Must ancient or veteran trees always be protected, even if they stand in the way of developments that would benefit the public? The High Court addressed that thorny issue in upholding planning permission for the redevelopment of part of a 1970s housing estate.
A local authority granted planning permission for the demolition of existing buildings on the site and the erection of 20 new residential units. The proposal involved the felling of four mature trees. Three of them, including a veteran English oak, were recognised as having significant amenity value.
In recommending in favour of the application, a planning officer’s report pointed to the benefits of the proposal and noted that the developer – a company which was wholly owned by the council – would make a financial contribution of more than £180,000 that could be used to plant an estimated 200 replacement trees in the vicinity.
A resident of the estate challenged the permission on the basis that the council had misinterpreted a local planning policy concerned with tree preservation. He asserted that the policy precluded developments which would result in the loss of trees of significant value. That embargo could not, he argued, be displaced by the provision of alternative planting.
In upholding the permission, however, the Court preferred the council’s reading of the policy. It noted that, in effect, the resident was arguing that significant trees must always be retained whatever justification there might be for their removal or whatever benefits their removal might bring. Such an interpretation was unrealistic.
It would, the Court found, place an artificial constraint on the council’s ability to strike a balance between the importance of the development and the value of the trees proposed for removal. Whilst focused on preserving significant trees, the policy provided for exceptional cases where their removal was imperative. The council was entitled to conclude that, subject to the financial contribution and replacement tree planting, the proposal did not conflict with the relevant policy.