PROTECTING NATIONAL SECURI-TREE: The council wanted to know who had pruned a Scots pine like the one pictured
By Gareth Davies
Council chiefs have used anti-terror laws to try and identify who was behind the illegal pruning of a tree.
A Croydon Council tree officer employed the Regulation of Investigative Powers Act (RIPA) to hunt through mobile phone records in a bid to catch a tree pruner who had given them the slip.
The man - understood to have been a builder - had been caught cutting back a Scots pine, but evaded prosecution by giving the authorities a false address.
Not to be foiled, the council invoked the special Government powers - which are designed to protect national security - in the hope the phone number given by the man would reveal his identity.
However, using the legislation proved in vain because the tree cutter was using a prepaid, unregistered phone, and he remains at large.
Council chiefs - while refusing to reveal where the tree was - have defended using RIPA, stating that nearby residents were concerned the tree was being "attacked".
A spokesman for the council said: "A search for the address of a man caught illegally pruning a preserved large, mature Scots pine was made only after every other avenue open to us was exhausted.
"The man was caught committing a criminal act following several complaints from residents who were extremely concerned that a beautiful tree was being attacked.
"The RIPA search told us that the mobile telephone number given was for an anonymous pre-pay handset and we are still trying to trace him so that we can help bring a prosecution.
"This is the first and only time our tree officers have used RIPA and that should give the general public some indication of the damage done to what was a much-loved tree."
The council refused to disclose where the tree is, insisting that because it is on private land identifying it would breach the Data Protection Act.
Only five Croydon Council officers have the power to authorise the use of RIPA, all of whom are directors or senior managers.
Since January 2004, the council has used the act on 212 occasions to investigate offences from anti-social behaviour and racial harassment, to fly-tipping and council tax fraud.