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Mr. Clifton-Brown: I do not accept that one iota. I tried to improve the Bill, but it was not possible to improve it to the standard that I thought was necessary. The hon. Gentleman made a good point about the enclosure legislation, and it is true that many Acts of Parliament required the planting of hedgerows. However, considerably more hedgerows have been planted since, and that is what I want to talk about.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Sir K. Carlisle) rightly pointed out that he has an admirable record of planting hedges. I, too, have planted a net gain of over a mile of hedges. I plant at least 100 m of hedges a year and have done so for the past 15 years, almost without exception.

Responsible landowners want to see hedges maintained. It is my impression that farmers today are planting as much hedgerow as they are removing, and I believe that they are managing them better. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said, in Leicestershire and Gloucestershire there is far more cutting and laying of hedges today than there was five years ago, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, with the amount of rambling he does, will have seen that.

I make one plea to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I hope that he will be able to encourage local authorities, if necessary through guidance notes, to implement the regulations with a sensible light touch. Some local authorities will implement them in a sensible way but, as with tree preservation orders, some local authorities will implement them in an overbearing, burdensome, bureaucratic and misunderstanding manner. I hope that he will be able to control those local authorities which do not implement them in the spirit that has been laid down today.

I would welcome the inclusion of economic interests. That is an important part of the regulations and is not supposed to drive a coach and horses through them. However, it is sensible that, if there is proper economic

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consideration, where employment and agricultural businesses are important, that should be able to be taken into account.

I commend my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, because it is his commitment that has brought this issue before the House today, despite some opposition, and I welcome the regulations.

4.36 pm

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): I, too, declare an interest as a landowner and as one who has planted considerable lengths of new hedgerows and revitalised old hedgerows.

Tributes have been paid in the House to the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), and I am sure that they are well deserved. However, I make no secret of the fact that I was the Member of Parliament who objected to my hon. Friend's private Member's Bill. It is worth reminding the House why I did so.

It was the vogue a year or two ago to draw the Government's attention to the fact that they were over-regulating. That is a feature that has already been mentioned in this short debate. As I was at pains to explain to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey at the time, I saw his Bill as yet another piece of legislation that would add to the regulations and give more powers to local authorities and their officials, who, unlike farmers and landowners, probably have little or no understanding of the practical difficulties, problems and considerations of the countryside.

I regret that we are here again introducing regulatory legislation which gives another little rule book to local authority officials. It cuts across the spirit of much that those of us in the countryside want to do.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) was critical of the fact that certain hedgerows were not being maintained. I am sure that that is the case in certain parts of the country and it may be more prevalent in some parts than in others. However, only last weekend, as I was driving in the countryside in the west of my constituency and in Wales, I remarked on the fact that I have scarcely ever seen so many hedges being layered in the traditional method.

It is important to put these things into perspective and to recognise that, with or without legislation, a great deal of good work is going on in the countryside by those who have traditionally maintained the countryside in the way that it exists now and which is so widely admired and attracts people to it. We cannot get away from the fact that that is being done by the countrymen.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North): Time is of the essence in many such matters. Although people want to keep important hedgerows, there will be commercial considerations, such as when someone buys a particular property at a particular time of year. If a local authority does not acknowledge receipt of a farmer's notice within 42 days, the farmer tries again. How will we know whether the notice has been received? The local authority may sit on a notice for a month or so before acknowledging receipt.

Mr. Gill: I cannot answer that question. However, my hon. Friend makes his own point in his own inimitable

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way, and I am sure that the Minister will have noted his comments. We hark back to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who said that the matter now depends on how the regulations are imposed. It is to be hoped that they will be imposed with sensible and considerate appreciation of the problems faced by landowners and farmers.

Although I have conceded that much good work is being done, with hedges being layered and tendered in the traditional manner, in many instances the effect of the impending legislation has been to bulldoze hedgerows out of existence. That would not have occurred had no legislation been considered, and it is regrettable.

I shall not detain the House any longer, because I sense that Front Benchers are anxious to move on to other business. However, I did not want to miss this opportunity to say that I regard the measure as a retrograde step. It will provide local authority officials with a new Bible, which many of them will interpret in the most draconian manner, against the better instincts and judgment of landowners and farmers.

