Amendment 296

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Committee (12th day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 3 May 2023.

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Baroness Young of Old Scone:

Moved by Baroness Young of Old Scone

296: After Clause 123, insert the following new Clause—“Tree preservation order: penalty for non-compliance(1) Section 210 of TCPA 1990 (penalties for non-compliance with tree preservation order regulations) is amended as follows.(2) In subsection (1)(b), omit “in such a manner as to be likely to destroy it”.(3) In subsection (3), at the end insert “and the likelihood that the action will destroy a tree”.(4) After subsection (3) insert—“(3A) Subsections (1) to (3) do not apply in relation to Wales.”(5) Omit subsection (4).”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment creates a single offence for the breach of a Tree Preservation Order to ensure all fines are commensurate with the potential profits of contravention.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour

We have reached what the Times once described as the “End of the peer show” show. I rise to speak to Amendments 296, 297, 298, 299 and 301, which are tabled in my name. I am grateful for the support of my noble friend Lady Hayman of Ullock and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, who have co-signed the amendments. The amendments are all to do with tree protection orders, which are one of the few legal tools to protect important woods and trees, particularly with a stress on individual trees. Local planning authorities can use TPOs to protect what are known as amenity trees where they believe that it is expedient to do so. The provision was established 70 years ago, but it has some weaknesses and I think that it is true to say that the vast majority of our ancient and veteran trees have no real legal protection at the moment.

Trees outside woods provide valuable ecosystem services for people and habitats for wildlife. A single oak can support more than 2,300 species, some of them found only on oak trees. Many important trees—ancient and veteran trees—are in urban or semi-urban areas and three-quarters of them are outside legally protected wildlife sites. The system is not working because over the past 150 years 50% of large trees have been lost from, for example, eastern England due to urbanisation, agricultural intensification and, increasingly, tree disease.

Local communities often care very much about trees that are local to them. They may not be special trees in the scheme of things—they may not be ancient, veteran, rare or hugely important—but they are important to local people in local terms. The problem is that, in the absence of real protection through TPO processes, all that local people can do is mount public campaigns and literally stand in the way of the felling of some of these trees. Noble Lords will have seen in the newspapers the causes célèbres—Sheffield and Plymouth—where valuable mature street trees have bitten the dust. That shows that if local people can only campaign in the face of inappropriate felling, they do not often win.

A recent case in Wellingborough illustrates what often happens. In March, more than 50 lime trees were approved to be cut down for a dual carriageway, despite being protected by tree protection orders, and 20 of them were chopped before local people even knew about the proposals. They then took action, the felling was paused and there will now be a period of consultation, which should have happened first. It should not be like this, so we need to do something about the TPO legislation.

Amendment 296 is about penalties for non-compliance with TPOs and supports their enforcement. It would create a single offence for the breach of a TPO to bring fines into line with the potential profits of contravention, so that it is no longer simply regarded as a legitimate business expense to flout a TPO, which in many cases is how folk who cut down trees inappropriately regard it. It would align the penalties with those in similar situations, such as in the protection of ancient buildings. It also addresses a key issue in the present legislation, which is that is it not always possible to prove at the time of a prosecution that an action is likely to destroy the tree, which is one of the criteria for a successful prosecution. If you are not facing dead trees felled on the ground but are trying to stop inappropriate felling, it is not always possible to show that the planned action is likely to destroy the tree.

Amendment 297 is on the definition of “amenity”, which is the basis on which TPOs can be proposed. The Court of Appeal has defined this very narrowly as the pleasantness or attractiveness of a place, but after 70 years the definition of amenity needs to change to encompass a wider range of benefits, much as the definition of green belt needs to change to encompass a wider range of benefits. There are distressingly frequent occasions where planning authorities or, indeed, planning inspectors define visual amenity as the only justification for the observance of a TPO, yet other planning authorities are much more innovative and use a range of factors beyond visual amenity in deciding to protect trees through TPOs. Amendment 297 aims to standardise this and make it more common for local authorities across the board to ensure that issues other than simply the pleasantness and attractiveness of a place come into play. The appearance, age or rarity of the tree, its importance for biodiversity and its history, the science behind it all and its recreation and social value should be included in the amenity definition.

I am sure that the Minister will tell me that Amendment 298 is unnecessary because this is already possible, but it would underline for local authorities that the power to create TPOs can be exercised more generally in the public interest. Although some local planning authorities are proactive about protecting trees that are important for communities, too often trees are protected only when they are threatened by development rather than in a strategic way that takes account of how those trees contribute to the community setting. Amendment 298 would empower and, I hope, encourage local authorities to apply TPOs more proactively to ensure that important trees are protected.

