Councils go to war over Irton tree costs

The beech tree in Irton before it was felled. And below, the felling in progress
The beech tree in Irton before it was felled. And below, the felling in progress
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TWO councils went to war yesterday in a courtroom dispute over who should pay for a legal wrangle over a tree.

North Yorkshire County Council and Scarborough Borough Council accused each other of behaving unreasonably during the Irton Tree saga, which ended when the beech was controversially felled in October.

The final minutes of the last day for the Irton beech tree, as it is finally felled. Picture by Andrew Higgins  114029a   04/10/11

The final minutes of the last day for the Irton beech tree, as it is finally felled. Picture by Andrew Higgins 114029a 04/10/11

The Evening News understands that the county council incurred a bill which has spiralled to a figure in the region of £300,000, and the authority is attempting to recoup the bulk of the cash from Scarborough Council, which put a Tree Preservation Order on it in 2007.

The county council claim that Scarborough Council officers acted unreasonably when they chose to “sit on the fence and not come off” in July last year.

Scarborough Council officers did not state whether they believed a legal exemption applied which would have allowed the tree to be cut down, despite the preservation order, as it was causing a nuisance to a neighbouring property.

Robin Green, representing North Yorkshire County Council, said: “There was a refusal to say yes or no. That is a surprising view to take as they were the body that imposed the Tree Preservation Order.

“If the tree was causing a nuisance and there was nothing else that could be done, the exemption applied - it’s a simple as that. No matter how valuable the tree of unpopular its felling, the exemption applied.”

The county council claim that as a result of the Scarborough Council’s indecision, they incurred substantial legal costs as the saga rolled on.

Mr Green accepted that Scarborough Council had not been under a legal duty to respond to the question over the exemption, but argued that the local authority had not acted reasonably and should pay costs as a result.

He added: “They took a bizarre approach. For thoroughly bad reasons Scarborough Council refused to cooperate.”

The county council did not require permission from Scarborough Council to cut the tree down, but it was alleged that the county council wanted the go-ahead to protect itself against legal action.

Eventually, Judge Roger Ibbotson, who also presided over the hearing at Scarborough County Court yesterday, ordered that the tree be felled.

John Hunter, who represented Scarborough Council, said that its officers had been right not to state whether they believed the exemption applied, given the fact that its democratically elected members had refused an application to cut down the tree months earlier.

He said: “The officers were being asked to endorse the felling of the tree. They were being asked a different question. But it would have been the same result by the back door.

“It is clear the officers would have been subject to the greatest criticism from the public and the members if they purported to give the view they were asked for. They would have been undermining the committee’s decision.

“It would have been improper to make a behind-closed-doors decision on a matter of manifest public interest.”

The county council are not claiming for costs incurred due to the actions of five protesters who climbed the tree and prevented its destruction for two weeks.

Judge Ibbotson will give his judgement in the new year.