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Mr. Forth: Surely the hon. Gentleman concedes that, although the initial stage of the proposed procedure is a matter for the local authority--one can argue that it carries the reassurance of local accountability--the
Mr. Cunningham: No, because the notice can be withdrawn at any point. All that is needed is for the local authority--the planning officer or the designated officer--to be satisfied that there has been a change in circumstances. If the right hon. Gentleman studies the Bill, he will find that there are adequate safeguards in the procedure. I do not have a major problem with that.
On that point, I appreciate the fact that, for the first time, the Secretary of State is to appoint an impartial individual to adjudicate on the Bill. That does not happen at the moment.
Mr. John M. Taylor: My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is correct that the appellate jurisdiction rests with the Secretary of State. However, the Secretary of State will employ the planning inspectorate, which is represented at a relatively local level and conducts appeal procedures in the immediate locale. The hon. Gentleman will be familiar with planning appeals that come before inspectors appointed by the Secretary of State in Coventry, as I am with those in Solihull.
Mr. Cunningham: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; I could not have put it better myself. As he is aware, if the Secretary of State were to consider an appeal, a planning officer or other officer would visit the site and take evidence from all concerned parties and even the public. So, to answer the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the Bill's provisions on safeguards are pretty well drafted. Even the most cynical of people cannot help but be struck by the fact that there are adequate safeguards for both sides.
On the question of cost, the Bill includes reassurance. Initially, there will be a fee and it has been said that that could be £100. In the initial stages, there will certainly be a cost to the local authority, but as the backlog is dealt with, in theory, we would get to the point where the process was self-financing.
Sir Sydney Chapman: May I invite the hon. Gentleman to comment on this point? I would not be particularly fazed if a cost fell on a local authority, for two reasons: first, it has the right to return or refund the fee, which is at its discretion; secondly, the complainant has to pay the fee--unlike in the planning system, where the fee is paid by the person making the application, who obviously stands to benefit financially if the application gets through. Because the complainant--the person who, through no fault of his or her own, has been moved to make the complaint--pays the fee, the local authority should, as a matter of form, return the fee if the complaint is upheld.
Mr. Cunningham: I agree. I know that the hon. Gentleman has a considerable planning background and is speaking from a position of experience.
It has been said that an additional officer or officers could be employed to police and enforce the Bill. Again regarding costs, such posts are probably already there in planning departments, in which case it is just a question of giving people additional responsibilities, so there may not be an additional cost.
To conclude, may I once again congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull and everyone who, over the years, has tried to a get a Bill on this subject through the House? Certainly local communities and individuals would certainly welcome such a measure. In Coventry, the Styvechale ratepayers association would certainly welcome it, as would the Fryern residents association and constituents who have written to me individually. Last but not least I would mention Hedgeline which has campaigned for years on the issue. The Bill will be most welcome throughout the country, as it addresses a problem in our society which can cause nervous breakdowns, set neighbour against neighbour and sometimes lead to violence. There are reports of cases in which individuals have gone to their neighbour's house with guns. There are considerable costs for those who want to bring a case against a neighbour causing a nuisance or whose property is threatened by the roots of those trees, so devaluing it. I welcome the Bill, and I am sure that many others do, too. Once more, I congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull on introducing it.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Like the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham), I congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) on introducing an important Bill. At the same time, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Coventry, South, who has worked on the issue over many years. I, too, pay tribute to the organisations that have worked on the issue, especially Hedgeline, which recognised its importance many years ago and has worked to give the House this opportunity today.
I am delighted to see that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) is in his place. I do not know whether his constituents, friends or family ever see him, but such is his diligence in the Chamber that, ever since his election, I cannot recall an occasion when I have spoken without his being present and intervening on me. I look forward with great anticipation to his intervention. He intervened earlier on his hon. Friend the Member for Solihull and referred to the large number of former Prime Ministers who chose not to address the issue; he implied that he considered it trivial. That is simply not the case.
As the extremely well prepared guidance notes provided by the Department, with the agreement of the hon. Member for Solihull, clearly demonstrate, there is a known backlog of more than 10,000 cases in the United Kingdom. That is probably just the tip of the iceberg, and represents only those members of the public who have chosen to raise the matter with the various authorities.
Mr. Forth: Has the hon. Gentleman mused on why the first and second Bills on the Order Paper today are accompanied by explanatory notes kindly provided by Her Majesty's Government, but none of the other Bills have
Mr. Foster: I will indeed speculate--
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It would be helpful to the House if we stuck to the Second Reading of the Bill before us.
Mr. Foster: I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In connection with the guidance notes provided for the Bill under discussion--lest I stray further and incur your ire--I believe that one of the reasons why the Government have helped in the drafting is that they are keen to see the Bill through as quickly as possible--
Mr. Foster: --as are the vast majority of hon. Members of all parties represented in the House. They all recognise the importance of the issue. It is likely that at least 20,000 people are victims of the problem of high hedges--often, but not always, hedges of leyland cypress. As the law stands, if we do not take action today, where hedgerows cause a nuisance, victims can only take out a civil action against their neighbours. Such disputes tend to drag on for many years, causing great distress, and are, as the hon. Member for Coventry, South reminded us, likely to lead to serious illness in some cases, and even violent assaults.
All hon. Members who are interested in the matter recognise the difficulty of obtaining satisfaction in the law courts, not least because of the extremely large sum that actions can cost complainants. Typical legal costs have ranged from £25,000 to £40,000 for each case. So severe is the problem that a number of insurance companies refuse to get involved in such cases.
Mr. Bercow: Will the hon. Gentleman allow me?
Mr. Foster: I knew that at some point I would have the great privilege and pleasure of giving way to the hon. Member for Buckingham. I thought that that might come a little later in my contribution, but it has come now and I welcome it.
Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I do not know whether he was planning to traduce members of my family, but I assure him that they all have better things to do with their time than watch me on television. If he is suggesting that one of the consequences of the Bill would be less resort to litigation, and therefore decreased expenditure on legal costs, I think that he and other supporters of the Bill ought to make much of that, for I am not a lawyer--I say that as a matter of pride.
Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for two things: first, for pointing out that his family joins the rest of the nation in having no desire to watch him on television, and secondly, for enabling me to say that I had intended to refer to the point that he has raised later in my remarks. One of the enormous benefits of the proposals in the Bill is that they will significantly reduce the need for
The great advantage of not having to resort to that procedure is that for the many people who suffer the problem of high hedges in silence because they have chosen to take no action, there will be a relatively simple, swift and painless process by which they can end the dreadful blight of high hedges on their lives.
I hope that the hon. Member for Buckingham will bear in mind not only the legal costs, but the significant other costs associated with the problem of high hedges. Many examples have been brought to my attention of the building costs of repairing the damage caused by high hedges, such as repairs to walls that have fallen down and--much more costly--underpinning work on buildings that have been affected by such hedges.