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Mr. Taylor: There would be a continuing obligation to cut down a tree and maintain it at the reduced height. Furthermore, the obligation is registrable as a local land charge and would therefore bind a successor in title as well.
I also want to explore the relationship between the owner and the occupier of the land. There are potential problems where the occupier is a tenant or leaseholder who wants to comply with a neighbour's request, but the absentee freeholder, of the kind we find throughout the country, takes a different view. Such a freeholder does not have to get on with the neighbours, and if he feared that the value of his property would go down if trees were removed, he might object to the occupier taking action.
That relationship needs to be explored further so that the person with the obligation--and, indeed, the power that overrides contractual relations between the tenant or leaseholder and the freeholder--acts in accordance with orders made under the Bill. It is all very well ordering occupiers to do something, but if they do not have the legal power to do it because of their contractual relationship with the freeholder, they may find themselves in a cleft stick. Should they comply with the order, which could result in the forfeiture of their lease, or should they do as the freeholder says, and thus run the risk of being fined? That aspect needs to be examined and corrected so that the tenant of the property has not only the obligation but the power to act, even if doing so is technically in breach of the lease.
It strikes me that clauses 6 and 4 should be transposed, because clause 6 deals with the notice being varied or withdrawn after, for example, representations have been made by the owner of the land affected. That is the Bill's first reference to the owner of the land on which the trees are situated having a say. We should be doing things the other way around: the owner of the land should have the power to make representations first, before consideration is given to varying or withdrawing the remedial notice.
That is a potential breach of natural justice. The Bill should contain powers to preserve the status quo pending the outcome of a dispute, a review of a notice or an appeal. Otherwise, we risk being unfair to those on whose land the trees are situated--even though such people do not have my sympathy. It is part of normal planning procedure that the status quo prevails while an appeal is under way, pending its outcome. The same should apply under the Bill, subject to the appeal's proceeding.
If an appeal is successful but the trees have already been cut down, there is a risk of an action for damages being brought against the local authority. Under planning law, local authorities have to meet some compensation claims if they take remedial action to force compliance with planning law but it is ultimately found that their action was unlawful. The local authority and thus local council tax payers end up having to foot the bill. We must address that problem.
The points made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) lead me to the subject of appeals. We appear to be creating a Clochemerle-type arrangement. Is it appropriate that the Secretary of State--whether or not he acts through his inspectors--should decide the height of a tree? I do not think so. That is a heavy-handed approach to problems that arise within local authority areas from time to time.
Often, such problems could be dealt with through a separate appeals committee of the local authority, with members who were not involved in making the original decision hearing appeals. Alternatively, such decisions could be taken by council officers using delegated powers, with appeals permitted to elected members. It is better to keep decisions local and ensure that the people dealing with the problems are elected representatives and therefore accountable for their actions in a way that the more remote planning inspector is not. Alternatively, appeals could be made to the magistrates courts in the same way as licensing appeals against local authority decisions are currently permitted.
We risk creating a superstructure around the Secretary of State that could create our first tree martyrs, who chain themselves to their leylandii when the Secretary of State's inspectors come to cart them off to the magistrates court. We must retain our sense of proportion and keep such issues within the scope of the local authority. A local authority appeal committee might well provide a better and more local means of dealing with the problem.
I should like to deal with some of the Bill's human rights aspects. We seem frequently to deal with the Human Rights Act 1998 on Fridays, because much of the legislation that we debate has a human rights dimension--none more so than this Bill, which could involve three different articles in the schedule to the Act. I am afraid that we often find that the articles could be mutually in conflict.
The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst also referred to the need to respect privacy. That is dealt with in article 8, on the right to respect private and family life. There are conflicts on both sides because such hedges are usually grown to protect the privacy of the owner of the trees, but they may infringe the family life of those who live in the shadow of the trees and the way in which they conduct their affairs. So we need to consider article 8, and we have had a similar debate in relation to other private Members' Bills.
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but being overlooked from upstairs windows is also a problem. There are rights and wrongs on both sides of any neighbour dispute. Although my sympathies very much lie with those who suffer from the problem of living in the shadow of high trees, we must reflect on the rights to privacy of the owner of the trees.
Mr. Forth: There is potential for a straightforward conflict, on one hand, between the right to light, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) referred, and on the other, the right to privacy of the owner of the trees. That introduces an element not only of conflict but of judgment. We are trying to judge which should have the greater weight--one person's light or another person's privacy. I think the hon. Gentleman agrees with my suggestion that the matter is by no means straightforward.
Mr. Dismore: The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. My sympathies lie with those on the receiving end. Perhaps that goes back to the philosophical discussion between the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North, but in the end, it is the job of the local authority either to mediate or to arbitrate on the issue. As with any planning decision, someone has to make a decision in the end. There are rights and wrongs on both sides, and the local authority should make a decision on them.
In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North, my final point on human rights legislation concerns article 1 of the first protocol, which deals with the protection of property. It makes an overwhelming argument in support of those on the receiving end and deals with the right of everyone to the peaceful enjoyment of their possessions. In these circumstances, that would include the right to a pleasant afternoon in the back garden.
I shall draw my arguments on the Human Rights Act to a conclusion by asking the hon. Member for Solihull whether his Bill is compliant with it. We have had this debate in relation to private legislation, particularly the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill, when there was vehement dispute about whether or not it was compliant. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can deal with that point when he responds to our debate.