Published: June 2021
Belfast is home to an estimated 11,500 public trees on its streets and more than 100,000 within its parks. However, this is only a small percentage of the total number of trees in the city when trees on privately owned lands, such as domestic gardens, are considered. There are over 160 Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs) on woodlands, groups of trees and individual trees throughout various parts of the Belfast. The city also contains 13 conservation areas, including three in the City Centre, which give further protection to its trees.
This guidance document sets out both the legislative context under which a tree can be protected by a TPO and a Conservation Area. It also advises on the level of protection afforded to trees from conditions on a grant of planning permission. It is intended to provide advice about protected trees for tree owners, conservation groups and the general public. It has been prepared in a question and answer format for guidance only and should not be taken as an authoritative statement of the law. If you have any concerns about legal issues relating to trees you should contact a solicitor.
What is a tree?
The following description is a universally accepted definition of what a tree is: “A tree may be defined as a woody, perennial plant which can attain a stature of six metres or more on a single stem. The stem may divide low down, but it must do so above ground level” (Collins Field Guide, Trees of Britain and Europe by Alan Mitchell).
Why protect trees?
Trees can have a high amenity value and can make an important contribution to the environment, creating a varied, interesting and attractive landscape. They can help define the character of an area and create a sense of place. Trees can help to screen and integrate development. Trees provide wildlife habitat and contribute to the health and wellbeing of humans. Tree protection is imposed in order to protect selected trees or woodland if their removal is likely to have a significant impact on the local environment and its enjoyment by the public.
We have a specific duty in relation to trees under Section 121 of the Planning Act (Northern Ireland) 2011.
How are trees protected under the planning system in Belfast?
There are three separate types of protection afforded to trees under the planning system. Trees can be protected by either:
- a Tree Preservation Order (TPO)
- Conservation Areas, or
- a condition on a grant of Planning Permission that stipulates an existing tree or trees must be retained. This is often referred to as a ‘retention condition’.
What is a Tree Preservation Order (TPO)?
A TPO is a statutory protection afforded to trees under the Planning Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. A TPO prohibits the cutting down, topping, lopping, uprooting, wilful damage or wilful destruction of trees without our consent.
What is a Conservation Area?
A conservation area is an area of special architectural or historic interest that is afforded protected status. All trees in a Conservation Area that exceed a size proscribed by regulations are subject to protection as if a TPO is in place. View more guidance on tree size in conservation areas.
You can view a map showing all TPOs and conservation areas within the Belfast City Council area.
What is a retention condition on a grant of planning permission?
This is when planning permission for development is granted on condition that specified trees are retained.
What type of trees can be covered by a TPO?
All types of trees can be protected. The Order can cover anything from a single tree to woodlands. Normally, unless a Woodland TPO is proposed, only trees over three and a half metres in height are considered for a TPO.
Can shrubs and hedges be protected by a Tree Preservation Order?
We may only use a TPO to protect anything that may ordinarily be termed a tree. This would not normally include shrubs or hedges.
What is a Woodland TPO?
A Woodland TPO protects all trees within the defined area, including natural regeneration - seedlings and saplings. For example, trees less than three and a half metres in height are not excluded in this case.
How are TPOs initiated?
All requests for a TPO, from an elected representative, a member of the public or an interest group, should be sent to our Planning Service for consideration. Additionally, we may initiate TPOs as a result of a planning application, the Development Plan process or in response to any threat.
How do we decide which trees to protect?
