Trees, Boundaries and Highways

T

rees often mark the boundary of one property with another - this is an ancient custom. However, it can cause problems: which neighbour is responsible for the tree? This can only really be solved by reference to the deeds of a property - which might not help. Often, in practice, an agreement must be reached between two landowners when there is no easy way of resolving such an issue. If you have such a boundary it is a good idea to make sure you do know who looks after what. Unfortunately such disputes often arise when a tree causes trouble or damage, and neither neighbour wants to pay for it. That is why it is well worth sorting out in advance.

Boundary problems

See HedgerowsPages marked with this symbol are exclusively written for Naturenet for specific information on hedgerows and high hedges

See Boundaries and encroachmentPages marked with this symbol are exclusively written for Naturenet for advice on establishing a boundary

If your disputed tree is in a hedge, you might look to see where the ditch and bank are, if any. The hedgebank is traditionally made on the landowner's side, with the ditch on the side furthest away from the landowner. If you think about the process of digging a ditch, you will see why this is so. You cannot throw the spoil onto your neighbour's land so it must go on yours. Unfortunately this test often has no meaning in law. It might, however, shed some light on who owned the boundary when it was made. Fences can also give similar information, although this is even less reliable. Normally the posts of a fence go on the landowner's side, with the wire or boards away from the landowner. If the fence is being put hard against another boundary (e.g. an old hedge) the opposite is usually the case. Of course, some fences, such as cleft rail, are the same both ways, so that will not help. Equally, there is no practical reason other than tradition why this should be so (unlike the hedgebank), so fences are rarely any real help.

Where ownership of a boundary is known, 'acts of ownership' by the other party, such as trimming, laying a hedge, replanting, ditching or felling and removing trees, will not alter the ownership, even if these acts continue for many years. However, where ownership is not clear from the deeds or from the presence of a ditch, 'acts of ownership' by one party may be taken as evidence of ownership, although this is not necessarily conclusive.

If trees overhang a boundary they can cause problems. However, if you are on the receiving end of this you are usually entitled to remove the overhang, so long as it does not damage the rest of the tree. Oddly enough, you have to offer the cut material to the owner so as to avoid being accused of theft. But don't just throw the bits over the fence and think that will do the trick - it's more likely to irritate the neighbour. If they don't want them back when you offer (and they probably will not) then you should dispose of them properly.

Obviously this has the makings of a neighbour dispute so an amicable agreement is by far the best way to approach this. Before you set to on an overhanging tree or hedge, it would be a very good idea to do the following:

1. Contact the owner and make sure they know you are going to do the work. It will almost always be easier if you can co-operate with them.

2. If the works are anything more than minor works then you should consider employing a competent personPages marked with this symbol are exclusively written for Naturenet to do the work for you. Don't risk killing the tree and facing a claim for compensation. Get the contractor to write down, preferably on headed paper, a clear description of exactly what he is going to do and what its effect will be. This is especially important if you think the neighbour might accuse you of deliberately trying to damage the tree/hedge or kill it. If you can show that you used a qualified professional this will be a good defence against such accusations.

3. Make sure you know exactly where your boundary is, and do not go over it at all or do anything to any tree or hedge beyond it unless your neighbour has said you may. If there is any dispute between you and your neighbour about the exact location of your boundary you should definitely seek legal advice before you proceed. Otherwise you risk prejudicing any future action against your neighbour to establish the boundary itself.

4. If the offending tree is interfering with the fabric of your buildings or other structures, contact your insurers and ask their advice before going any further. They might be able to do the negotiations for you which would be a very good thing from your point of view.

5. Be sure that the tree is not protected by a TPOPages marked with this symbol are exclusively written for Naturenet or planning conditions, or is in a Conservation AreaPages marked with this symbol are exclusively written for Naturenet. This is your responsibility regardless of who owns it or even if you don't know who owns it. If any of these are true you must apply for consent (or notify them of your intention 6 weeks beforehand if in a conservation area) from your local planning authority before doing any work.

Roots

The effect of roots on buildings is an extremely complex one, potentially disastrous and well beyond Naturenet's capacity to explain. If you think your buildings are being affected by roots from your trees or a neighbours' then you should definitely involve your insurers at an early stage. One thing is certain - insurers do like to blame the nearest tree and frequently ask for it to be removed and the roots killed. So if you have a very favourite tree near your house, be aware of this before you ring them up!

It is also true that roots do grow around drains (moisture condenses on the outside of cold pipes). However it is not true that roots can break drains, although if a drain is at all leaky or cracked they could certainly make it worse. So if your drains are blocked by roots you can cure the problem by fixing the drain - the tree need not be removed although plenty of people will tell you otherwise.

Trees overhanging a highway

Landowners have a statutory duty not to let vegetation obstruct an adjoining highway (which includes all public rights of way)Pages marked with this symbol are exclusively written for Naturenet. If this is you, be sure to keep your trees cut. Although the local highways authority will sometimes do this on a routine basis for you, they are not obliged to do so and can insist that you do it yourself. If you don't, they can do it anyway and charge you (a lot) for the service.

See also Resolving neighbour disputes: Gov.uk page