4.40 pm

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe): I should like to take a moment to reiterate some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) on the regulations. We welcome passage of the regulations, and the protection that will be offered for the first time to hedgerows in the United Kingdom--unless one takes into account the case of Filey, an interesting test case of enclosure legislation which is not mentioned in the regulations.

I should also like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), who has been a great campaigner on hedgerow protection. When I was first elected as a Member of Parliament, in 1987, one of the first issues in which I became involved was to support his--at that time--private Member's Bill to introduce hedgerow protection. The then Prime Minister made some promises, which were broken. Today, it is interesting to see some former wreckers of hedgerow protection on the Conservative Benches. They have suddenly turned into supporters of protection. It is always most pleasing to welcome the sinner repented.

I am sorry that the regulations could not have been passed with unanimous support--the support not only of landowners and farmers, but of countryside, conservation and green groups. That support has not been won, as the Minister knows. It is a shame that the regulations are being debated in the dying hours of this Parliament, because, like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I think that some issues have not been addressed.

One such issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford said, is biodiversity and the way in which hedgerows are assessed. Apart from hedgerows' conservation value, there must be some sophisticated assessment of such matters as green corridors. Much work is being done, especially on protecting small and endangered mammals, and that work will be undermined unless there are links between different types of habitat.

Hedgerows are one very important link. Some good habitats may be protected, but they may be surrounded by agricultural land and not linked into other areas that

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provide feeding grounds and breeding areas. That issue has not been dealt with, and nor has the issue of time. Conservation groups' concerns have not been dealt with.

Although some groups feel so strongly about the regulations that they believe that we should oppose them, we feel that they are better than nothing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford said, a future Labour Government will revisit the regulations. We will consult all the countryside and conservation groups--including landowners and farmers--to strengthen the regulations and to make them more workable, and we will try to reach the consensus that the Government have failed to achieve.

4.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. James Clappison): I welcome that qualified welcome from the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley).

I was slightly surprised by the attitude of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock): she seemed to be disappointed that we have introduced the regulations, although we were recently pressed to do so, not least in an Adjournment debate sponsored by the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy). We were pressed to introduce the regulations to prevent some landowners from pre-empting regulations.

Very recently, we were pressed also by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), an Opposition Environment spokesman, to introduce regulations to safeguard hedgerows. My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Sir K. Carlisle) described the hon. Lady's welcome for the regulations as "curmudgeonly", although I think that that impression has partly been put right.

I do not want to be unkind, but I think that the hon. Member for Deptford got it wrong when she spoke about biodiversity and suggested that the regulations contain the sum total of our biodiversity action plans. Biodiversity and protection of wildlife are important features of the regulations, but they do not contain the sum total of our plans. She knows the way in which we have fulfilled our commitments under the Rio summit and the biodiversity action plans that we have already introduced. Many, if not all, of the species she mentioned--the grey partridge, the song thrush and the dormouse--are afforded protection within the framework of our biodiversity plans.

The hon. Member for Deptford was wrong on that point, and she was wrong on other points. Not least, she was wrong when she suggested that we have rushed into the regulations; others have said that we have taken too long. To fulfil our obligation of protecting important hedgerows, detailed analysis and research, and a great deal of consultation, have been required.

The commitment is to protect important hedgerows, which are hedgerows for which no replanting could be a substitute, and which are vulnerable to being removed. I should like to tell the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who takes an interest in the subject, that protection is not the same as maintenance of hedgerows. Maintaining hedgerows and planting new ones is promoted under the countryside stewardship scheme and by other assistance provided to farmers. The regulations are to protect important hedgerows.

It is important first to define what is an "important hedgerow", and we took some time and trouble to do so. As the hon. Member for Deptford knows,

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we commissioned work from the Agricultural Development Advisory Service, which produced a report. Last year, we circulated that report for consultation. We certainly did not rush through the consultation process, during which we received more than 500 responses. We also listened to what we were told during consultation, and made changes to ADAS's proposals.

We have, for example, increased from four to six weeks the time afforded to local planning authorities to give or refuse consent to the removal of a hedgerow notified to them. We have also required authorities to consult parish councils. We regard that as important, because, as organs of local democracy, it is important that parish councils should have a say in the matter. That reform also fits in with other reforms that we have made affecting parish councils.

