No NI prosecutions over protected trees despite over 350 complaints
No prosecutions have been brought for felling or damaging protected trees in Northern Ireland since 2019 despite more than 350 complaints.
A new report by the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO) finds that while 369 tree protection breaches reported between 2019 and 2022, only one resulted in enforcement action being taken and none led to prosecution.
It also found that despite having significant enforcement powers, less than half of local councils clearly state on their websites that it is a criminal offence to carry out works to protected trees without consent. Others do not make any reference to the consequences of breaches.
It states that a failure to provide clear information to the public has the potential to cause confusion, and risks creating a perception that local councils and the Department for Infrastructure see the protection of trees as a low priority.
Among its 26 recommendations, the report suggests that information about which trees are protected should be made more accessible, and that the Department should work more closely with the councils to share good practice and expertise.
Commenting on the report, Ombudsman Margaret Kelly said: “Tree protection is crucial to the long-term strategies to improve the social, environmental and economic well-being of our areas and people. Trees have a key role not only in increasing biodiversity and combating climate change but are also increasingly recognised for the value they add to homes and public spaces and for their wide-ranging benefits to public health.
“I am concerned that if the protection of trees including enforcement action is not taken seriously by local councils, or is perceived as not being taken seriously, then public confidence in the planning system risks being undermined.
“This may be an issue I choose to return to in the future, but for now I am hopeful that the recommendations made in this report will make a positive contribution to the protection of trees within the Northern Ireland planning system.”