My local authority, which I rarely compliment, has a proactive approach to TPO creation. Our tiny village of 35 houses has, I think, the biggest density of TPOs in the universe, because we are a distinctive, remote, tree-covered village in the north Bedfordshire Wolds, a wold being a rolling tree-covered hill, and there are not many hills or tree-covers in Bedfordshire. In the 1980s, the local authority had the vision to go around slapping TPOs on practically everything, including some very ordinary and scruffy trees, if I may say so, but it has meant that our village has preserved its important historic and visual resource of the trees that make that landscape and the community what they are. I hope that Amendment 298 would encourage more local authorities to think in that strategic and innovative fashion.

Amendment 299 would remove the exemption that prevents dead and dying trees and dead branches from being eligible for protection by TPOs. Dead wood is one of the most important biodiversity habitats provided by ancient and veteran trees. The retention of a range of deadwood habitats is vital to support the good management of these trees. I saw a wonderful example in Greenwich Park—I am sure noble Lords want to hear about Greenwich Park at this time of night. An ancient yew tree was so on its last legs that it fell apart in the middle and lay there. Greenwich Park had the foresight not to remove bits of it but just left it. The dead branches formed great wildlife habitats but, even more, a habitat within which a new yew tree grew from the centre. That is what we should be seeing from our dead wood. At the moment, the minute a bit dies, it is exempted from the TPO and can be chopped off and taken away, so we want to see Amendment 299 change that. Obviously we have to be careful about circumstances where dead and dying trees are likely to be a danger to the public, but I am sure that that can be done through guidance.

Lastly, Amendment 301 would introduce a duty to consult publicly prior to the revocation of a TPO. At the moment a local authority is required to consult before it designates a TPO, but it can take that designation away the following day without so much as a cheep to the public. It does not have to give a reason and there does not have to be any transparent process for revoking a TPO. You can understand the public’s concern if the first they know about a withdrawal of protection is the chainsaws moving in. The amendment asks for there to be a similar, publicly transparent consultation process for the revocation of a TPO.

I hope that the Minister might look kindly on TPO designation being tightened up. TPOs are really important for local people, for trees, for biodiversity, for our heritage and culture, and for communities, and they could just be that little bit better with these minor tweaks. I hope the Minister can support them.

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

My Lords, I support the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone. Anyone who has been a councillor will know only too well the passion and emotion in both directions that arise from trees. I still bear the scars from a public meeting where there was a discussion between the council tree surgeon—he has long since retired so I can talk about him—and a resident of my ward. The resident was insistent that the council had the wrong types of trees in the streets and that that was causing all sorts of problems. He went on and on about street trees and how we should not have put forest trees in streets. The tree surgeon listened to him for quite a long time as he got very irate, and eventually turned round and said, “Well, when you think about it, Len, all trees are forest trees initially”, which took a bit of the sting out of it.

I often feel that the world is divided into those who love trees and want them everywhere and those who will campaign equally tirelessly to have a tree chopped down when they feel it is getting in the way of their light or it drops leaves on their nice tidy garden. However, we seem to have reached an attitude that says, “Chop it down and then face the consequences”. That just cannot be right. Conversely, the beleaguered local authorities that have to deal with diseased trees often find themselves subject to the most enormous outpouring of vitriol when dealing with trees that would infect other trees if they did not. It is important that these issues are managed and communicated well. We think the amendments suggest ways of making the process more consultative and effective.

The figure that my noble friend Lady Young gave of 50% of large trees being lost—I know there have been some serious tree disease issues and they have caused some of that, but not all of it—is staggering. TPOs are made and managed by our local authorities, and they protect individual trees and groups of trees or woods that are of particular value to local communities. TPOs prohibit the felling of and damage to trees without the written consent of the local planning authority. They are no longer valid if removing the tree is part as Iof an approved planning application.

Trees can be vital to the general character of an area and can be at the heart of particular historical or architectural interest at a site. When I was a young girl growing up in a new town, there were woods at the end of almost every road—and bluebell woods are particularly lovely at the moment. Those woods are important to local people.

The fact that a development proposal will require changes to trees can be a material consideration in whether to give permission for those works. Individual trees or groups of trees within or outside a conservation area can be offered protection by a tree preservation order issued by a local planning authority where it is expedient to do so in the interests of amenity. We believe that trees needs more protection, as afforded by the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lady Young.

