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Mr. Jim Cunningham: Costs may be difficult to quantify, but, as I said earlier, a good indicator exists. Most planning departments have an adequate number of staff to police the measure. There may be isolated cases of additional staff having to be taken on, but the major
Mr. Green: The hon. Gentleman is partly right, but the view that the number of cases will fall may be wrong. Even if, as he suggests, planning officers already go out to advise people, they will have more work when they also have to make a judgment, and perhaps carry out an enforcement procedure. It is unrealistic to expect the Bill not to create more work for them.
Mr. Cunningham: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; I know that time is precious. Planning officers make a judgment now. They advise people to go through the civil courts, but they also tell people that they cannot do anything about the problem.
Mr. Green: Precisely. If the Bill becomes law, they will not be able to say, "We can't do anything about it." They will be obliged to do something about it. That obligation will increase their work load. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether the Government have made an overall estimate of the effect of the Bill on local government finance and whether there are any plans to compensate local government for the extra work.
A similar problem may emerge for the planning inspectorate. Again, the various guidance notes for the Bill imply that the measure can be implemented with a minimal increase in numbers. I should be grateful if the Minister would explain that, and state whether the Bill will necessitate more planning inspectors when the appeals process gets going. The sort of bitter neighbour disputes that precede legal action mean that legal differences tend to go to appeal. When people feel strongly enough to embark upon a legal process, they are likely to take it to the end, whoever is winning at various stages.
I also draw the Minister's attention to the role of the Building Research Establishment. Other hon. Members have alluded to the confusion about whether the tests will be subjective or objective. The guidance notes suggest that, ideally, the BRE will be able to establish an objective test that can be applied by individuals, so that they can look at their hedge, or their neighbours' hedge, and tell that its height breaks the law.
Mr. Forth: Does my hon. Friend agree that it will be challenging for the no doubt excellent and expert people involved to devise objective tests or criteria for privacy, amenity of the neighbourhood and light? How confident is he about obtaining the validity, objectivity and utility that the Bill's supporters would like?
Mr. Green: That is a genuine issue. I suspect that some areas are easier than others. I understand that the BRE will principally consider light; it may be able to establish some objective measures. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether that is the aim, and if so, explain the way in which it can be achieved.
Mr. Green: I hope that the hon. Gentleman is right. However, the provisions will place an additional burden on the inspectors. It is interesting that Labour Members think that nothing extra will be needed in terms either of expertise or of sheer numbers.
A further point relating to how the Building Research Establishment's work will be completed is the timetable. I understand that the draft guidelines will be produced by Easter, and the final version by the summer. If this Parliament runs its course, no doubt that timetable will be satisfactory. I would be grateful for the Minister's comments on whether the House will have the opportunity for full and proper investigation of the BRE guidelines when they are produced.
The Government have provided support for the Bill. Will the Minister tell us why they think that this way of addressing the problem is better than using the planning law? I think that I agree with the analysis that we have heard, but I would like to hear what the Government have to say. Will he also tell us why this method was thought preferable to adding the problems caused by high hedges to the list of statutory nuisances, which was the approach adopted by the private Member's Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham)?
Those are legitimate questions that will need to be addressed as the Bill goes through its further stages, as I hope it will. Costs, the level of parliamentary scrutiny and the sheer practicality of the legislation must all be examined. Nevertheless, my underlying point is that high hedges are a continuing serious problem worthy of the attention of the House, and I hope that my hon. Friend's Bill can make further progress.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth): He that plants trees loves others besides himself--or so says the proverb. If that were universally true, we should not be here today.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) on introducing the High Hedges Bill, and am pleased to confirm that the Government welcome and support the measure. Unfortunately, some of the stories that we have heard today suggest that not everyone who plants trees has good intentions towards their neighbours. We have been told about the terrible conditions that have been inflicted on people by ill-advised planting or the lack of maintenance of boundary hedges. Leylandii have been mentioned frequently, but they are by no means the only culprits.
The old saying that an Englishman's home is his castle aptly captures the jealousy with which we tend to defend our territory and privacy. Our castle walls are the panel fences that we put up or the hedges that we plant. To ensure that our green defences are immediate, the fastest
The effects will vary from case to case, but the most frequently mentioned problems are reduction in light to homes and gardens; the blocking of cherished views, especially of the countryside or coast; the difficulty of growing plants near to the hedges; and worries that roots might lead to property damage through subsidence. All those factors can lead to a general sense of oppression and being hedged in, or to a feeling that enjoyment of one's home and garden has been spoiled. A quiet word with the owner to point out the harmful effects of the hedge may be all that is needed to resolve a problem, but if such an approach is rebuffed, there is little that the person affected by the hedge can do to force his neighbour to negotiate or to obtain any relief.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) said, the Government have responded to pressure from her and many other hon. Members. In particular, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham), my constituency neighbour, on all the work that he did over a long period to organise consultation. The response was overwhelming, and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions received more than 3,000 replies. To put that in context, the Department's consultation exercises usually generate hundreds rather than thousands of responses. As might have been expected, there was much public interest, and 91 per cent. of responses came from members of the public. A significant proportion of local authorities--about 40 per cent--took the time to let us know what they think.
There are striking similarities between the views expressed by local councils and the public. The vast majority of respondents, including 95 per cent. of individual members of the public who responded and 77 per cent. of local authorities, believe that new laws are the answer to the high hedge problem. As to what form such laws should take, a new complaints system run by local authorities is the clear favourite; it is supported by 73 per cent. of the public and 67 per cent. of local authorities.
The consultation shows enormous support for tougher controls on high hedges. The Government take such neighbourhood problems seriously, so last summer we announced that we would prepare legislation to give local authorities in England the power to determine complaints about problem garden hedges. The National Assembly for Wales decided that any new legislation should apply to Wales.
On territorial coverage, I should add that the Bill deals with devolved matters, so it is for the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly to decide whether to take action with respect to problem hedges. Following a separate consultation, the Scottish Parliament announced on 31 January that it has decided in principle that a statutory remedy of last resort is required. That would involve complaints to local authorities and enforcement action in appropriate cases. No commitment has been given as to when legislation will be introduced. I understand that Northern Ireland has no plans to legislate.