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Boundary disputes: getting to the root of the problem
10 Sep 2021

“Neighbours should be there for one another” — or so say the lyrics of the infamous Australian television soap, Neighbours.

However, as people have spent more time at home and in their gardens during the pandemic, infrequent neighbourly niggles have transformed into serious complaints, with branches, tree roots and hedges proving to be a major source of disagreement.  

Here, Mohammed Ahsan, property litigation specialist at law firm FBC Manby Bowdler investigates.

When it comes to bothersome branches, troublesome tree roots and fruit falling into a neighbour’s garden, there’s not always a clear-cut resolution.

A growing problem

In one case being heard by the courts in Surrey, a homeowner is claiming that an apple tree has made her a ‘prisoner in her own home’, arguing that when the fruit falls and decays it attracts wasps, and she is allergic to their sting.

Her actions to cut back the tree without agreement have resulted in a long and bitter dispute, with legal costs now standing at £200,000 amid claims of trespass, harassment and obstruction. 

Whereas in Norfolk, a mother has been unable to convince the local authority to let her cut back an overhanging walnut tree, despite her daughter having a severe nut allergy.

Chantel Beck claims the walnut tree poses the threat of anaphylactic shock for her six-year-old daughter, and while she was granted permission to trim the tree back in 2018, when this authorisation lapsed and she had not acted, her re-application was unsuccessful. The council said that the works could affect the health of the tree, and that they were considering protecting it with a preservation order.  

As well as overhanging branches, tree roots may also pose a problem for neighbourhood relations as trees that are allowed to grow unchecked, or too close to buildings, can damage foundations and cause subsidence.

If tree roots are threatening foundations, then the tree owner could be liable to pay for any remedial works, but only once they have been put on notice to act.

Hedges can be equally divisive, particularly when it comes to the notoriously fast growing leylandii. If a hedge, or a row of trees, grows more than 2 meters tall and affects enjoyment of a property, the owner can be asked to trim it back. 

Extending an olive branch

It’s inevitable that more time spent at home will have seen more people picking up on things that may have been unnoticed before, but the best approach to disputes is a restrained conversation to discuss the problem — and if that doesn’t resolve the matter consider mediation before rushing to the courts.

It’s all too easy to let these quarrels escalate into a personal battle, which can have more impact on your ability to enjoy your property than the original problem itself. Remember, you still have to live alongside that neighbour, and nowadays you have to declare any dispute when you come to sell a property.

Even though you are allowed to trim branches or roots up to the property boundary, it’s still best to have a chat first. And if you live in a conservation area, or where trees are protected by tree preservation orders, then you need to speak to the council before you start pruning. 

If you don’t, you could find yourself facing legal action for damage to property, even if there is an obvious nuisance. If you don’t feel able to have that conversation, then call in a professional to act as intermediary with your neighbour, or with the local authority.

It’s clear the Neighbours theme tune provides sound advice, despite its own regular on-screen drama. So, it’s probably best to leave any escalated boundary disputes to the experts.

FBC Manby Bowdler is one of the Midlands’ leading law firms with offices in Wolverhampton, across Shropshire and Redditch. It regularly features in national guides to the best legal practices in the country.

If you need assistance in resolving a boundary dispute, Mohammad can be contacted at mohammed.ahsan@fbcmb.co.uk or on 01743 284155.

Meet Mohammed Ahsan