When possible, we have also tried to simplify the criteria. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, that, although it is necessary to protect the important hedgerows, it is important to keep matters as simple as possible. That is why there may be problems with some of the suggestions of the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe. It is important that the regulations are not so complicated as to be unworkable.

During the consultation process, we listened to what we were told about landscape. I heard the criticisms by the hon. Member for Deptford in this debate, and she will know that ADAS discovered in its investigation that landscape is a difficult issue.

However, we feel that the issue is addressed by our definition of "important hedgerows", and that many hedgerows that qualify as important, particularly under the historic and wildlife interest headings, will contribute to the landscape. After consultation, we also provided a new criterion, which recognises the important contribution to the landscape made by hedgerows along rights of way. That additional criterion will increase the number of hedgerows likely to be protected by regulations.

In our attempts to protect "important hedgerows"--as we have defined them--it has been necessary to strike a balance between bodies representing environmental and conservation interests and those representing farming and landowning interests. There is an inherent conflict, and some of that tension has been evident in our debate. We think that we have gone a long way towards getting the balance right.

Having said that, we appreciate that many farmers make a constructive contribution towards the preservation of the countryside, especially through the planting of hedgerows. We heard some excellent examples of that from my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) and in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Sir K. Carlisle), who has made a great contribution to the environment in his time in the House and will no doubt continue to do so, not only through the planting of hedgerows on his land, about which he told the House, but in many other ways. I am sure that everyone wishes him well in his important endeavours in that regard.

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I am happy to be able to report that the most recent research conducted by the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology shows that, contrary to what the hon. Member for Deptford said, there is a net balance in favour of the planting of hedgerows over their removal, which I am sure the House will welcome. That has no doubt been substantially assisted by the countryside stewardship scheme, another successful scheme launched by the Government to protect the countryside.

On the issue of punishment, the hon. Member for Deptford needs to study the regulations a little more carefully. Contrary to what she suggested was the maximum fine for transgressing the regulations, it is the maximum only for someone tried in a magistrates court on summary trial. The regulations also include provisions for trial on indictment in the Crown court, where someone who transgressed the regulations and was found guilty of an offence would face an unlimited fine. Far from being weak, that is a strong punishment, which signals our disapproval of people who break the law in this regard.

In addition, the regulations make provision for the replanting of hedgerows to be required. People who think that they can remove hedgerows and get away with simply paying a fine have another think coming, because they will be required to replant the hedgerows. The punishment is therefore more than adequate.

The hon. Member for Deptford also mentioned the circumstances in which local authorities could take account of the reasons given for wishing to remove an important hedge and still allow its removal. We were mindful of the fact that the ability to make representations and to have them heard is a central element of the business-friendly enforcement procedure promoted by the Government.

The wording of the relevant paragraph in the draft regulations is necessarily broad. It is impossible to anticipate and make provision for every eventuality, but the regulations place a requirement on the local planning authority to issue a hedgerow retention notice unless satisfied that the reasons given justify the removal of an important hedgerow. The presumption is therefore in favour of protecting and retaining important hedgerows. As the criteria defining importance have been tightly drawn, strong reasons will be needed to satisfy a local authority that an important hedgerow should be removed.

Each case will have to be considered on its merits, but I envisage that a local planning authority might consider that the removal of an important hedgerow was justified where there were overriding arguments of public safety--for example, to make way for essential improvements to a local road which was an accident black spot, where there was no other solution to the problem. Utilities might also have strong practical or even environmental grounds for needing to remove a small section of a hedge rather than reroute a cable across an even more sensitive area.

Cases involving personal financial loss are unlikely of themselves to be sufficient to justify the grubbing out of an important hedgerow. Factors that might, however, weigh with the local authority include the effects of a hedgerow on operational requirements and whether the impact could be mitigated by other means--for example, where a new road has cut through a field, leaving a portion too small to farm. However, there can be little doubt that the impact on a business would have to be extremely serious before a local authority would begin to consider allowing the removal of an important hedgerow.

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A change of ownership of land and subsequent rationalisation of holdings would certainly not be enough. The register of retention notices held by the local authority would inform potential buyers of any existing restrictions.

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