An ancient Chinese proverb states that "the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."

Trees are very important to all of us for many different reasons, but how are they protected by the planning rules in Guernsey?

As you might expect, the position is heavily regulated by both Law, and by Ordinance. 

A "Tree Protection Order" ("TPO") is made by the Development and Planning Authority, known as the Planning Service, in the interests of amenity (something positive that contributes to the use and enjoyment of a particular place). 

The function of the TPO is as its name suggests, but the Order will not cover hedges, bushes or shrubs. 

The TPO takes immediate effect as soon as it is made, and not, for example when a tree might reach a certain age, or size, or point in its growth cycle. The reason for that is because a tree or group of trees might be at risk of imminent damage, and so any delay would be detrimental.

By granting a tree (or group of trees) the statutory protection of the force of law, planning permission will often need to be obtained to carry out any activity that relates to it or them.  Typically, that means cutting the tree down, lopping, topping or pruning it, cutting or compacting the roots or the ground level of the root area, or uprooting, wilfully damaging or wilfully destroying it. 

But often where there is a rule, there is an exception, and protected trees are no different.  It is, in limited circumstances, possible to work on a protected tree in Guernsey and not need planning permission. But, the best practice is always to err on the side of caution. If in doubt, have no hesitation in seeking professional advice.

If planning permission is granted, the tree work will need to be carried out to a high level (at least British Standard Specification 3998/1989, and which itself was superseded in 2010).  For most of us, that will mean employing a tree surgeon.

If somebody does not obtain planning permission to work on a particular tree (and it is needed), and work is carried out, then they run the risk of an enforcement action being taken against them, and which can lead to a hefty fine or even a prison sentence (or both).

As the Planning Service is aware that this is a difficult area, a helpful guidance note has been produced by the planning officers and which is entitled, "Planning Advice Note 4: Protected Trees" and which offers various pieces of information.

So how might someone find out if there is a TPO in force on a particular property?  That could be very important to know, particularly if, for example, a homeowner has aspirations to develop their premises, or are someone is thinking of buying a property with trees in situ.

The answer is that there is a legal obligation upon the Planning Service to maintain an up-to-date public register, and this can be accessed via http://digimap.protected.gov.gg/ . This is a very useful resource as it also includes Protected Buildings and Protected Monuments.

If, as a landowner, you receive written notification from the Planning Service that a tree or trees on your property has become the subject of a TPO, then you do have the right of appeal.  It is important to remember that time is limited, in fact only within 28 days of receiving the decision. 

In conclusion, if a person is in any doubt about the status of trees near them, they should adopt the carpenter’s rule - measure twice, cut once! They should carry out research, speak to a professional and then proceed accordingly.

Author Alastair Hargreaves Advocate & Managing Partner