We may make Tree Preservation Orders for the purpose of:
- protecting trees considered to be of special value in terms of amenity, history or rarity, which may or may not be under threat
- ensuring the continuance of a woodland area which may be felled with our consent, by securing the replanting of trees, where this is considered necessary
To be considered for a TPO, trees must be of high amenity value and in reasonable condition. The following criteria will be used when assessing the merits of a potential TPO:
a) Potential Threat: priority will be given to the protection of those trees deemed to be at immediate risk from active felling or damage from development on site. We will assess and prioritise all other requests accordingly;
b) Visibility: the extent to which the trees or woodlands can be seen by the general public will inform the assessment of whether the impact on the local environment is significant;
c) Individual Impact: the fact that a tree is publicly visible will not itself be sufficient to warrant a TPO. The tree’s particular importance will be assessed by reference to its size and form, its future potential as an amenity should also be assessed taking into account any special factors such as its screening value or contribution to the character or appearance of an area. In relation to a group of trees or woodland, an assessment will be made of the collective impact;
d) Wider Impact: The significance of the trees in their local surroundings will also be assessed, taking into account how suitable they are to their particular setting, as well as the presence of other trees in the vicinity;
e) Historical Importance: Certain trees because of their age, association with the setting of listed buildings or the contribution they make to the special character of a conservation area may require consideration for TPO protection; and
f) Rarity: There may be occasions where a tree(s) may be considered for TPO protection solely on the grounds of its rarity. The priority of the consideration will reflect the rarity of the species.
How are TPOs processed?
In most cases, we will impose a Provisional TPO, which takes effect immediately on the date specified in the notice sent to the owner and provides protection for the trees for a period of six-months. During this six-month period a detailed assessment of the trees is carried out by our appointed arboriculturist and a decision is made as to which trees, if any, should be protected. The Provisional Tree Preservation Order will then be confirmed on those trees which are deemed worthy within the six months or allowed to lapse if it is considered, as a result of the detailed assessment, that they are not worthy of protection.
Alternatively a Full TPO may be served in circumstances where we consider it unlikely that there is any significant immediate risk to the trees. We may give notice to the owner and occupiers of the land that it proposes to make a TPO within a 28 day notice and representation period. Within this period a detailed assessment of the trees is carried out by our appointed arboriculturist and a decision is made as to which trees, if any, should be protected. The Full Tree Preservation Order will then be imposed on those trees which are deemed worthy, within the 28 day period, or not proceeded with if it is considered, as a result of the detailed assessment, that they are not worthy of protection.
At the time a TPO is served on the owner, a copy of the order will be attached to a protected tree in an obvious location and any neighbours whose land adjoins or is affected by the TPO will also be notified by letter.
Can I object to or comment on the imposition of a TPO?
Comments and representations may be made by anyone within 28 days from the date of a Provisional TPO or from the date of issue of the letter of notification for a Full TPO. We will take representations into account before deciding whether or not the TPO is to be confirmed. All representations will be acknowledged in writing.
How can I find out if a tree is protected?
We hold details of all TPOs and these can be made available for inspection by contacting the Trees and Landscape team within our Planning Service. An official search of the local land charges register can be made before you purchase a property as part of the conveyancing process and this should reveal if there are any TPOs affecting the property. This search will also indicate if the property is in a Conservation Area. Your property deeds should also hold information in respect of any planning permission on your property but if in doubt pleased contact our Planning Office. You can also view up-to-date public mapping detailing the location of all TPOs and Conservation Areas in Belfast.
Can I carry out works to protected trees?
If you want to carry out works to trees protected by a TPO you must first seek our consent to do so by contacting the Trees and Landscape team within our Planning Office. You must clearly specify the trees involved, identify their locations, the extent of the work you wish to carry out and the reasons why you wish to carry out the work. We will consider the application and may grant approval, grant approval subject to condition or refuse consent.
In a Conservation Area, anyone proposing to carry out works to trees must apply to our Planning Office. We will have six weeks to consider the proposal and respond. Work cannot proceed until we have responded or the six week period has expired. If we consider that the proposed works should not be carried out we will impose a formal TPO to cover the specific trees. In exceptional circumstances, where there is imminent danger, the applicant may proceed, at risk, with works immediately but must satisfy us by submitting evidence in the form of a report and photographs.
Anyone can apply to carry out works to trees protected by a TPO or within a conservation area, even if you are not the owner. If approval is granted you would, however, require the owner’s consent prior to entering the land or carrying out works on or from the property.
You can apply to carry out work to protected trees using our online form (link opens in new window).
If you want to carry out works to trees protected by a retention Condition on a grant of planning permission you must apply to us in writing. However, in some circumstances, for example proposals for felling of trees, you may be required to submit a full planning application to either vary or remove the condition. If you are unsure as to what you are required to do you can contact our Planning Service for advice.
What if I fail to comply with a condition of a consent given under a TPO which requires the replacement of trees?
