Canberra’s Significant Trees and how they can affect your build

When building in the ACT or considering buying land it is good to have a basic working knowledge on the ACT Governments Tree Protection Act 2005 so that your grand plans don’t come unstuck. Here’s all you need to know about the Tree Protection Act before you get building.

Our Downer Knockdown rebuild was built around a number of significant trees.

Canberra is a city unlike any other. It is a city informed and built around a spectacular landscape setting, a place where open space is as integral to the life of the city as its buildings and inhabitants. Thanks to Canberra’s early planners it is home to one of the best urban forests in Australia, which provides economic, environmental and aesthetic benefits as well as being an important step towards creating a sustainable city. For this reason it is necessary to ensure the urban forest cover of the city is protected. The ACT Government’s Tree Protection Act 2005 is in place to ensure that exceptional trees of scientific and cultural importance are protected and Canberra’s urban forests maintained.

An Enrico Taglietti original in Griffith restored by Homes by Howe. An Enrico Taglietti original

What is the Tree Protection Act 2005?

The Tree Protection Act 2005 is in place to preserve tress of significance in Canberra. It takes a targeted approach to the protection of individual trees of importance on leased land, as well as areas where urban forest requires particular protection.

Homes by Howe working around significant trees.

What does the Tree Protection Act do?

The Tree Protection Act 2005 protects individual trees of importance to Canberra’s ecological, cultural and scientific heritage through the establishment of a Tree Register. The Protection Act allows the minister to declare parts of the city Tree Management Precincts so as to minimise the loss of canopy cover in areas of high development.

What is a Significant Tree?

The definition of a Significant Tree is a tree that has ecological, cultural, social or scientific value to a place. The Tree Protection Act 2005 demarks two types of protected tree in its legislation:

Registered Tree: A Registered Tree is a tree listed on the ACT Tree Register which ahs been identified as being exceptional for its natural, cultural or scientific value or its landscape and aesthetic value.

Regulated Tree: A Regulated Tree is a tree located on leased territory land in an area declared as a tree management precinct and meets the below criteria:

  • Is 12m or more in height
  • Has a 12m or more crown width
  • Has a circumference of 1.5m or more at 1m above ground level
  • Has two trunks whose total circumference at 1m above ground level is 1.5m or greater

It is also possible for street or verge trees in urban areas to be on the Tree Register; otherwise they are not covered under the Tree Protection Act 2005 but under the Trespass on Territory Land Act 1932.

Homes by Howe works around Significant Trees protecting them and using them to elevate the experience of the property.

What is a Tree Management Precinct?

A Tree Management Precinct is an area the minister has declared in need of protection from the unnecessary removal of trees. Under the Tree Protection Act 2005 Tree Management Precincts aim to ‘’protect urban forest values that may be at risk because of unnecessary loss or degradation and… that contribute to the heritage significance of an area’’ (Tree Protection Act 2005). In a Tree Management Precinct approval will be needed to remove, damage or undertake groundwork within the tree protection zone of regulated trees. Click here for Tree Activity Application Forms.

What is a Tree Protection Zone?

The Tree Protection Zone for a significant tree or regulated tree within a Tree Management Precinct is the 2m wide area surrounding the vertical projection of the canopy and the 4m wide area surrounding the trunk measure at 1m above ground level. A different protection zone may also be defined in an approved Tree Management Plan for the protected tree in question.

Another thing to be aware of is a declared site. A declared site is an area that was once the tree protection zone of a registered tree that has subsequently been killed or died of natural causes. Approval is also required to undertake groundwork on a declared site. You have more of a chance of approval if your proposed activity is less that 10% of the total area of the declared site.

What is the Significant Tree Register?

The Tree Protection Act 2005 establishes a Tree Register to protect trees of individual importance. Nominated trees are assessed against a formal criteria based on heritage value, landscape value and scientific and ecological value. Before embarking on a new home design, knockdown rebuild or buying a plot it is worth checking wether there are any trees near your property or proposed site that are on the Tree Register. It is also worth checking wether your area falls within a Tree Management Precinct.

Homes by Howe Canberra builder – Governor Generals' new facade

How can this affect my knockdown rebuild or new home design?

If the site of your knockdown rebuild or new home design contains within it a registered or regulated tree/trees there are a number of things you will need to gain approval for prior to the commencement of work on the site.

Any activity that is likely to cause damage to the tree/trees is prohibited. That includes killing or removing said tree or activities likely to result in its death or decline.

Before undertaking any groundwork within a Tree Protection Zone or declared site you will need to seek approval using an Application to Undertake a Tree Damaging Activity form. Groundwork in a Tree Protection Zone can include any of the following activities:

  • Contaminating the soil with a substance which is either poisonous or can cause harm to trees
  • Cutting tree roots that have a diameter greater than 50mm
  • Raising the soil level by more than 10cm above the natural soil level over an area of 4m squared or greater
  • Excavating to a depth of over 10cm over an area 4m squared or greater

Cultivating the soil for horticultural purposes is not considered groundwork under the Tree Protection Act 2005.

Pruning may be undertaken on a regulated tree if it is done in accordance with the ACT Standard for Pruning Amenity Trees (AS4373) without the approval of a conservator. Any major pruning on regulated or registered trees requires approval from a conservator. However if a tree becomes an immediate risk life to your life or property you may get quick approval for removal through Urgent Circumstances Authorisation.

