Trees In Court: A Festive Special

Trees stir emotions. Dwarfing us in their scale and their natural lifespan, they are integral to, define and inspire our built and natural landscapes. Their leaves connect us with the changing seasons. But they can be inconveniences: their roots, their debris, sometimes even their very presence.

The £1m lime tree
Who would spend £1m litigating over problems alleged to arise from a single lime tree in a suburban London Street? This is a recent piece from The Lawyer. HHJ Edward Bailey’s 29 July 2016 county court judgment  refusing the owner of the tree (a subsidiary of Grainger Trust plc) access over the neighbouring lawyer’s property (because the answer is of course a lawyer) under section 1 of the Access to Neighbouring Land Act 1992, to prune it, runs to 27 pages. All of the papers relating to the litigation, including transcripts and evidence, are at www.disputewithgrainger.com, a website created for the purpose by the neighbour. A £100,000 interim payment on account of his costs was due to be paid by Grainger yesterday. 
Sets the bar pretty high for future neighbour disputes it must be said. 
Trees & PFI
Where does the line of least resistance lie where a local authority’s PFI contractor faces increased highways maintenance costs due to the presence of trees?
Sheffield City Council, abetted by its contractor Amey, has been engaging in a systematic programme of tree felling and replacement along its highways. 

A somewhat speculative challenge was brought to the process by local residents in R (Dillner) v Sheffield City Council  (Gilbart J, 27 April 2016), following an interim injunction that was granted at short notice.

Gilbart J is in lyrical form, starting his judgment with the following background:

“Sheffield is one of the great cities of Northern England. Parts of it lie within the Peak District, which abuts its western aspect. It lies where several rivers and streams (the Rivers Don, Sheaf, Loxley, Rivelin, and Porter, Meers and Owler Brooks) flow eastwards off the Pennines. Many of its roads and streets (and especially in the suburbs running westwards and south-westwards from the City Centre) have trees planted along them, in the verges or other land within the highway. Like many of the great cities of the north of England, it suffered during the deindustrialisation of the late 20th Century and the financial stringency endured by local authorities over the last 30 years or more. The upkeep of its roads and streets were not immune to the testing climate that created for local authorities, and a backlog of maintenance developed.

It is in the nature of highway trees which are well established that they are intrinsically attractive (save in unusual cases), but also that, if allowed to grow unchecked, they cause problems to the proper maintenance of the roads, verges and pavements in which they sit or which they abut. Thus, the loss of a tree may be seen as regrettable in visual terms, but it may be required if the highway is to be kept in repair. The background to this case concerns the way in which Sheffield City Council (“SCC”) has sought to deal with the backlog of repairs, and in particular of how it has dealt with the presence of trees on its roads and streets”

The grounds of challenge followed familiar territory: inadequate consultation; the need for environmental impact assessment, and engagement of the decision maker’s duty to pay special attention to the desirability of preserving and enhancing the character of conservation areas.

The grounds were rejected:

– “provided the felling or lopping of the tree is carried out in pursuance of [a highways authority’s duty to maintain (and thus repair) [the highway], there is no requirement for consent to fell the tree “. 

– “while there is a requirement in those domestic Regulations which apply the EU Directives for environmental assessment in the case of trees, it only applies to projects of deforestation on sites of at least 1 hectare in size (0.5 ha in a National Park); see Environmental Impact Assessment (Forestry) (England and Wales) Regulations 1999 Schedule 2 paragraph 2. This project cannot be called deforestation”

– It “follows from the above that: 

(a)  the execution of works in the highway to repair it does not constitute development and therefore requires no planning permission; 


(b)  the removal or lopping of trees requires no planning permission in any event; 


(c)  the removal or lopping of highway trees in a Conservation Area requires no consent under s 211 TCPA 1990 if carried out in pursuance of the duty of the highway authority to maintain the highway, keep it in repair, and free of sources of danger or causes of obstruction; 


(d)  there is therefore no question of a development consent being required for the works; 


(e)  no planning function arises relevant to s 72 LBCAA 1990; 


(f)  at most, the fact that a tree could contribute to the appearance and character of a Conservation Area could be a material consideration. There is no evidence at all that Amey and SCC failed to take it into account.

