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Mr. Chope: My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is right. The issue was not glossed over in the Government's discussion document. In referring to situations in which the legislation might not apply, the document dealt with hedges that were already established. Effectively, the document says that if someone already has an established hedge it might be unreasonable to expect it to be cut down. Paragraph 5.43 on page 28 of the "High Hedges: Possible Solutions" consultation paper states:
Mr. Chope: I have not yet looked at that amendment, but I look forward to the chance to consider the arguments in its favour that the hon. Gentleman and, no doubt, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst will deploy. I decided to concentrate on the new clauses and amendments in my name and to leave it to others with amendments to make their own arguments. The hon. Gentleman says that the new clause is prescriptive. It has the advantage of being clear and transparent. I do not know how it compares with his proposal for addressing the problem.
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): I would appreciate clarification of the words, "the hedge was established". Does that refer to the size of the hedge when the property or land was purchased? Could individuals make a claim for an onerous hedge if it exceeded the height that it was when the property or land was purchased?
Mr. Chope: No. Under my new clause, "established" means that as long as the hedge had been planted before the house was built, the owner of the hedge would have total immunity against any action that might be brought against him under the Bill. That seems a perfectly reasonable approach. Somebody may enjoy what they think is a view over urban wasteland--or a wildlife area or undeveloped land, depending on how one wants to describe it--and suddenly find that an opportunistic planning application has been made because someone else has been able to get access to the backland. Under the rigid planning guidelines imposed by the Government, planning permission will almost inevitably be granted for residential development, because such a site would be described as brown land. What are people to do in such cases? As I pointed out earlier, they should do their best to protect themselves against the loss of amenity that would inevitably result from the construction of the development.
Those people have no right to a view--no one is suggesting that they should--so they have no absolute right to veto such a development, but they can protect their own amenity and privacy, as many people choose to do. Of course, they could plant a yew hedge but that would take so long to grow that by the time it had grown to a sufficient height the houses against which people sought protection might have been there for five, 10 or 15 years. Fortunately, the development of varieties of fast-growing conifer means that it is possible to plant a conifer that will grow so rapidly that it would have almost reached the height of the houses before they were fully constructed. In other circumstances, of course, that might be a nightmare for people and that is why I am not absolutely opposed to the Bill. However, in the circumstances that I describe, it is reasonable that a householder should have protection against the taking down or trimming back of his hedge because a neighbour has chosen to build and occupy a house at the end or side of his garden.
People will say that it is possible that such issues could be taken into account by local authorities when they decide whether it would be reasonable to enforce an action against an occupier of land. However, what is so undesirable about some aspects of the Bill is that there may be more than 10 million people with hedges in excess of 2 m in height--as defined by the Bill--who may be worried out of their minds; they are law-abiding citizens and they will be concerned that their gardens and their aspect could be ruined as a result of the arbitrary actions of an unreasonable local authority, or neighbours who are
Last Saturday, I did some market-testing in Christchurch of some of the ideas reflected in the amendments. First, I encountered complete ignorance of the extent of the restrictions on personal freedom contemplated in the Bill. Householders told me that they had no idea that they could be ordered to have the hedge at the end of their garden chopped down to 6 ft or 2 m. I saw cupressus trees that are established parts of the landscape; ironically, the owner of one such tree wants to have it taken down, but because it is more than 18 ft tall, he has to obtain permission from the local authority--for nothing more than a large and well-established macrocarpa. If and when that tree is taken down, the fact that the owner would be unable to replace it with a hedge that could exceed 2 m is anathema to him. I hope, therefore, that the new clause will find favour with hon. Members.
It is not clear whether the campaign being waged by Hedgeline--an important single-issue pressure group--is against only cupressus and leylandii hedges made up of many individual plants that create an overwhelming threat to light and make people feel closed in. The definition in the Bill is far too wide. I realise that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has tabled an amendment similar to mine--the numbers involved are slightly different--but to ensure that the Bill accords with common parlance, my amendment would provide that a hedge should be defined as having six or more adjacent evergreens.
Maria Eagle: My constituency is somewhat different to that of the hon. Gentleman; it has smaller properties with smaller grounds. Many of the cases brought to my attention by constituents relate to problems caused when two or three trees are planted closely together in a small garden and a nuisance due to lack of light quickly develops. If the amendment were accepted, I am concerned that it could create a loophole and lead to cases such as I described, which are the very ones that the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) is trying to deal with. I understand where the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) is coming from, but is he not concerned that the amendment would render the Bill unable to deal with some of the very cases for which it is designed?
If one defines almost every evergreen tree of more than 6 ft in height, in any garden in the country, as a potential subject of complaint, one is opening the floodgates to an enormous number of applications to local authorities, an enormous amount of wasted local authority time, and--most important, from my point of view--an enormous amount of unnecessary anxiety for the owners of the trees and shrubs in question.
In amendment No. 58, I am trying to bring us back to reality and say that a hedge is not two trees or shrubs but a minimum of six planted together in a line. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) does not think that that is a reasonable definition. I know that, in common parlance, a hedge normally comprises trees or shrubs of the same species or variety. I am not limiting the definition to that in my amendment.
It is no surprise that people have not woken up to the threat that they face from the narrow definition of hedge in the Bill. It is not even narrow enough for the drafters of the Bill; they have included the power in clause 16 to define a hedge as a single tree.