What will happen if I don’t comply?

If you refuse to comply or undertake tree damaging activity or groundwork on a registered or regulated tree in a Tree Protection Zone without approval you will be subject to a number of penalties outlined in Part 3 of the Tree Protection Act 2005. These can include:

  • An on-the-spot fine of $1000 for individuals and $5000 for companies
  • Serious offences can incur penalties of up to $200 000 and a criminal record

How do I get a Tree Management Plan?

The Tree Protection Act 2005 provides streamlined assessment process for tree protection matters. A Tree Management Plan is a formal requirement for any development application involving a protected tree and acts as an ongoing approval to undertake tree damaging or groundwork activities within a tree’s Tree Protection Zone. You may also include a Tree Management Plan as part of your application that has been approved prior to lodgement.

What can I do if I want to remove a Regulated Tree?

If you wish to remove a regulated tree you will need to fill out a Tree Damaging Activity Form. It may also be worth hiring an arborist for an independent opinion or you can meet someone from the Tree Protection Unit to discuss options. Essentially in order to remove a regulated tree you will need to meet one of the below criteria under the Tree Protection Act 2005:

  • The tree is in poor health
  • It poses a risk to human safety
  • It has the potential to damage property
  • It is an inappropriate species and is limiting or obstructing the growth of other trees
  • It is obstructing solar access

It is also worth noting that verge trees are a separate application. 

Whilst this can seem like pretty serious stuff the best builders in Canberra have experience in these matters and can advise you on ways to construct within the Tree Protection Zone to meet the requirements of the Tree Protection Act 2005. They can also help you to prepare a Tree Management Plan to seek approval with. It is worth noting that the 75% of tree felling and removal applications were approved over the 2018-2019 period.

Homes by Howe Canberra builder – Governor Generals' renovation extension – Window with view

What is an Urban Forest and Why Does it Matter to Me?

An Urban Forest is a collection of trees that grow in a city and provide canopy cover improving the sustainability of the urban environment. Urban Forest is an integral part of Canberra’s heritage as the ‘’bush capital’’ of Australia and an enduring part of the Griffin’s initial design for Canberra. As well as softening the architectural landscape of the city urban forests play an important part in:

  • Shade: Urban forests reduce temperature build up from direct sunlight on heat absorbing surfaces such as roads and footpaths. This has the affect of reducing the urban heat island effect during summer.
  • Wind reduction: Canberra can be a windy place. Urban forests can act as windbreaks and play an important role in reducing wind speeds. It is estimated that urban forest canopy cover reduces wind speeds by approximately 10-15% near the ground.
  • Stormwater management: Stormwater runoff and infrastructure is a major cost in urban planning yet it is critical to prevent flooding. Urban forests can help to reduce peak flows by capturing up 5% of initial flow whilst detritus simultaneously improves the absorption capacity of soils.

How could this change in the future?

As of 2019 the Tree Protection Act 2005 is currently under review to bring it more in line with the ACT Governments new Climate Change Strategy 2019-2025. The new Infrastructure Plan 2019 aims to provide better strategic direction to help Canberra’s expanding and densifying metropolitan areas become better adapted to Climate Change impacts.

The benefits of urban forests are being increasingly acknowledged within law and policy for the role they play in maintaining ecosystem services in urban areas and reducing the urban heat island effect. The Infrastructure Plan 2019 aims to ensure that future planning in the National Capital ‘’values, incorporates and protects natural assets’’ through the adoption of a number of living infrastructure targets to be reached by 2045. With the plan calling for ‘’30% tree canopy cover (or equivalent) and 30% permeable surfaces in Canberra’ urban footprint’’ by 2045 there is significant impetus to review and amend the Tree Protection Act 2005 to bring it in line with the targets set in the Infrastructure Plan 2019.

Trees are a core component of Canberra heritage identity as the Bush Capital. With future development targets set by the ACT Planning Strategy 2018 having 70% occurring within the existing urban footprint, a review of the Tree Protection Act 2005 is needed to ensure that urban forest is maintained and enhanced to improve public amenity and deliver biodiversity outcomes.

The Tree Protection Act 2005 is integral to achieving a National Capital that is climate wise, prosperous and conserves nature within its urban bounds. The best builders in Canberra, such as Homes by Howe, will have up to date information on all the changes to legislation regarding tree protection for your upcoming knockdown rebuild or new home design.

This can all sound daunting and complicated but ultimately the best builders in Canberra will be able to guide you through the process and have the right industry contacts to make your build stress-free. If you want more information regarding the Tree Protection Act 2005 you can contact Access Canberra either online or at 13 22 81. Alternatively, if you are in the process of planning a knockdown rebuild or new custom home, then book a design consultation with Homes by Howe. 


Booker, Stephanie. 2020. “Australian Capital Territory: Emerging laws for tree protection in the Australian Capital Territory.”  Local Government Law Journal 23 (2): 84-86.

Carroll, Elizabeth. 2006. “Policy and practice – Australian Capital Territory [Tree protection legislation].”  Local Government Law Journal 11 (3): 129-134.

Government, ACT. 2020. “Information about Tree Protection on Leased Land.” ACT Government. and-nature/trees/information_about_tree_protection_on_leased_land.