Gilbart J’s closing comments:

“I repeat that nothing in this Judgment is to be read as criticising the residents of Sheffield for seeking to protect the trees in their streets and roads, whose presence many of them appreciate so much. But as with many matters, such an understandable and natural desire must be tempered by acceptance of the important duties cast on the highway authority to maintain those roads and streets in good repair. It is unfortunate in the extreme that those advising the Claimant and others who object have failed to address both sides of the argument, and even more so that the claim was advanced, and the injunction sought, without any proper analysis on their behalf of the statutory and legal context. It may be that those who will be disappointed by the terms of this Judgment will want to see a different legislative regime in place. That is a matter for Parliament, and not for this Court.
So will Parliament now conduct a root and branch review?
Andrew Lainton’s February 2016 blog post, written when the interim injunction was granted, is, as always, worth reading.
Sycamore vs the tree of heaven
In determining in the Sheffield case that the decision by an authority to fell a tree does not engage the conservation area special duty in section 72(1) of the Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas Act 1990, Gilbart J had cited R (McClennan) v London Borough of Lambeth  (HH Judge Sycamore, 16 June 2014), which concerned Lambeth’s proposals to fell a tree of heaven at the rear of the grade II listed Durning Library building in Kennington Lane, within Kennington conservation area – with the objective, said Lambeth, of preventing structural damage to the listed building. Whilst section 72(1) wasn’t engaged, the judge held that Lambeth’s cabinet had failed to take into account a material consideration, namely that the tree was situated in the conservation area. The decision was quashed. Lambeth subsequently carried out public consultation but I think I know where the tree has gone.

Forest Hill Park, Labour In Vain Road
is the address in Wrotham, Kent of a caravan site which has been the subject of a TPO saga. Following the felling of various protected trees, enforcement proceedings were brought and court action was settled on the basis of an undertaking given by the defendants to cease the felling. The felling resumed, the council started proceedings for contempt of court and the defendants applied to release the undertaking, on the basis that they could fell the trees in reliance on a 1983 planning permission for “development … and continuation of use of land as caravan site”. The question that came to the Court of Appeal in Barney-Smith v Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council  (Court of Appeal, 9 December 2016) was whether the exemption from the need for consent, where felling was “immediately required for the purpose of carrying out development authorised by” a planning permission, was satisfied. The court, not unsurprisingly, held that the answer was no – even though the planning permission could have been implemented in such a way as would have necessitated the tree felling, it could be implemented in a manner which left the trees untouched and therefore the exemption did not apply.
The Hampstead Heath dam

R (Heath & Hampstead Society) v City of London  (Lang J, 28 November 2014) concerned the Hampstead Heath dam project, the decision by the City of London to approve and proceed with proposals for reservoir safety works to the ponds on Hampstead Heath. The claimant regarded the proposed works which would entail the loss of over 80 trees, as “damaging, unnecessary and over-engineered”. But Lang J held that the only legal consideration under the Reservoirs Act 1975 is public safety and that the works would not be in breach of the restrictions in the Hampstead Heath Act 1871 which requires that the City of London shall forever keep the Heath “unbuilt on” as they would fall within exceptions for drainage and improvement.  

Festive Litigation
Whatever your religion or non religion, enjoy the break (if I don’t blog again in the meantime). In the US, the constitutional status of the Christmas tree reached the US Supreme Court in Court County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union (3 July 1989). The combined display outside local authority offices of a Christmas tree, Menorah and sign saluting liberty was sufficiently secular so as not to offend the establishment clause in the First Amendment of the constitution, as opposed to a nativity scene inside a court building, which was held to be unlawful. What would the Daily Mail have to say about any UK Supreme Court justices who made such a ruling one wonders? I gather that since then the US Supreme Court has remained decidedly unfestive – according to one US commentator it has since declined to intervene in cases concerning: a Menorah and Christmas nativity scene combined with Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus; an attempt to have Christmas decertified as a federal holiday, and efforts to allow Christmas music to be played over the intercom at public schools.


What’s a lawyer to do? The High Court rises on 21 December and the new term starts on 11 January. Oh well, put another log on the fire. 
Simon Ricketts 17.12.16
Personal views, et cetera

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