If there are trees obstructing a highway or shrubbery causing an obstruction, the highway authority has statutory powers to compel the landowner to remove the obstruction and order them to pay for the cost of the removal. These powers are pursuant to the provisions of the Highways Act 1980. They can also force an owner to cut back vegetation which is causing an obstruction near corners, bends and highway junctions, even if the vegetation is not actually overhanging the highway itself. If a landowner doesn’t remove the obstruction as requested, the highway authority has powers to remove the obstruction itself, regardless of who actually owns the land.
How can you avoid disputes when it comes to trees obstructing a highway?
To avoid any nasty surprises, landowners close to a public highway should have the trees on their land regularly inspected by an appropriately qualified person. This will identify any potential hazards and allow landowners to keep a detailed record of the inspections. If any potential hazards are identified, the landowner should take swift action to avoid causing an actionable obstruction, which could land them in hot water with the highway authority or with other neighbouring landowners. They should also ensure that they have appropriate levels of insurance cover.
How do the highway authority identify a qualified person?
On the question of an “appropriately qualified person”, the High Court determined, in the case of Poll v Viscount Asquith of Morley , that there are 3 levels of inspectors. These levels are:
- Level 1 (General): an individual with no specialist tree knowledge.
- Level 2 (Competent): an individual who has sufficient training, expertise and / or qualifications to identify tree hazards, assess the level of risk and make appropriate management recommendations.
- Level 3 (Expert): an individual with the highest skills and knowledge.
The question of who would be an appropriately qualified person depends on the particular circumstances of each case. If you are uncertain, you should obtain professional advice to ensure that you instruct an individual with the appropriate level of expertise to conduct the inspection.
Landowners should also bear in mind that tree roots can cause other problems. If there are large trees on the land it would be a good idea to have any adjacent buildings or other structures, in addition to a highway inspected, for early signs of damage from tree roots.
If any work is required, landowners should ensure that they have made the appropriate enquiries to establish whether or not the tree in question is protected by a tree preservation order and, if a tree is to be felled. If it is to be felled the owner also needs to check whether or not a felling licence is required. Landowners should avoid cutting trees between March and August of each year to minimise disruption to nesting birds.