The single offence for a breach of TPOs seeks to ensure that

“all fines are commensurate with the potential profits of contravention”, but it is not just about profit. Sometimes there is an attitude of, “Well, if I chop it down, it’s gone. They can’t do anything about it. I might get a fine for it but I’ll still be able to do whatever it is I wanted to do with that land”. I do not think we can tolerate that; there has to be some kind of commensurate punishment for that.

Clarifying the meaning of “amenity” in the context of tree preservation is an important step. Making sure that local authorities can use TPOs to protect trees proactively before they are threatened by development would be a really good step forward.

I take my noble friend’s point about trees that are dead or dying being removed from the exemption for being eligible for protection by a tree preservation order. If they are diseased and are going to infect other trees then that can be a different issue, but we are increasingly realising the benefit of leaving them in order to increase the biodiversity of an area. It is important to do that where it is possible and not going to cause other problems.

I thank my noble friend Lady Young for explaining the concerns and how all the current protections can be improved.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:45, 3 May 2023

My Lords, this group of amendments deals with tree preservation orders and would extend their scope and strength. TPOs are an important tool to support tree protection and need to be strengthened in order to be effective. The noble Baronesses, Lady Young of Old Scone and Lady Taylor of Stevenage, have spoken eloquently to the amendment.

Despite a well-established tree protection system, most of our ancient trees have no legal protection. Perhaps now is the time for ancient trees to have the same protection as our old buildings and other endangered wildlife. The use of TPOs around the country is very patchy: some councils, such as City of London and Blackpool, have fewer than 40 TPOs in place, whereas around 50 councils report over 1,000 TPOs, including eight with over 2,000 TPOs. Trees are an essential asset, especially in urban areas, and need to be treated with greater respect.

The amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, cover: penalties for non-compliance in Amendment 296; the meaning of “amenity” in Amendment 297; TPOs being in the public interest in Amendment 298; removing the exemption of dead and dying trees in Amendment 299; and, lastly, consultations on TPOs in Amendment 301. I support all of them. Where trees have died or are dying, I support, in general, their retention. As such, they will become homes for wood-boring insects, and nest sites for birds and smaller mammals. I do, however, add the caveat that where a tree that has died has been assessed as likely to be a danger to the public, perhaps some of the upper branches should be removed to make it stable and the lower limbs and trunks left to decay naturally.

How often have we seen councils announce that they are cutting down trees to make way for some new road improvement scheme or other facility? The public, quite rightly, rise up in protest. How much better it would be if all councils and authorities, where they are planning schemes, consult with the public and take the public with them. Perhaps with a little tweaking, their plans could be amended to ensure the retention of trees, whether ornamental or traditional species.

Trees are the green lungs of our urban and inner-city areas. They provide roosts and nesting sites for birds; their branches provide shade and a cool breeze on a summer’s day; and they hold 30% of carbon storage. We fully support this suite of amendments and look forward to the Minister’s comments.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, for proposing this group of amendments, all of which are related to the protection of trees. I should start by saying that as a member of the Woodland Trust, and as an owner of woodlands myself, which are interests I should declare, I have sympathy with the spirit of these amendments. I shall, however, attempt to persuade the noble Baroness that they are unnecessary or, in some cases, undesirable.

First, Amendment 296 seeks to make all offences of contravening a tree preservation order or tree regulations subject to an unlimited maximum fine. I understand the sentiment behind this proposal. It is right that there needs to be a credible threat of significant fines if we want to protect the trees that we most cherish. However, I think there is an important distinction between deliberate damage to a tree, leading to its total destruction, and, for example, the loss of a single branch, where the tree itself survives. Our current approach to fines recognises this difference. Wilful damage leading to the destruction or likely destruction of a tree is punishable by an unlimited fine, and there are examples of the courts handing down significant fines. Less serious offences—for example, where someone prunes a tree and is perhaps unaware that it is protected by a tree preservation order—are subject to a lower maximum fine of up to £2,500.

I firmly believe that the current approach is the right one. It is proportionate and fair, and provides a clear steer to the courts. For these reasons, I am afraid I am not able to support this amendment.

I turn to Amendments 297 to 299. Amendment 297 would provide a definition of “amenity” for tree preservation orders. Amendment 298 would make it clear that local planning authorities may utilise tree preservation orders proactively and where there is no indication of an intent to undertake works to a tree. Amendment 299 would maintain protections for dead trees and ensure that they remain eligible for tree preservation orders.