We have a right to serve an Enforcement Notice, requiring the owner of the land to plant a tree or trees to ensure compliance with their consent.
What happens if I carry out works to protected trees without consent?
It is a criminal offence to cut down, lop, top, uproot or wilfully damage a tree protected by a TPO or conservation area in a manner likely to destroy it, without our consent and on summary conviction you could be fined up to £100,000 (and on conviction on indictment, to an unlimited fine). To wilfully damage a tree that is protected by a retention condition is a breach of planning control and may result in a Fixed Penalty and, on summary conviction, a fine of up to £30,000.
What if a tree is dead or dangerous?
There are specific exceptions and circumstances as to when works can be carried out to a protected tree. Currently consent is not required for the removal of dead or dangerous trees. We have the right, however, to require the replanting of trees of an appropriate size and species in the same location as soon as is reasonable. The owner must ensure that they have proof that the tree is dead or dangerous. It is recommended that we are made aware of the proposed works prior to them being carried out. Anyone who is unsure as to the condition of a tree is advised to obtain the advice of a qualified arboriculturist.
Can I obtain prior consent for certain routine and anticipated works to my protected trees?
We encourage you to enter into a Tree Management Agreement which may provide you with prior consent for anticipated and agreed tasks over a five to ten-year period. To do this you should contact our Tree Officer.
Does a TPO prevent me from carrying out normal garden maintenance on the land?
No. Normal garden maintenance can continue to be carried out and can include hedge trimming, weeding beds and the removal of geminated tree seeds (seedlings) and saplings less than 3.5m in height from any location unless the TPO imposed is a Woodland TPO which protects the woodland’s natural regeneration.
What about tree work that may affect birds, bats and other wildlife?
If you are carrying out work to a tree, even under any exception or exemption, the onus is on you to ensure you do not contravene laws protecting wildlife. If in doubt you are advised to seek advice from us or an appropriate professional on how to proceed.
If a TPO is imposed does the council become responsible for the trees?
No. The landowner remains responsible for the trees, their condition and any liability in relation to damage they may cause. We would therefore emphasise the importance of continued management of woodlands, individual trees and groups of trees covered by the Tree Preservation Order.
Do I have a right to appeal against the imposition of a TPO?
No. The legislation provides no right of appeal to the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) against us for either making or confirming an Order. There is, however, a right to appeal to the PAC following an application to carry out work on trees protected by an Order that is refused, granted subject to conditions, or not determined within a period as specified by a Development Order, usually eight weeks, or within a period as may be agreed upon in writing between the applicant and us.
How do I appeal following an application for works to protected trees that has been refused, granted subject to conditions, or not determined within the specified timeframe?
Should an application for consent be refused, granted subject to conditions or if we fail to determine the application within the set period, applicants have the right to appeal in writing to the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC). The appeal must be lodged with the PAC within four months of the decision and applicants must state the grounds on which their appeal is based. The PAC then decides on a date for a hearing and requests written representations in the form of a statement of case.
Do I have a right to appeal against the service of an Enforcement Notice requiring the planting of a replacement tree?
Yes. Should a Notice be served requiring the planting of a replacement tree, the recipient has a right to appeal to the PAC. An appeal must be lodged with the PAC before the date the Notice takes effect, which is usually not less than 28 days from the date of service of the Notice.
Does The High Hedges Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 apply to protected trees?
The definition of a hedge under the High Hedges Act includes trees that are two or more evergreen trees in a linear row. Such trees could become subject of a High Hedges Notice that requires a landowner to top them if we consider those trees to be a barrier to light, even if they are protected. Trees that are subject to compliance with any statutory obligation that is necessary for the prevention or abatement of a nuisance, such as a High Hedges Notice, are exempt from protection under a TPO or conservation area.
However, this does not mean that trees within such a row are not considered to be trees and exempt from protection within a conservation area or a TPO. Such trees are only considered to form a hedge or part of a hedge for the purposes of, and if they are subject to, a High Hedges Notice. For further information on the High Hedges Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 visit http://www.legislation.gov.uk (link opens in new window).
Where can I get more information?
You can get more information by contacting our Tree Officer by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.