My Department does not maintain central records of such requests. The Planning Service’s headquarters is responsible for processing tree preservation orders to protect trees under threat. However, these originate mainly as a result of a recommendation from divisional planning offices, and I am advised by officials that the majority of these requests are made without any prompting from the public. Over the past five years the Planning Service’s headquarters has received 98 recommendations for orders to be made. A total of 68 orders were made during this period.
Does the Minister accept that urgent action must be taken to protect trees, particularly in urban areas? The public is fed up with the devastation caused by property developers who move in, cut down trees and then lodge their planning applications. Unless something is done soon, many of the best examples of urban forestry and single trees throughout this Province will be destroyed. It is time that the Minister’s Department took action.
This question is important and has been asked on many occasions. As I previously reported to the Assembly, I am aware of weaknesses in the legislation, and I am considering a range of proposals for strengthening it. These proposals were originally contained in the consultation paper issued by my Department on changes to planning legislation in general. They included increases in fines and the automatic replacement of protected trees which had been removed or destroyed without consent. As a result of representations made to me on this subject I have also asked officials to consider whether further changes are needed. I hope to introduce this legislation by way of a planning amendment Bill in the next session of the Assembly.
The percentage figures quoted for tree and woodland cover in Northern Ireland are appallingly low. Does the Minister agree that this unsatisfactory situation will not be reversed solely by more stringent conservation or preservation measures?
On the contrary, a more proactive approach must be adopted. Will the Minister assure us that his Department and other relevant Departments will jointly promote a vigorous campaign of woodland development? This campaign must include reasonable and adequate compensation or incentives to farmers and other landowners.
I can assure Mr Doherty that we are very much aware of the lack of tree cover in Northern Ireland. We are thinking in terms of preservation, as that is very important. The possible cost to the Department in compensation paid in respect of a tree preservation order is also a material consideration which my Department will take into account before making an order. It is important that a balance is struck between the interests of tree protection and the interests of taxpayers. My officials will be reviewing the compensation provisions in the forthcoming planning amendment Bill.
Can the Minister advise of the specialist circumstances in which a tree preservation order is issued? Is the Minister satisfied that the current enforcement powers are adequate? If not, will he consider improvements to those powers to ensure that our trees enjoy the best possible protection, especially in urban areas such as Newtownabbey?
We are concerned about the lack of tree cover and the preservation of trees. My Department has a statutory duty in relation to trees. Where it is considered expedient to do so, the Planning Service may place a tree preservation order on trees because of their amenity value.
Articles 64 and 65 of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 give the Department discretionary powers to make tree preservation orders for a number of purposes including that of the protection of woodland areas.
A tree preservation order simply prohibits the cutting down, topping or lopping of any protected trees without the Department’s consent. My Department may not decide to apply a tree preservation order if the health and condition of the trees do not merit their protection; if they are not considered to make a significant contribution to the amenity of an area; or if the trees considered to be under threat can be adequately protected by conditions attached to a planning approval.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. In relation to urban areas, is there an impact, perhaps for other Departments, for buildings close to trees, preserved trees in particular instances, and parks where there is concreting close to trees? Is there another way around orders to remove trees from the immediate area?
Again cognisance is taken of where trees are situated. The objective of a tree preservation order is to retain and protect the character of an area in which woodlands, individual trees and groups of trees contribute to the visual amenity. They are also used to retain and protect the existing structure and diversity of woodlands, particularly where they offer protection to wildlife habitats, and to inform new development proposals that may have an impact on areas protected by an order.