Illegal tree felling in England to be punishable with jail and uncapped fines

Illegal tree felling in England will be punishable by unlimited fines and prison sentences from 1 January, the government has announced.

Tough on tree felling but relaxed over river pollution. Where is the coherence in all this? – Owl

The current fine for cutting down a tree without a licence, established by the Forestry Act 1967, is £2,500 or twice the value of the timber, whichever is the higher.

But the development value of the land, as opposed to the price of timber, has been the main driver of illegal felling in recent years.

To deter property barons from illegally flattening trees and accepting the paltry penalties as a cost of doing business, the Forestry Act 1967 will be amended by the Environment Act to allow uncapped fines. The Environment Act passed into law in November 2021, although its provisions against illegal tree felling are not yet in force.

Under existing laws, illegally felling 12 oak trees, all about 150 years old, attracted a fine of just £15,000 in January 2020. The case, prosecuted at Hastings magistrates court, was remarkable for resulting in one of the biggest fines in recent years.

“These new powers will hit people where it hurts – in their wallets,” said the Forestry Commission’s chief executive, Richard Stanford. “By guaranteeing that illegal felling is no longer a financially viable option for offenders, these measures are a significant step forward in the fight against this offence and will help in our endeavours to fight the climate emergency and nature crisis.”

The changes also mean a failure to replant illegally felled trees after a court’s restocking order could result in a prison sentence.

Selling land developed through illegal felling will also be made less lucrative, with restocking notices and enforcement notices listed on the local land charges register – potentially reducing the land’s value in the eyes of buyers.

But critics question whether the harsh penalties will be meted out often enough to be an effective deterrent. Last month the Guardian revealed only 15 of 4,002 alleged illegal felling cases reported to the Forestry Commission resulted in a successful conviction between 2012-13 to 2021-22.

The Forestry Commission, a non-ministerial government department, said its count of alleged wrongdoing is inflated by members of the public misreporting. Exemptions apply in the majority of cases flagged up, relating to factors such as the timber volume, the diameter of the tree and its location.

Local planning authorities already have the power to issue tree protection orders (TPOs), with those who breach them facing unlimited fines if the case is serious enough to be tried at the crown court. Earlier this year, a case prosecuted by Eastleigh borough council resulted in a £50,000 fine for a landowner who illegally felled a number of trees within Scorey’s Copse, including oak, ash, birch, hawthorn and poplar.

From 1 January 2023, even trees without TPOs could land illegal fellers with an unlimited fine, if chopped down without a licence outside of qualifying exemptions.

The forestry minister, Trudy Harrison, said: “Felling trees without a licence is illegal and can cause irreparable harm – scarring landscapes, damaging habitats for wildlife, and causing distress for local communities.

“These robust measures, implemented as part of our world-leading Environment Act, empower the Forestry Commission to tackle the issue head-on with unlimited fines and custodial sentences for the worst offenders.”

Abi Bunker, the director of conservation at the Woodland Trust, said: “This is a welcome announcement which should strengthen protection for trees in England. These changes should send a clear message that felling trees illegally, for example prior to submitting development proposals, will not be tolerated, and that the penalties reflect the value and many benefits trees bring to our towns and cities.

“It is important that this is backed by increased resources for the organisations that deal with the enforcement of illegal felling.”

Target date for cleaning up waterways in England is moved back by 36 years

Targets to clean up the majority of England’s rivers, lakes and coastal waters suffering from a cocktail of agricultural and sewage pollution have been pushed back from 2027 to 2063.

Disgusting! – Owl

Sandra Laville 

Not one English waterway, including rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters is in good ecological and chemical health at present, with pollution from water treatment plants and agriculture the key sources of the damage. The Environment Agency said on Thursday £5.3bn was being invested for the next five years to stop the further deterioration of waterways.

But the summary documents within the plan reveal the target for all 3,651 water bodies to achieve good chemical and ecological status – a state in which they are as close to their natural state as possible – was now decades away in 2063.

Until Brexit the UK government was signed up to the water framework directive, which required countries to make sure all their waters achieved “good” chemical and ecological status by 2027 at the latest. The UK government later reduced the target to 75% of waterways reaching the single test of good ecological status by 2027 at the latest. The target for the majority of waterways to achieve good status in both chemical and ecological tests has now been pushed back to 2063, according to the documents.

