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Trees: Don’t Forget Your Neighbours

When developing a site, where trees make life difficult, you may be able to take them out to fit your layout, but you have little control over trees beyond your boundaries. What do you need to know when it comes to your neighbours’ trees?

We all owe a duty of care to our neighbours under common law. This means we are responsible for our actions, or failure to take action, where this affects our neighbours. This applies to anyone owning or having responsibility for property – including your development site.

A breach occurs if:

  • The harm caused was reasonably foreseeable – you should, or did know, that it might happen;
  • The harm occurred to someone or something sufficiently close to your property to be owed the duty of care; and
  • What you should have done to avoid harm was reasonable and fair – it would have been a proportional response.

If a breach occurs, you could be held liable for the cost of repairs, or for compensation.

How does this relate to neighbouring trees? What you do when developing the site may affect trees, where their crowns and roots overhang your property. Some impacts are obvious: building so close to a tree that you have to cut back the crown, or dig through its roots. Some are less obvious: driving and refuelling plant, storing materials and washing tools can all damage roots; burning rubbish can damage crowns. If enough roots are cut or killed, or if enough of the crown is removed or damaged, the tree may die or fall over. You could then find yourself with a claim against you for damages.

So what can you do? You need to take reasonable action to prevent harm to trees outside of your control. Three simple approaches to consider when designing your development are:

  • Avoid – going too close to trees. Give them space and you are far less likely to harm them;
  • Prevent – anything from happening close to trees that might harm them. Fence off the area around the tree to keep people, plant and materials away; or
  • Protect – the tree if you have to work close to it. Ground protection can prevent damage to roots, and there are ways of protecting the trunk and branches from damage if space is too tight to use fencing.

You can’t be expected to anticipate all possible causes of harm, but you can’t also be expected to avoid doing anything near to trees for fear of harming them. This is where having an arboriculturist on board can really help. They can tell you what work will be within the tree’s tolerance and what won’t, setting out how much you can prune back, where tree protection is needed and what to use, and how to build near trees to minimise harm.

In addition, some neighbours may not take kindly to your development and could look for ways to prevent it – what if a neighbour’s tree dies after you’ve started work, and they try to blame you for it? Using an arboriculturist can provide confidence that you can show you took reasonable action to prevent harm.

Get in touch

If you need help with trees on neighbouring property, call Richard Parmee (Principal Arboricultural Consultant) on 01638 663226 (Newmarket Office), or email to see how we can assist.

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