First, we need to preserve our existing trees!

It is not just about planting new trees – it is also about keeping the existing trees we already have!

Members of the Bristol Tree Forum, both the “Committee” and the Tree Champions across the City, take it upon themselves to check Planning Applications, in case trees are adversely affected and that situation could be different.

Trees are being lost across the City for a whole host of reasons.

Residents do not always have to make an Application to fell a tree, or to do so much work on a tree as part of its “management” that it is eventually lost. Only if a tree is in a Conservation Area (CA), or if it is subject to a Tree Preservation Order (TPO), does a Planning Application have to be made to fell it or work on it.

Even then, if a tree is in a CA, it is technically not a Planning Application that is made – rather the Applicant serves a Notice on the Local Planning Authority (LPA) – a S211 Notice – that there is an intention to fell the tree. The only way then that a tree can be “saved” from felling is for the LPA to put the tree under the protection of a TPO, and that is quite a high hurdle. Further – if a tree is in a CA and is under the size of 75 mm diameter (circumference 23.5 cm/9 inches) at 1.5 metres above the ground – then a Section 211 Notice does not have to be served.

There is something else to remember – a S211 Notice has to be determined after only 6 weeks of being served on the LPA. Planning Applications are determined at 8 weeks, or later if extended. Commentators concerned about a S211 Notice need to work speedily, making their submissions, contacting like-minded people in their area, and bringing it to the attention of local Councillors and the LPA Tree Officer if they think the tree merits a TPO.

It is clear that trees have to work hard to even be considered as worthy of staying there at all!

Developers and Householders etc., if they propose to fell trees on a piece of land in order to build on a piece of land – from a small extension to a whole housing estate and everything in-between – should submit with their Planning Application, a report on the number and size of the trees that will be felled, proposals for the protection during the works of trees that will be retained, and (in Bristol and many other LPAs), their proposals for replacing the benefits on site or locally of the trees that will be lost to development – the Bristol Tree Replacement Standard (BTRS).

This has a variety of names in the list of documents submitted on the Planning Portal – but often has the word “Arboricultural” in the title when prepared by a professional – as it should be.

We talk and write a lot in these days of a climate emergency about planting more trees. There is no doubt that we should be doing that, and in greater numbers than are currently being achieved.

But new trees are small, and take many years – more than 50 years, even for starters – to begin to replace the environmental value of mature trees that are lost.

So you can see that there is enormous value to our enjoyment of the space around us, and to the environment we live in, if trees we have got now – mature trees that are living and breathing quite literally – are not felled unless it is absolutely necessary. We must retain more mature trees and manage their health better than we do.

Everyone, residents, developers and Planning Officers have a moral duty to do this. It should not matter whether you live in a CA or not, or if a tree has a TPO or not. That brings the decision into the realms of planning law, but even the ordinary tree in your garden matters.

The thought “Oh, it’s only a tree” should be banished. The belief “Oh, we can plant another one to replace it” is so short-sighted it makes me want to weep.

The BTRS does not lead to a gain in trees, because it is only applied when trees have been lost – the clue is in the word “Replacement”.

Bristol has planning policies that aim to make sure that trees do not have to be felled to accommodate development, and maybe the development footprint could be moved to keep the tree. Sadly, this policy is not often applied.

The BTRS aims to make sure that at the very least trees that are lost to development are replaced, and thus one day (more like 18,250 days) their environmental benefit is replaced. It will not surprise you to learn that some Developers and Householders try to circumvent the BTRS, or lessen its impact on their budget, by clearing land of trees that they have earmarked for development in advance of the later Planning Application, or by squeezing tiny little trees and shrubs around the edge of such space as remains on a development site upon completion, rather than have to pay for a tree to be planted on nearby public land.

We have seen developments where it is planned to retain trees, and then their removal becomes “necessary due to unforeseen circumstances” during the development phase and the LPA is not informed of this – even when the retention of the trees is a Planning Condition. Sometimes when it is noticed and reported it could be that nothing will happen.

Local Tree Watchers can help save the trees we have by examining Planning Applications. They can spot the failure by developers and householders to submit an arboricultural report or be dismissive of the effect upon trees of the development, or be dismissive of the importance of the trees they plan to fell. They can look at the Landscape Plan and spot any attempts to replace a mighty oak with a privet hedge. They can mobilise local opinion.

If you feel encouraged to look at ways you can help save the trees we have, and help to assist in the implementation of existing planning policies designed to keep or replace trees, we do have on our website lots of advice on the subjects described above – Checking planning applications – how to save trees or ensure that doomed trees are replaced.

We also have on our website, for those who want a more detailed guide to demystifying planning applications, an introduction and a more detailed modular course on the topic.

I am pleased to say that a Planning Decision, reached towards the end of last year, places, very encouragingly, a great deal of importance on the presence  of a tree (coincidentally with a TPO) which would be lost, and could not be replaced nearby, if the development went ahead. For this reason, and other reasons, the Application was refused.  The Bristol Tree Forum has just published an article on this decision. We had objected to the Application.

Stephanie French

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