Bristol City Council’s Tree Management Policy – has it changed, or did we misunderstand it all along?

Bristol City Council has published a Tree Management Policy (TMP) setting out its approach to the management of the Council’s own trees.

For example, the Light Policy section states:

We do not prune or remove a council owned tree to improve natural light in or to a property including solar panels.

Information and advice

1. In law there is no general right to light.

2. If natural light is being blocked by the growth of a hedge then action may be taken to reduce the problem under the High Hedges Act, Part 8 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act, 2003. For further information please visit the High Hedges section on our website”.

As the TMP says, there is no legal general right to light. Because of this, we have always advised those who want to prune a council tree to improve their light that they will not be allowed to do so.

It is a different matter if a tree is causing a nuisance, say by growing over your land, as there is a well-established legal right to remove the nuisance by cutting back the tree to your boundary, though you should always advise the owner of the tree before you do so and you will need permission from the Local Planning authority if the tree is protected with a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) or is growing in a conservation area no matter who owns it, even if you do.

Anyone can apply to do work to a tree (if an application is required), even if they do not own it. But if consent to do the work is required, it must be granted before the work is done. Usually the owner is the Applicant – but this is not a prerequisite. If you do not own the tree, then you will need the owner’s permission also if it is not causing you a Nuisance.

All this seemed clear and settled until a recent Planning Application decision (20/04249/VC) was published which seems to have changed the Council’s policy.

The Application was to Crown Raise a Council–owned tree to 6 metres above ground level to ‘improve/increase light to [the applicant’s] garden’. The tree is growing on the edge of a wood by the River Trym and is in a Conservation Area.

Using their delegated powers, the Tree Officer gave permission. Here is their reasoning:

There is no mention that the branches were overhanging the Applicant’s property and so causing a Nuisance – a valid reason for granting the application. Having, somewhat acerbically, remarked that the tree management policy had ‘yet again been raised’, and noting that the council will not do the work, he then went on to observe ‘however residents can pay a tree surgeon to undertake these works’ notwithstanding that the TMP states ‘We do not prune or remove a council owned tree to improve natural light…’.

So, it seems that, while we (the Council) will not do this to Council-owned trees, anyone else may – be they a skilled and professional tree surgeon or not!

Perhaps the Light Policy section of the TMP now should be amended to read:

“We do not prune or remove a council owned tree to improve natural light in or to a property including solar panels, but if you want to, do go ahead…so long as we don’t have to pay.

The TMP contains many such sections stating what the Council will not permit regarding trees it owns. Are these too now subject to this novel exemption?

And what about those council-owned trees that do not have a TPO or do not grow in a conservation area? Can we now seek permission to set about them as we like if they block our light, or drop blossom/fruit/berries/nuts/seeds/leaves etc. or stain our cars with bird droppings etc. etc? Surely not!

We are not advocating pruning trees – pruning causes a tree stress and is harmful in so many ways. We should just like the TMP to be applied consistently. 

With this in mind, we have proposed that Development Management adopt an approach which integrates the Council’s own policies toward the management of its own trees with the approach it has toward the other trees it is also the custodian of – trees with a Tree Preservation Order and trees growing in Conservation Areas.

This is our proposal – Proposed Tree Policy for Trees Protected by Statute.

Stephanie French, Bristol Tree Forum

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