By 2027, only 4% of waters are currently on track to be in good overall condition.

The Wildlife Trusts said the new river basin management plans were the third instalment of proposals to restore nearly 5,000 rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters across England. Both previous plans from 2009 and 2015 were supposed to oversee the recovery of a large proportion of these waters by 2015 and 2021 – but the targets were missed and pushed back.

Ali Morse, water policy manager for the Wildlife Trusts, said this new target of 2063 meant rivers, lakes and coastal waters would not be healthy within the lifetimes of many people. “For too long we have allowed our rivers and lakes to become poisoned, decimating aquatic wildlife and habitats.

“We need ambitious targets to repair the immense damage inflicted on our natural world. Instead, the government is comfortable with kicking action on rivers into the long grass. At this rate, a great deal of us will not see England’s rivers and lakes given a clean bill of health in our lifetimes – and that is nothing short of a tragedy.”

The latest state of rivers and lakes released by the Environment Agency in 2020 shows that only 16% meet the criteria for good ecological status and no surface water bodies are deemed to meet the criteria for achieving good chemical status. Both criteria are required for a waterway to be deemed as in a good state – thus no river, lake or coastal water is judged to be in a good state at present.

The Environment Agency said on Thursday the £5.3bn being invested in the river basement management plans into waterways over the next five years would help protect and enhance England’s waters, tackling the impacts of pollution and climate change. The plans are legally-binding and aimed at tackling the key threats to rivers and coastal waters which are water company pollution, agricultural pollution, climate change and population growth.

But if no progress is made the EA said only 6% of rivers, lakes and coastal waters would be in a good ecological state by 2043.

John Leyland, EA executive director said: “Whilst progress has been made to protect and enhance England’s waters, it is clear that considerable time and investment will still be needed if we are to see the further improvement in our water environment that we all want.”

The £5.3bn action plan to 2027 was already funded, the EA said. It included £4.3bn of action by water companies and more than £500m to mitigate the impacts of agriculture on the water environment.

The Wildlife Trusts said pressures from water demand and pollution were incessant; from record-breaking temperatures and low rainfall, to the overuse of storm overflows to release raw sewage into rivers, even at times of dry conditions. The latter, the trusts said, were a clear sign that investment in sewage infrastructure had not kept pace with what was needed.

Morse said the reason for what was an extremely long road to recovery of river health outlined in the new plans was in the majority of cases, chemical pollution. Waterways are polluted by chemicals from landfill sites, urban runoff or agriculture, and when these chemicals have already reached the environment, there was very little that could be done to remove them, she said.

Rishi Sunak appoints ethics adviser but accused of preserving ‘rotten regime’

Rishi Sunak has appointed a new “Old Etonian” ethics adviser whose long business career involved links with disgraced retail tycoon Sir Philip Green and the late Robert Maxwell. (Various additional sources)

“This government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.” – Rishi Sunak

Adam Forrest 

Rishi Sunak has appointed a new ethics adviser after a six-month vacancy but has been condemned for clinging onto the personal power to veto any investigation into ministers.

Historic England chairman Sir Laurie Magnus was announced as the successor to Lord Geidt – who quit after a turbulent tenure under Boris Johnson – as the adviser on ministers’ interests.

But the prime minister ignored calls from the Committee on Standards in Public Life and others to give his top adviser the power to start their own investigation without his permission.

Labour accused Mr Sunak of having chosen to “preserve the rotten ethics regime” that led to the resignations of both Lord Geidt and his predecessor Sir Alex Allan.

The Liberal Democrats said the new adviser was “toothless”, and the respected Institute for Government think tank said it was “unwise” for Sir Laurie to accept the role without a strengthened remit.

Welcoming the new role as “an honour” and a “significant responsibility”, Sir Laurie said an early priority will be scrutinising the declaration of ministers’ interests.

“I will endeavour to discharge the important responsibilities of the role with fairness and integrity, in a manner which inspires the confidence of ministers, parliament and the public,” the adviser wrote to Mr Sunak.

