|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Chope: My right hon. Friend makes another excellent point. With perhaps the exception of a yew hedge--it grows slowly, at a rate that is hardly perceptible each year--most of the hedges that we are considering grow significantly each year and need to be pruned and trimmed to keep them at a particular height.
Mr. Dismore: The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said that trees and bushes are natural phenomena. However, the issue here is not the fact that they are natural phenomena but the fact that they are often planted in unnatural places. That is when the problems arise.
Mr. Chope: If we are talking about defining what is an unnatural place, we are getting into very dangerous territory. When I represented the constituency of Southampton, Itchen, people complained that their next door neighbours had fridges in their garden. One could argue that to have a fridge in the garden is to have a fridge in an unnatural place even though the people who owned it did not necessarily think that that was so. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we should bring all the sanctions of the criminal law to bear even in cases such as that? I hope not.
Mr. Forth: Following the point of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), as the Bill does not specify that the plants should be in a straight line or in a particular configuration, is it not entirely possible that nature will, from time to time, place plants, trees, shrubs or whatever in such a way that they meet the Bill's requirements perfectly naturally? They need not necessarily be a deliberate construct, but could perfectly naturally fall within the compass of the Bill as it is broadly drawn at the moment.
Mr. Dismore: May I hark back to the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) on Second Reading? We are dealing with forest trees that are planted in back gardens, which is an unnatural place for them to be growing.
Mr. Chope: An enormous number of forest trees are in back gardens in my constituency, and not just conifers or evergreens; many are oaks and pines. The hon. Gentleman is right, but many forest trees grew naturally before land was developed. That is why the councils and councillors in Christchurch and East Dorset local authority areas jealously guard established trees and do not allow them to be cut down.
There is an appeal before the planning inspectorate in respect of a case in Mudeford in which a large oak--a forest tree--had been growing on some land before a house was constructed there. The planning authority said that the tree should not be cut down and the house should be built almost around it. The person who has bought the house finds it impossible to get into the garage because the tree is in the way. He has applied to have it taken down, but the local authority is understandably resisting that because the tree was there before the house was built and adds significantly to the amenity of the area. The hon. Gentleman is in destructive mood if he thinks that the failure to chop down to 6 ft 6 any forest tree growing in an urban area should automatically give rise to criminal sanctions. That is over the top and unreasonable, and I shall continue to think that if the Bill gets on the statute book unamended.
I have chosen 12 ft rather than 2 or 4 m. The Royal Horticultural Society dictionary defines a hedge as being a maximum of 17 ft and a minimum of 2 ft. If it is higher than that, it is normally described as a shelterbelt. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull would agree with that definition. That gives us a height range for hedges of between 2 ft--more properly described as edging--and 17 ft, at which point they become a shelterbelt. If we are going to attack high hedges, it is reasonable to deal with those in excess of the mean between 2 and 17 ft, which is anything in excess of 9 ft 6 in. I do not want to be too oppressive and have settled on a reasonable compromise of a high hedge being in excess of two thirds of the height range as defined by the RHS, or 12 ft. I stand by that. Indeed, when I discuss amendment No. 117, the House will realise that other independent experts have shown a great deal of support for that interpretation.
Mr. Forth: I must confess that I am slightly puzzled by my hon. Friend's approach and ask him to explain it in more detail. The main thrust of the Bill, as made clear by the introductory remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) on Second Reading, is to deal with hedges that deny light to people. Why is it acceptable to apply an arbitrary height to the hedge rather than allowing for light impediment to be the main criterion by which it will be judged? That is in danger of going against the Bill.
The Bill introduces criminal sanctions that could be used against tens of millions of householders. I am trying to ensure that it is precise and not oppressive, which is why I am suggesting the definition in amendment No. 61.
Amendment No. 63 would remove from the definition of "hedge" anything to do with a shrub, so that we restrict the Bill's effects to the real mischief. The hon. Member for Hendon said that we are dealing with forest trees that are planted in inappropriate places. That does not include forest shrubs, because no such thing exists in that sense. A tree normally has a single leader whereas a shrub is divided into several stems near the ground. Most horticulturists and gardeners understand the distinction between trees and shrubs. The amendment would limit rather than expand the Bill's scope to that which is strictly necessary. However, I do not want to labour the point.
Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman has the definitions before him. Given his knowledge of horticulture, which is apparent this morning, can he tell me whether some shrubs grow above 6 or 12 ft in height?
Mr. Chope: Very few do. Graham Stuart Thomas, a distinguished horticultural writer, published the book "Ornamental Shrubs, Climbers and Bamboos" in 1992. Chapter 2 deals with shrubs in history and says:
I am concerned about the hon. Lady's desire to go all out for an all-embracing Bill. Why do we not concentrate on the real mischief, which is caused by conifer hedges, such as leylandii, which are fast-growing and cause a genuine problem to neighbours who are adversely affected by the resulting loss of light? I urge the amendment on the House because it would moderate the Bill.
Mr. Chope: The hon. Lady is really on the ball. That is a very pertinent question, to which I will give a direct answer. I was able to table the amendment only after I had tabled the others, because I had tabled a parliamentary question asking whether the Government had yet received a response about the work that they had commissioned to try to find a definition of obstruction of light. I received a parliamentary answer on Monday, but I had tabled most of the other amendments on the Friday before the Easter recess. When I received the answer, I could see that there was a very precise definition in the accompanying document. Although I regret as much as the hon. Lady does the fact that it is expressed in metres, I hoped to draft an amendment that was as uncontroversial as possible, so I adopted the precise definition in the document in the hope that it would find favour with the Government and the House. I am a reasonable person and I try to compromise if I think that doing so will benefit the outcome. I hope that in that spirit the hon. Lady will see the wisdom of my amendment.