would look at “all options” for transforming the Tree Protection Order system, and report back to the council Planning Committee. The council would then decide upon the details of the demand from the Stormont Department Infrastructure.
Green Party Councillor Áine Groogan said the council should look at “flipping the system on its head". She told the chamber: “We could move to a system that embeds the rights of nature in our policies and our practices, that trees are afforded the protection under law that they deserve, by reversing the system so the automatic assumption is trees are not cut down unless approval is given otherwise.
“We are the 12th worst in the world for biodiversity loss. Northern Ireland is one of the least wooded regions in Europe, with only 8.7 percent woodland cover compared to a European average of around 37 percent.”
She added: “We as a council are committed to the one million trees programme, but what is the point of that if these trees being planted aren’t adequately protected. It is entirely illogical to continue as is.”
She said: “TPOs are far too limited for what we need. They require someone to actively intervene to ensure a tree is protected, and I use that term loosely. An action that is usually only sought out by the public when they are already at risk and often when it is too late.
“The tree is already gone, before they worked out they could have had a TPO on it. The threshold for a TPO is also way too high.”
She said: “As a Botanic councillor I felt the effect of this all too strongly, when the DfI ripped out their chainsaws and started felling trees with impunity along the Stranmillis embankment. While this may have been done in the course of their statutory duties, those statutory duties didn’t require as much as an environmental impact assessment or any other sort of independent verification or scrutiny. This has to change, and it can.”
SDLP Councillor Gary McKeown said: “It does seem arbitrary that a tree within a boundary line conservation area is protected but a tree that could be five yards away isn’t, simply because of where a line has been drawn on a map. I don’t think that is right.
“We aren’t completely clear on where this legislation would be written or what form it would take, but I do welcome the opportunity to have a conversation around it. In the absence of that conversation we will keep doing things the way we have before.”