Belfast City Council has agreed to look at extra sanctions towards those who breach agreements on public land in the city, after NIE mistakenly cut down a swathe of trees in an East Belfast park.
Elected members at the council’s Climate and City Resilience Committee this week agreed to look at legal avenues for “a more stringent response” to incidents such as the wrongful felling of 170 black alder trees and saplings in Orangefield Park in May this year.
Green Party Councillor Brian Smyth successfully proposed the City Solicitor along with council officers return a report examining future possible sanctions that could be placed in agreements with outside partners.
Councillors also accepted NIE’s offer to replant the affected areas, at no extra cost to the council and the ratepayers. The replanting is expected to be completed by March 2024.
A council report states:
“In May 2023 a contractor working on behalf of NIE networks commenced tree works at Orangefield Park in order to provide mandatory clearances from the overhead lines that run along the western boundary of the park and through a woodland adjacent to Orby Drive. These works were ceased once council officers became aware that the work carried out differed significantly from those agreed with the council.
“Tree cutting works started 18th May 2023 under a licence agreement provided by the council’s estates team. On 19th May the council’s woodland officer spoke to the contractors undertaking the works and raised concerns regarding the extent of the pruning works and discussed this with the contractor on site.
“On the 22nd May following a further inspection by the councils woodland officer, it was evident that the tree cutting works deviated significantly from those agreed with council and as detailed in as part of the access agreement.”
NIE stated in a letter to the council:
“The works of 18th and 19th May were carried out in a technically competent manner ‐ that is, that good arboricultural practice was followed in terms of the physical cuts taken, and that the site was operated in a manner that protected the safety of the work team and the public.
“The works themselves deviated significantly from those agreed with BCC as detailed in the published work instruction. Changes to cut‐type and the disposal of arisings were made without rigour and on an ad‐hoc basis, with the effectiveness of communication between the working‐party and their NIE Networks contact on the 19th May being a particular issue.”
In the letter NIE committed to amend its procedures, including the use of a new “variation certificate” to rigorously oversee “any agreed deviations in the instruction.”
Neither the NIE nor the council have given details to the public of the exact misunderstanding between the council, NIE and tree cutting contractor that led to trees that were meant only to be trimmed being felled.
At the council committee meeting on Thursday councillors lined up to speak of their frustration and public anger with NIE.
SDLP Councillor Gary McKeown said:
“It does raise concern that there has been an inordinate amount of time between councillors raising this and it being dealt with. Apart from environmental considerations, it is also ratepayers money, and time that officers could spend on other things.
“Everyone is talking about NIE putting this right. They can’t put it right, because they were trees that were mature. It is going to take a long long time for the trees and the biodiversity to come back to any kind of standard that is a reflection of what was there before.
“Yes it is welcome they are going to go in and plant new trees, but we need to be realistic, this was a severe impact on a local environment and was totally unacceptable.
“It is only through having a more robust arrangement with contractors that we can start to address some of these issues. The only place we can hit them is where it hurts, and that is in the pocket.
“We do need to have some sort of arrangement where if there are breaches of environmental work that we are able to activate levies or fines. Otherwise this is only a slap on the wrist – they go in and plant a few trees and everything is forgotten about. That isn’t good enough.”
Sinn Féin Councillor Geraldine McAteer said:
“It is hugely traumatic for a lot of park users, especially for people who live near where trees have been cut down, to wake up one morning and see a little forest gone.”
Green Party Councillor Brian Smyth said:
“There was considerable local anger, and people who contacted me were deeply upset about the scale of the destruction, at what is a fantastic park in East Belfast. Council staff felt similarly.
“It’s good that NIE are going to pay for a replanting scheme and the maintenance of it, and a much stronger agreement will be in place for future works in our park and estates.
“However NIE is saying it was a miscommunication issue, a mistake etcetera, but I still struggle to comprehend the sheer scale of the damage that was left. Anyone who was up at the site will know that this considerable area was essentially butchered.”
He said: “We need to go down a much more stringent legal route, like making a complaint to the PSNI. I have made a complaint to police, but have yet to hear back from them. It was near nesting season, so I lodged the complaint as a possible wildlife crime.
“It should not be left to individual councillors in this chamber to do that. The council as a corporate and civic body should do it.
“While I welcome the report and the measures that are to be put in place around greater scrutiny with contractors and regenerating the area, I want this to be the line in the sand as to how we deal with this in the future. And that we take a much stronger line on the environment and biodiversity in the spaces we manage.”