Should trees get legal protection?


Campaigners are calling for mature and veteran trees to receive the same protections as heritage buildings, in response to the recent destruction of over 100 trees by the Conservative-run Plymouth city council. The Woodland Trust is demanding an English Heritage-style body to enforce greater protections for trees, including those with value to the attractiveness of a town or city. Currently, protections for trees in England and Wales are limited and can be overridden by planning permission. Despite councils being responsible for issuing tree protection orders, they often lead developments that put the trees under threat in the first place.

Andy Egan, the head of conservation policy at the trust, pointed out that “our oldest tree, the Fortingall Yew in Scotland is around 3,000–5,000 years old – it is the oldest living entity in Europe, but it does not have the same level of protection as St Paul’s Cathedral. No one would think it was acceptable to pull down St Paul’s to build another Shard but trees are not protected in the same way.”

In contrast to England and Wales, Italy recently passed a law granting 20,000 trees legal protection as natural monuments. The Woodland Trust is exploring whether similar legislation could be pursued in the UK.

The Plymouth council’s £12.7m redevelopment plan for a pedestrian walkway leading from the sea to the city centre involves revamping the main artery through the city centre and turning it into an urban park, with 169 new trees planted along the route. However, the felling of over 100 mature trees has been met with significant local opposition. A petition to save the existing trees and incorporate them into the new design had garnered over 16,000 signatures. A council survey conducted as part of community engagement found that 68% of respondents did not support the plan, while just 16% were in favour.

The council moved in to fell the trees hours after the community engagement period ended. Security guards patrolled the area as about 110 trees were destroyed. The move came days after a highly critical report into the needless felling of thousands of trees by Sheffield city council, which found it had behaved dishonestly.

The Woodland Trust is seeking to raise public awareness to help push forward stronger legislation and is investigating the best options for providing protections for trees, similar to heritage buildings. Egan said: “Mature trees are not replaceable with a sapling. There seems to be no appreciation that the starting point for regeneration or redevelopment should be designing around the nature that is already there.”

Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, Luke Pollard, commented on the situation, stating: “There is so much anger here today. We are never going to get the trees back and it will take decades for replacement trees to be anywhere near the size of those taken down. We have got to look at what lessons we can learn from this. How do we ensure councils – especially those that have declared a climate emergency like Plymouth – how do we make that real and not just a press release?”



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The declines in our wildlife is shocking and frightening. Without much more support, many of the animals we know and love will continue in their declines towards extinction.

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We are convinced that this is much better for the UK than growing lots of fast-growing coniferous trees, solely to remove carbon, that don’t actually help our animals to thrive.

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