Trees and Highways – who is responsible?


11 January 2022

County Council fined for lack of tree maintenance along walking trail after death of dog walker.

Following on from our article A cut above the rest which was published on 20 June 2021 we are writing again to raise further awareness concerning landowner maintenance responsibilities in relation to the public highway or any other road or footpath to which the public has access.

As highlighted in a recent decision by the North Staffordshire Justice Centre it is essential that periodic checks are carried out to trees, hedges and structures which have the potential to overhang or otherwise interfere with the passage of a public highway or other route used for public access.

An incident that occurred in October 2019, along the Staffordshire Isabel Trail, resulted in Staffordshire County Council being fined £300,000 under Health and Safety at Work legislation, when the bough of a tree fell on a walker, causing his death. Staffordshire County Council admitted responsibility and pleaded guilty to breaching Health and Safety regulations. The Health and Safety Inspector, Lyn Mizen, said that the tragic incident could have been averted had the required periodic checks been made.

The County Council, responsible for maintaining the Trail, admitted responsibility because they had not carried out the necessary checks on the route for many years. The tree was within the boundary of the trail, and the responsibility for its maintenance lay with the Council.

The Isabel Trail incident, and resulting fine, illustrates the importance of having a monitoring and maintenance programme in place for trees, hedges and other features (natural or otherwise) that may impede a public highway or affect public access.

In the majority of cases The Highways Authority (usually a County Council) has a responsibility for maintaining the highway or any other road or footpath to which the public has access, which includes esnuring safe passage. It also has the power to ensure appropriate maintenance works are undertaken. The maintenance of trees, hedgerows and other structures outside the boundary or extent of the way is the responsibility of the owner or occupier, subject to any other interests in the land.

If a tree or other vegetation overhangs a highway or any other road or footpath is identified as a potential danger to the public the Council has the power to serve notice on the owner or occupier of the land to cut it back. If the works are not carried out within the timeframe stated on the notice the Council may carry out the works itself and recover the costs.

Trees and hedges lining highways and paths are often located on the land of an adjacent landowner or occupier. It is the responsibility of such landowners or occupiers to ensure that their trees or other vegetation do not cause an obstruction or endanger users. It is therefore highly recommended that responsibilities are identified and agreed between the parties and that regular checks are carried out to enable timely maintenance.

As a reminder, it is important to obtain the necessary permissions or exemptions prior to undertaking any works as well as seeking advice from a technical specialist prior to pruning or any felling of trees or hedgerows.

If you have concerns about your trees and proximity to highways, our Planning and Environmental Team have specialists in rights of way, public access and environmental issues who will able to assist. In addition, Birketts has a Regulatory Team offering specialist Health and Safety at Work advice, together with Property Litigation experts who can advise on disputes between neighbours and / or third parties.

The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at January 2022.

Authors

Marcia Grice

Rights of Way Executive

+44 (0)1603 756465

+44 (0)7794 203839

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