In the heart of Belgrave Square, Monkstown, a large, imposing tree takes centre stage.
The small-leaved lime tree, or Tilia cordata, is approximately 35 feet tall and displays an abundance of bright green leaves, shimmering under the mid-afternoon sun.
On Tuesday, 26 May, the park square is rife with activity. Children are playing football on one side of the tree while the other is occupied with families and couples enjoying the day. The tree provides shelter for people chatting and reading books, too.
The gardens date back to 1848, according to Frank Hegarty, chairman of the Belgrave Square Residents Association.
“It was around the same time these homes were built,” he says, pointing at the Victorian houses on the north side of the square.
Apart from being the focal point of the park, the lime tree also holds a prestigious honour. It’s the only tree Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has ever assigned a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) to, issuing it in 1998.
Some 22 years on, certain councillors in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown are calling for more TPOs to be issued to protect more vulnerable trees at risk of felling for development or other reasons.
Tree Preservation Order
Under the Planning and Development Act 2000, local authorities can issue TPOs on a tree or a group of trees that it feels deserves protection.
This order prevents the cutting down, topping or wilful destruction of a tree without the specific consent from the authority. The act makes it an offence to fell or intentionally damage a tree which a TPO is assigned to.
Technically, eight TPOs do fall under the jurisdiction of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council but seven of them were issued prior to the council’s formation in 1994.
The seven were assigned between 1980 and 1990 and are located in Shanganagh, Mount Merrion, Stillorgan, Kilmacud, Old Connaught and Blackrock and are considered legacy TPOs by the council.
The original 1963 act was repealed and replaced with the 2000 Planning and Development Act which outlines the procedures required to issue a TPO. The procedure includes publishing a notice in a local newspaper with a map outlining which tree it is intending on TPO-ing and calling for observations from the public on its proposal.
Under the act, assigning a TPO is a reserved function held by elected representatives but, in reality, is largely managed by the council’s planning department.
22 Years On
Twenty-two years since the lime tree on Belgrave Square, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has yet to issue another TPO. This is despite recent calls to protect more trees at risk of being felled.
Leo Cullen, a local Monkstown resident and volunteer at Monkstown Tidy Towns, said there are some “beautiful” and “historic” trees in the area.
“The walnut tree on Eaton Square is absolutely stunning and the lime tree in Belgrave Square is just so dramatic,” he says.
Cullen says he remembers a few years back a party was thrown for the 150th birthday of the lime tree and that just shows the importance some trees have in areas.
Labour Councillor Carrie Smyth and Green Party Councillor Deirdre Ní Fhloinn have each submitted separate motions on the subject in the past few months.
“There was an issue with a large group of trees on a site in Shankill,” says Smyth.
“I received representations regarding the felling of trees on a site. These trees bring a large amenity value to the area and locals were surprised that they weren’t TPO-ed,” she says.
Smyth says that she has asked the council to begin the process of designating some trees in the county with preservation orders – specifically trees and forested areas marked on the County Development Plan 2016-2022 as “To Protect and Preserve Trees and Woodlands”. These areas include Fernhill, Killiney Hill Park and Kilbogget Park.
“The 2011-2015 Tree Strategy reads: ‘The council will prioritise Tree Preservation Orders based on contribution to amenity or the environment and will explore the allocation of additional resources to prepare, serve and manage them,’” she says.
According to Smyth, this has not happened.
Ní Fhloinn, the Green Party councillor, has filed a motion calling for TPOs to be assigned to a group of trees in Ballinteer. She says she was approached by a group of local residents in the summer of 2019 seeking to protect trees on lands near Gort Muire, Ballinteer, which “had been acquired by Lioncor Developments and are currently the subject of pre planning discussions for a 750+ apartment development”, she said.
According to the minutes of a meeting with local residents in Ballinteer in 2019, Ní Fhloinn said, “Planning permission can be refused, if the proposed development would result in the destruction of trees whose preservation is considered to be essential in the interests of amenity.”
However, Ní Fhloinn then goes on to state that if a council has granted planning permission, it will not retroactively make a TPO, and if the trees are scheduled to be removed, it is difficult to prevent this from happening. “If on the other hand the planning application has only been lodged, then you can object on the grounds that the trees will be lost,” she says.
Both Smyth and Ní Fhloinn say that issuing a TPO is a long process. Although “it is supposed to be a reserved function for councillors, in practice it needs collaboration between the parks and planning departments, and I think that’s a rare occurrence,” says Ní Fhloinn.
“A Lack Of Resources”
Since 1998 Dublin City Council has issued four TPOs, all assigned to large groups of trees in Dartmouth Square Park in 2008, and South Dublin County Council issued one to a tree on Newcastle Road, Lucan in 2015.
Three TPOs are currently in place within the Fingal County Council area but it is not clear if they were issued prior after the inception of Fingal County Council in 1994.
Aidan Ffrench, a landscape architect and executive landscape officer for Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council Parks and Landscape Services says that the lack of TPOs issued largely comes down to a lack of resources, and a lack of staff, within the local authority.
“The Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council Trees Strategy (2011-15) adopted the country’s first such strategy, during the economic downturn,” he says.
“During the recession, the implementation of the strategy including resources for making of TPOs jointly with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council Planning Department was somewhat constrained. Also, it was not seen as a priority in a planning context.”
Ffrench says that the “economic crash impeded Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council Parks and Landscape Services in fully resourcing the complete delivery of all key actions in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Trees Strategy. That situation has been steadily reversed.”
He says Parks and Landscape Services has purchased a tree-survey software package and map to “record publicly owned trees in the county, to proactively undertake its annual Tree Care Programme”.
Ffrench also says that due to parks and landscape services not being an obligatory function for local authorities to provide, tree-protection measures often fall by the wayside.
“Critically, regarding resources and priorities, parks and landscape services – as a local government function – is not obligatory, and is not statutorily required in the Republic of Ireland. Though sometimes rhetorically considered important, it’s merely optional,” he says.
Unlike other local services, such as planning, roads, and housing, there is no legal requirement on councils to establish and resource a parks and landscape unit, he says, or “to recruit the appropriately qualified staff such as landscape architects, parks manager, or tree officers”.
“That is why approximately 24 of the state’s 31 councils don’t have professionally staffed parks and landscape units,” he says.
Ffrench says that once a TPO is issued, if it falls on public land, it’s imperative that the council and its parks department return every so often to maintain and monitor its health.
“You know, you put a TPO on a tree or a group of trees and that’s fine, but you need to go back every five, six, seven years and check the health,” he says.
“They are effective, there’s no doubt about it but it would be crazy for us to go off and make tens and tens of TPOs where we wouldn’t have the resources to go and monitor,” he says.
[Correction - This article was amended on 11 June at 12.27 to reflect that TPOs are issued under the 2000 Planning and Development Act and not the 1963 Act. We apologise for the error.]