In a letter to Sir Laurie, Mr Sunak stressed he believes it is a “critically important role”, having faced pressure to appoint someone to a role vacant since June.

“I have sought to identify potential candidates who can demonstrate the critical qualities of integrity and independence, relevant expertise and experience, and an ability to command the trust and confidence of ministers,” the letter read.

Sir Laurie, who has a background in financial services and is a former deputy chairman of the National Trust, takes up the adviser role for a non-renewable five-year term.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said: “After months of dither and delay, Rishi Sunak has chosen to preserve the rotten ethics regime he inherited from his predecessors that saw the previous two ethics watchdogs walk out.

“By ignoring the Committee on Standards in Public Life and refusing to grant his ethics adviser genuine independence, this weak Prime Minister is failing to deliver the integrity he promised and instead has installed yet another toothless watchdog.”

She said Labour would install a “genuinely independent” integrity and ethics commission with powers to launch investigation without ministerial approval.

Institute for Government director Dr Hannah White said it was “disappointing” that Mr Sunak has “forgone the opportunity to strengthen the role”, and said Sir Laurie had been “unwise” to accept it without new powers.

Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union representing senior civil servants, argued Mr Sunak is “essentially continuity Boris Johnson when it comes to the ministerial code and ministerial conduct”.

“The prime minister retains a veto over investigations into his minister’s conduct and is the sole arbiter of the Ministerial Code, including any sanctions. How will this give civil servants the confidence to come forward?” he asked.

Chris Bryant, the Labour MP who chairs the Commons standards committee, told the BBC the system is “bust”, with the PM “judge and jury in his own court”.

Lord Geidt resigned after an “especially busy year” during which he investigated the controversial funding of Mr Johnson’s Downing Street refurbishments and as the then-prime minister was embroiled in Partygate.

He quit in June in protest at Mr Johnson’s willingness to consider measures which would breach the ministerial code, saying he was put in an “impossible and odious” position.

His predecessor Sir Alex resigned in 2020 after Mr Johnson refused to accept his finding that then-home secretary Priti Patel had bullied civil servants.

Mr Johnson initially reviewed whether the role needed to be filled after Lord Geidt quit, and Mr Sunak has seemingly struggled to find a willing replacement since taking over in October.

The lack of an ethics chief meant that the PM had to appoint another “independent” investigator to examine the complaints made against justice secretary Dominic Raab.

Liberal Democrat Cabinet Office spokeswoman Christine Jardine said: “To leave the vital ethics adviser post vacant for weeks was bad enough. Now we discover the new incumbent has to seek the PM’s permission to launch investigations. It’s utterly toothless.”

Mr Sunak’s leadership rival Liz Truss said during the summer Tory contest that was unnecessary because she knew “the difference between right and wrong”.

More road closures in Colyton

A series of road closures spanning several months has been announced for the East Devon town of Colyton as work continues to upgrade the town’s gas pipes.

Becca Gliddon 

Wales & West Utilities said it was ‘progressing well’ with its work to upgrade gas pipes in the King Street area of Colyton, which started in September.

The work is expected to finish by the end of March 2023, and weeks of road closures have been announced to complete the remainder of the upgrade.

The road closures and dates are:

  • Dolphin Street (January 3 – 27)
  • Church Street (January – February 17)
  • Queen Street (February 20 – March 3)

A Wales & West Utilities spokeswoman said: “The work, which started in September, is essential to keep the gas flowing safely to heat and power local homes and businesses.

“Barring any engineering difficulties, it is due to finish by the end of March next year.

“Wales & West Utilities has liaised with Devon County Council to plan the work.”

Abby Smith, managing the Wales & West Utilities gas pipe upgrade work, said most of the gas network was underground and out of sight, but was ‘central’ in the role in the daily lives of people across Colyton.

She said: “We know that working in areas like this is not ideal, but it really is essential to make sure we keep the gas flowing to homes and businesses in the area, and to make sure the gas network is fit for the future.”

She said a team of gas engineers have been on site throughout the project to make sure the work was completed safely, as quickly as possible, while keeping disruption to a minimum.

Ms Smith said: “This work is essential to keep the gas flowing to local homes and businesses today, and to make sure the gas network is ready to transport hydrogen and biomethane, so we can all play our part in a green future.”