To guarantee is unrealistic but to limit is reasonable - the importance of tree policy and inspections

Tim Smith
Tim Smith

Published: February 8th, 2023

7 min read

According to the HSE between 5 and 6 people in the UK are killed each year when trees or their branches fall on them. The incidents involving around 3 of those people will take place in public places with trees that are owned and maintained by local authorities.

As recently as September 2020 a six year old girl died after being hit by a falling tree in her school playground. The HSE found that the tree was decayed and in a poor condition. The Council who were responsible for the tree had failed to identify the extent of the decay and had failed to manage the risk posed by the tree. They pleaded guilty to breaching s.3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and were fined £280,000.

In July 2021 an 8 year old girl suffered catastrophic injuries when a tree fell on her as she was jogging on a pavement across the entrance of a Bupa care home. A lime tree in the grounds of the care home fell causing serious crushing injuries resulting in her leg needing to be amputated. The tree was found to be diseased with a common fungus and had likely been rotting for several years. The HSE found that Bupa had failed to have a strategy in place to manage their trees including a risk assessment, proactive surveys, inspections and tree monitoring to identify where remedial action may need to be taken in order to limit the risk of the tree falling. They pleaded guilty to s.3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and were fined £400,000.

Both of these cases highlight the importance of good tree management and effective risk assessment. As landowners, local authorities have a duty to take reasonable care to ensure that trees growing on local authority land do not put persons and property at unreasonable risk of harm. Local authorities cannot guarantee the complete safety of any particular tree but they should take reasonable steps to limit the risk. Similarly, and as highway authorities, regard should be given to those trees visible and within falling distance of a highway, including their roots which can also cause trip hazards. The Highways Act 1980 also provides discretionary powers to deal with privately owned trees that may be endangering the highway or trees on any adjacent land used by members of the public.

As a bare minimum local authorities should implement the following with regards to tree management:

  • Have clear risk assessments in place - trees should be categorised in relation to the level of risk they may present dependent upon their particular breed and their proximity to areas of high footfall e.g. main car parks, children's play areas, schools etc.
  • Staff working in any greenspace areas across the local authority should be trained to identify any obvious risk or hazards when carrying out their day to day duties and should know to report any issues to the tree officer.
  • Similarly highways inspectors should be trained to recognise the potential hazards posed by trees on or adjacent to the highway, and should know when and what remedial action to take.
  • Trees should be subject to an inspection regime determinable by the level of risk they pose, for example
    • Small tree in a secluded area away from homes and footpaths poses a lower risk and should therefore be inspected less frequently
    • Large tree located in a busy area where many people pass by regularly should be inspected on a more frequent basis
  • A record of such inspections should be kept and their frequency adhered to.
  • Where a tree is in such a condition that it presents a significant and/or imminent risk of harm, immediate steps should be taken to make it safe
  • There should be in place an appropriate system of reacting to complaints made by members of the public regarding trees including their inspection and next steps

Conclusion

Whilst it is widely established that trees are vital to an environmentally sustainable and economically successful society and that they contribute very positively to our way of life, it is nonetheless important that their risks are also recognised and managed.

Local authorities can put simple steps in place to ensure that trees across their Boroughs can be enjoyed by members of the public but do not pose any imminent threat to life and limb. By putting such systems in place, by ensuring all members of staff are adequately trained and by keeping good inspection records, local authorities can armour themselves against prospective litigation.

For more information contact [Tim Smith](<mailto:<a href=>) or Jade Johnson.

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