Council criticised for "abuse of power" over felled TPO trees case

A local authority has responded to claims that its attempt to prosecute a resident whom it claimed had poisoned two mature trees was "a ridiculous waste of public money".

Image: Amanda Slater (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Image: Amanda Slater (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A tree officer for Reigate & Banstead Borough Council discovered holes in two oak trees subject to a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) at the property of Francesco Gregori of Kingswood, Surrey in July 2016.

The council commissioned forensic studies of the trees, with samples appearing to show that a toxin, likely to be weedkiller, had been inserted into holes in the trees, causing their premature demise.

Gregori was invited by the council to attend an interview under caution but declined to attend.

The council decided to prosecute for breach of a TPO, and at an initial hearing in April 2017, Gregori pleaded not guilty. The case was referred to Guildford Crown Court, where a three-day hearing was held in January this year, resulting in Gregori being found not guilty.

However the jury requested that Gregori plant two mature trees at the property to replace those that had died.

Having defended Grigori, Forbes-Laird Arboricultural Consultancy principal Julian Forbes-Laird criticised the council, saying: "This prosecution was a ridiculous waste of public money and put a terrible strain on the defendant without any proper evidential basis.

"If this is the way that local authorities use, or rather abuse, their prosecutor power, there is a very strong case for a change in the law to require CPS review of proposed prosecutions prior to charges being laid. I will shortly be writing to the Lord Chancellor to make this point."

A Reigate & Banstead Borough Council representative said: "The council has a duty to investigate where it believes a breach of planning legislation has taken place. We do not shy away from prosecution when we think there is evidence to suggest an offence has been committed.

"Naturally we were disappointed at the outcome of this case. The council felt we had sufficient evidence to bring a prosecution for suspected damage to two protected oak trees which subsequently led to their premature demise. This was demonstrated by the fact that the judge dismissed the defence’s claim for wasted costs from Reigate & Banstead Borough Council."

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