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New powers to curb illegal tree felling

New powers have been announced by DEFRA and the Forestry Commission  which came into force on 1 January 2023 to deal with illegal tree felling with the aim of trying to curb financial gain made by landowners/developers who it is alleged are clearing land with trees for commercial gain. 

Breaches of Tree Protection Orders which are issued and enforced by Local Authorities already carry unlimited fines if the case is serious enough to be sentenced in the Crown Court.

However as from the start of this year the Magistrates Court will now be able to impose an unlimited fine on an offender who is convicted of illegal tree felling. Prior to this, anyone convicted of felling trees where no exemption applied and a licence was required would have resulted in a fine of only £2,500 or twice the value of the trees whichever was the higher.  It appears that landowners have been willing to risk a conviction for illegal tree felling as the increased value of the land by the removal of the trees far outweighed the level of any fine imposed by the courts.

According to a blogpost on the Forestry Commission website in 2019 the most common cause for tree felling was to try and take advantage of the development value of the land.

Other changes to the Forestry Act  to make the risk of illegal activities by landowners far less commercially attractive  include the following:-

  • Failure to comply with a Forestry Commission Enforcement Notice and a Restocking Order imposed by the court where an offender is ordered to replant any trees that have been illegally felled will put an offender at risk of imprisonment, in addition to an unlimited fine;
  • Restocking and Enforcement Notices will be listed on the Local Land Charges Register. Therefore prospective purchasers of land will now be aware of such Notices through the conveyancing process.  This could have the effect of significantly devalue the land by deterring  prospective purchasers or in the alternative induce a prospective purchaser to offer a significant reduction in the purchase price.

When an Enforcement Notice is affected by a change in land ownership, the new land owner will inherit the responsibilities of an Enforcement Notice which could again have the effect of reducing the value of the land;

The Forestry Commission will have powers to compel the landowner to provide information regarding who else has an interest in the land, including leaseholders and tenants. While the owner of the land will  be listed on HM Land Registry, demonstrating who occupies a woodland has proved to be more challenging and therefore this new provision should assist in improving more targeted enforcement.

 The forestry commission has welcomed the new powers saying it will curb this illegal practice being undertaken by landowners, streamline and strengthen forestry enforcement administration and serve to protect England’s trees, woodlands and forests.

The Woodland Trust have also welcomed the new powers, saying that “These changes should send a clear message that felling trees illegally, for example prior to submitting development proposals, will not be tolerated, and that the penalties reflect the value and many benefits trees bring to our towns and cities”. It also added that  “It is important that this is backed by increased resources for the organisations that deal with the enforcement of illegal felling.”

Landowners when undertaking tree felling on their land where a licence is required should be aware that these new powers will apply to any incident involving illegal tree felling whether a landowner is proposing to sell its land for development or not.