The Government recognise the need to protect and enhance biodiversity through the planning system, and trees are central to this. I agree with the noble Baroness that tree preservation orders are important tools. Local planning authorities may now use them, as she recognised, to protect selected trees and woodlands if their removal would have a significant negative impact on the local environment and its enjoyment by the public. This gives local planning authorities scope to protect the trees important to their communities, whether for amenity or for wider reasons.

The making of tree preservation orders is discretionary and local planning authorities may confer this protection where there is a risk or an emerging risk of damage to trees. So I argue that it is unnecessary to make an amendment to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to ensure their proactive use. Perhaps the fact that I am putting that on the record will be helpful.

I turn to the definition of “amenity”. There is already a wide definition within the tree preservation order regime of the concept of amenity. The meaning of amenity is deliberately not defined in statute, so that decision-makers can apply their full planning judgment to individual cases. The term is, however, already well understood and applied to a wide range of circumstances, with the planning practice guidance already being clear that the importance to nature conservation or responding to climate change may be considered.

Changing the meaning of amenity in the way proposed could lead to uncertainty for considering tree preservation orders and risks unintended consequences more generally in the planning system. Tree preservation orders protect living trees; they do not protect dead trees. It is important that dead trees are exempt from orders, as urgent works may need to be taken where dead trees pose a risk. In particular, for group and woodland tree preservation orders, diseased trees can pose biosecurity risks. Ash dieback is a classic example in which you absolutely have to be proactive. I speak from very recent personal experience. Preventing the spread of disease from dying trees is often very important. There can often also be an urgent need to protect the public, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, said.

Looking at the wider picture, tree preservation orders are only one of the tools we have to ensure these invaluable assets are protected. For example, our already strong protections for biodiversity in the planning system give consideration to the preservation and value of trees. We are also taking significant further steps to improve outcomes for biodiversity in the planning system through the 10% biodiversity net gain requirement in the Environment Act 2021. This will make trees of value to development, given the significant biodiversity value they bring. This will help ensure that trees are seen as integral to development as opposed to a barrier to it. Therefore, while I appreciate the spirit of these amendments, I am not able to support them, bearing in mind the breadth of protections that trees are already afforded. I hope I provided enough reassurance for the noble Baroness not to move these amendments when they are reached.

Amendment 301 seeks to introduce a requirement for public consultation prior to a local planning authority deciding to revoke a tree preservation order. The existing revocation process, as set out in the tree preservation regulations, is long established. Among other matters, it requires a local planning authority to notify persons interested in the affected land that an order has been revoked.

While the current legislation does not require public consultation, in practice I expect that local planning authorities would want to engage and consult with interested parties before reaching their decision. Our planning practice guidance makes clear that this option is open to them. The current approach to the revocation of tree preservation orders is squarely in line with revocation processes in other parts of the planning system, for example, where a local listed building consent order is revoked.

In summing up, I hope I have provided reassurances to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and that she will be content to withdraw Amendment 296 and not move her other amendments in this group when they are reached.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour

My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, and I will just make a couple of points to the Minister.

The mood music around TPOs is really important. There is guidance, as the Minister has said, on revocation, but its implementation is very patchy across the country. The definition of who is interested in the land can be interpreted very narrowly so that the folk who are clearly interested—local residents on a wider basis—are often not informed about revocations. That is just one example of where these amendments intend to demonstrate that the Government are serious about TPOs and want to create a different mood music around them.

In terms of dead and dying trees, local authorities currently move very rapidly to remedy, for example, trees that are coming into a dangerous condition and need to be felled. Those of us who have got ash dieback know that they can move very rapidly on that. I do not think there is a real problem around saying that TPOs must be strengthened because there is disease. What we want for TPOs is a presumption for retention of trees, rather than the possibility of both revocation and removal of dead and dying trees. I am obviously not of the same mind as the Minister.

I will make a slightly barbed political point. I do not know whether there are any friends of the Conservative leader of Plymouth council in the Chamber. He must be rather regretting that he was not strenuous about the observation of tree protection orders, since he lost his job over the recent debacle of the illegal felling of trees in Plymouth. So I urge the Government to recognise that the public, bless their hearts, have the bit between their teeth on this. Unless the Government demonstrate that they recognise that there is a point, and unless they make some movement towards finding ways of enabling the public to be more effectively involved and to feel that TPOs are a stronger protection, this could happen again and again.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 7:00, 3 May 2023

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. It might be helpful if I write her a letter to follow up this debate, picking up some of her points, now and in her opening speech, that I may not have picked up in my response.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour

I thank the Minister for that, and I look forward to his letter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 296 withdrawn.

Amendments 297 to 299 not moved.