Legal Series: A brief overview of your rights and responsibilities

24th April 2019

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If you have a tree in your garden, front or back, then you may well be responsible for any damage it causes, which is why it’s so important for you to know your rights and responsibilities.

The first thing to state is that there are millions of trees in gardens and lining streets across the UK and cases where they cause damage are few and far between. A tree’s roots ‘can’ spread out to three times the height of the tree, but this is determined by the soil, the tree species, the maturity of the tree, and even then it’s not easy to predict. So you may have a large tree next to your property that looks like it could cause problems, but never does.

How much damage can a tree root cause?
The next thing to note is that while tree roots may have the strength to push up paving stones and small garden structures such as sheds, or burrow into drains and pipes to block them, they do not have the strength to push properties around. The way tree roots cause damage is through subsidence, when they grow underneath the foundations of a property and, in dry summers, suck the ground dry of moisture, causing air pockets which impacts on the stability of the soil. The property’s own weight could then cause it to shift and this can cause cracks to appear or widen over time.

Is my tree likely to cause damage to next door’s property?
Properties built more than 70 years ago on heavy clay soils are most at risk from the possibility of subsidence caused by tree roots. Therefore, if you have a tree that you feel may be a little too big to be so close to your neighbour’s property you might be advised to assess the position, height and condition of the tree and the type of soil your tree is growing in to determine the risk it poses. Or to ask a professional to do this for you.

The UK’s leading subsidence culprit
Tree type is a major factor in any assessment of risk, because some trees are thirstier than others. The single biggest subsidence culprit is the Quercus, or Armenian Oak. But other trees that have a high water uptake and should, therefore, not be planted close to a neighbour’s property include Populus, Cupressus, Salix, Chamaecyparis and Eucalyptus.

Could I be sued if my tree causes damage?
Yes. If a tree on your land has been positively identified as the cause, and damage has resulted, then you are potentially liable for a number of costs that will be incurred by your neighbour.

They could claim for the following:

  • Any reasonable costs incurred to repair the damage caused.
  • The lost value of their property as homes that have suffered from subsidence are typically more difficult to sell and, therefore, command lower prices.
  • The recovery of professional’s costs.
  • The cost of dealing with the offending roots if you do not, within a reasonable time frame.

How to protect yourself from the potential of being sued?
If you have a large tree on your land which may impact on your neighbour’s property it would reasonable to expect that you should have a survey done on it every few years to make sure that it is not going to be a risk. This survey should be carried out by a professional, qualified arborist who will produce a report for you to identify any issues and risk profiles.

Should your neighbour claim for damages based on a belief that your tree is at fault, you can then present evidence in court that you have done all you can to identify and mitigate any risk.

My tree is causing damage; what can I do?
If your tree is in fact the cause of damage to your neighbour’s property then you must move fast to deal with the problem in the following ways:

  • Crown reduction by at least 70% every few years by specialist tree surgeons would be a good start to reduce the growth of roots.
  • Regular monitoring by having the tree surveyed every couple of years.
  • Ultimately, felling may be required in some circumstances, though this should only be done under advisement and by professionals, as there is a risk, in certain circumstances, of this actually exacerbating the problem.
  • If your tree has been identified as causing damage you must contact your insurers

If you would like any help identifying whether any of your trees might cause damage to a neighbour’s property, to book us to conduct a tree survey, or to carry out a crown reduction or tree removal, call us on 0208 292 8992. We’re always happy to pop round or to help with a little advice or assistance.

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