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Mr. John M. Taylor: The hon. Gentleman has clearly done a great deal of research. Does he agree that the inappropriateness of some trees lies in the fact that their genetic make-up has made them forest trees whose survival requires them to drive for the canopy as fast as they can?
Mr. Dismore: That is a valid point, although there is a right place for hedges consisting of such trees. Anyone who has visited a stately home on an afternoon off will have seen wonderful avenues of cypress trees or yew hedges--but that is the right place for them: they are not appropriate for people's back gardens, particularly in built-up urban areas where the trees may be striving for light. They are effectively competing with the houses for light, and, by definition, competing with the neighbours as well.
The Bill is welcome because it demonstrates that existing procedures are not adequate. Of course, the best solution is co-operation with the neighbours. A hedge owner simply might not be aware of the effect that his hedge is having on his neighbours. As my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) suggested, a polite request for the hedge to be kept properly trimmed and maintained might be all that is needed. I am glad to hear that my hon. Friend has a good working relationship with his neighbour. Ultimately, that is obviously the best way in which to avoid disputes and prevent what is often a problem that can be solved relatively easily from escalating into one of the "neighbours from hell" wars that we see on television all the time.
It is important to stress the need for mediation. It is regrettable that mediation services are not available more widely. If both parties are willing to reach an amicable solution but differ over what that solution should be, mediation by an independent third party could help them reach an acceptable solution. Even if the hedge is part of a wider dispute, mediation could get to the root cause of the dispute. Of course, mediation requires both parties to act in good faith. It requires their good will if it is to succeed. The House will understand that it is not a legal solution, but a situation in which two parties are trying to reach agreement. There are 150 mediation groups throughout the country, but they obviously do not provide a solution to the problem nationwide.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) referred to the civil courts. I am a solicitor, but as far as I am aware I have not done a tree case. I regret to say, as my hon. Friend said, that the civil courts do not provide a viable solution to these detailed problems. The cost and time and effort involved in mounting a legal challenge constitute an unattractive option for many private individuals who have limited resources, regardless of whether they have the backing of the community legal service. If that service were abolished--the Conservatives would abolish it if they came to office--that support would not be available to individuals.
Mr. Hopkins: My hon. Friend is making the point strongly that we need a strong and simple law that can be invoked if necessary, but legislation that underpins mediation. If a neighbour knows that he is likely to go to court and is likely to lose, he will not grow his trees high in the first place.
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Part of the problem, as I said when I was talking about the types of tree involved, is ignorance. Once someone has planted a tree, he or she often becomes territorial: it is an example of an Englishman's home being his castle. If someone thinks in advance about planting trees there may not be a dispute, but thereafter the issue can become the focus of real problems. With court cases, the lack of certainty of a successful outcome makes people unwilling to risk legal costs. Such cases can become extremely expensive, and really do not provide a viable solution to the problems.
There is also the matter of easements. I studied the law of property nearly 30 years ago, although, not having practised in property law, I do not claim to be an expert. As I understand it from my legal research, easements of light do not extend to people's gardens. There can be a remedy only if the property itself is affected, and then only if the light in question has been enjoyed uninterrupted for at least 20 years. The common law right is not much help.
I was pleased that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions issued a guidance leaflet, with the assistance of the horticulture and landscapes industries, which sets out alternatives to fast-growing species. It was designed to help people when they come to plant in their gardens. Again, however, it does not seem to have solved the problem. That is why I am pleased that the Government conducted the consultation to which I referred. Given that there were more than 3,000 responses, it is clear that such consultation was not only long overdue but welcomed by the population. The results of the consultation showed that 94 per cent. of respondents believed that new laws were needed to control hedges. The Bill meets that demand. Also interesting is the fact that 77 per cent. of local authorities support new laws. Some 72 per cent. of respondents chose the option of allowing local authorities to deal with the problem, and 67 per cent. of local authorities shared that view, although they wanted mediation to be introduced alongside new laws.
I shall flag up a problem that has been identified by the Local Government Association, which has welcomed the Government's proposals and, by extension, the Bill. There is a need for mediation that involves the disputing neighbours, and there is a potential cost. The LGA and all local authorities are anxious that the net result of the proposed legislation should not be to increase the burden on the local council tax payer or result in an impact on services. If legislation comes forward, they have a case in saying that they should be able to recover the costs that they incur in dealing with complaints. That prompts the question of who the costs should be recoverable from. If we do not deal with that, the local authorities will not thank us for giving them additional concerns without providing them with the necessary resources.
I have concerns about various parts of the Bill. Clause 2 has already featured, but I wish to emphasise some other aspects. First, there is the requirement that a hedge should have two or more evergreens adjacent to it. I have mentioned one of my constituents, Mr. Prendergast, who has suffered as a result of an evergreen tree--and it is only one, because his garden is very small, as is his neighbour's. The impact of that one tree on his property is probably greater than the impact of an entire hedge on other properties. I hope that the hon. Member for Solihull will reconsider the definition to ascertain whether we can find a way in certain circumstances, at the very least, to provide for a situation where one tree is causing real distress. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will consider whether that one tree could be caught within the definition.
I am concerned also about the 2 m above ground level provision and the height of the tree. That may seem petty, but there is a point to be made. I shall give an example. I have a small garden at the back of my Westminster flat. Behind my garden is a neighbouring garden, where the level of the ground is nearly 4 ft higher than that in my garden. Is the 2 m measured from the level of my garden
I wonder whether we should consider the problems caused by deciduous trees as well as those caused by evergreens. People like to use their gardens more in summer when deciduous trees are in leaf and block the light. In winter, they are less of the problem. There is a tall deciduous tree in my next-door neighbour's garden. In the winter, it does not cause a problem, but it blocks quite a lot of light in the summer. I have not been involved in a dispute about it, because it is a nice tree. However, we should consider what we could do about the faster-growing deciduous species. Instead of using the generic term "evergreen", perhaps a schedule could specify the species that are covered by the Bill. Will semi-evergreen trees be caught by its provisions? Certain fast-growing trees lose half their leaves in winter and are therefore classed as semi-evergreen.
Clause 4 refers to complaints being made to the relevant local authority. What happens if the landowner causing the problem is the local authority? I highlight that point because, in the case to which I referred earlier, the trees in question had been planted by the local authority.