Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Chope: I do not dispute that one iota, but there would be even more objectivity in the Bill if my amendment No. 117 were accepted. My hon. Friend says that it is easy to measure light. Indeed, the BRE was specifically commissioned to establish whether it would be possible to define easily and objectively the loss of light against which a remedy could reasonably be introduced. The BRE came up with the calculation relating to the distance between the hedge and the window affected and the height of the hedge. That formula is objective, not subject to different interpretations. There are problems with measurement by means of a light meter. As a cricketer, my hon. Friend knows that the light varies enormously in English conditions. At what stage is the light to be measured?

I have a constituent who has a house in the green belt, right next to a waste disposal plant. He has been complaining bitterly about the noise generated by the plant. It is impossible, through the Environment Agency, to get an objective noise measurement, because the Environment Agency says that the noise must be measured over a one-hour period. Surprise, surprise, whenever its officials arrive, the people involved in the activity are having a tea break, because the Environment Agency has tipped them off that its officials are coming. That illustrates the difficulties. Where will a light meter be placed? In what circumstances? Will the light be measured on a cloudy day, or in the middle of winter, or in the middle of summer? The answer proposed by the BRE is a sensible solution.

11.15 am

Mr. Forth: Before my hon. Friend is too persuaded by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), the promoter of the Bill, if he glances again at clause 4, he will see that it refers to a judgment about whether the hedge is capable of affording privacy to an occupier of the neighbouring land, and it then goes on to the matter in subsection (4)(b) to which I referred earlier, concerning amenity. Surely these matters must, by definition, be subjective. Once one moves away from the possibility of the scientific measurement of height, distance, light and so on, the Bill obliges those who are making judgments on these matters to deal with difficult matters such as privacy and amenity. That cannot be precise or objective.

Mr. Chope: I accept that, but we can try to have as precise a threshold as possible for entry into the process. That is what my amendment seeks to achieve.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth): The hon. Gentleman seeks to justify his amendment on the grounds that it will increase objectivity through the measures proposed. However, the BRE document, which he has praised, is a draft document intended for consultation and then for use in guidance. He

27 Apr 2001 : Column 574

proposes to put formulae from that document into legislation. Does he accept that his amendment would introduce rigidity, not objectivity?

Mr. Chope: My amendment would introduce precision. If the Minister is using the word "rigidity" in the sense of creating precision, that is certainly what I seek to do. It is unfortunate that the Bill, which the Government support, has been introduced before consultation on the document has taken place. If I had not tabled a question, I do not know when the document would have been published. It was not volunteered by the Minister or his Department. I tabled a question asking whether it was available, and as a result, on Monday this week, it was placed in the Library. We might have been able to get it much earlier, at the end of March, as the document has a March date.

We are told that the document is out for limited consultation. We know that it is based on precise guidelines set out in 1991 on the siting and layout of buildings, with reference to light. There must be equivalent guidelines applicable to loss of light from a high or thick hedge. The Minister accepts that. I suggest that there should be a minimum threshold which must be satisfied before a complaint can be started.

I am not saying that once the complaint is entertained, it will inevitably be upheld and that enforcement action will follow. That is a legitimate area for subjectivity and discretion, but it is important that people realise as early as possible what they can do to take their hedge outside the control and interference proposed by the Bill. That is all that I am trying to do, and it seems perfectly reasonable.

I accept that because of the late production of the document and the fact that it is still subject to consultation, the Bill may have to be amended, but as clause 16 gives the Government the power to change almost everything, it will always be possible for the Government to amend the arrangement. The Minister shakes his head, but clause 16 is drawn in the widest possible terms and effectively gives the Government power to amend anything in the Bill, including the definition of a high hedge.

I do not accept the argument that because the consultation has not been completed, we should not deal with the matter in the Bill. The Bill gives the Government and local authorities a blank cheque. There is widespread suspicion about local authorities, and I speak as someone who led one.

Before the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull, I was about to tell the House of an example in my constituency. Suffolk avenue in Christchurch is a row of houses and gardens that back on to allotments. A row of established oak trees is situated on the border between the allotments and the houses. The trees are so tall that they hang over the gardens. They do not cause much loss of light in winter, but most people do not enjoy the amenity of their gardens during that part of the year. In the summer, the trees are oppressive in the extreme. Nobody suggests that they should be cut down, but people want the local authority to trim some of the overhanging branches, which are about 30 or 40 ft high and could fairly easily be removed from the allotment land, which is owned by the local authority.

I have corresponded about the matter with Christchurch council on behalf of my constituents. It argues that common law allows people to trim the trees if they want

27 Apr 2001 : Column 575

to do so. Andrew Wall, the parks assistant in Christchurch, wrote on 10 February 2000 to a constituent of mine who expressed concern. The letter stated:

The letter demonstrates the council's insensitivity to the circumstances of a particular householder. In subsequent correspondence in which the chief executive was involved, a plea was made on the grounds of amenity. The council's attitude will cause much concern and explains why people think that local authorities should be left with as little discretion as possible and want the clear and precise definitions for which the original consultation document argued.

Mr. John M. Taylor: Will my hon. Friend confirm that my Bill would not deal with those problems? He might be mildly interested to know that my local authority, Solihull borough council, takes precisely the same view of existing trees as his council. It will intervene only if they are dead, dying or dangerous--I think that those are the approximate criteria. As he has digressed and spoken about some oak trees in his constituency--I dare say that it is perfectly fair for him to do so--will he confirm his understanding that my Bill would not grant relief in such a case?

Mr. Chope: I understand that the Bill as currently drafted would not grant such relief, but it could be amended using the powers contained in clause 16 to cover deciduous trees, so as to ensure, for example, that a single oak tree is defined as a hedge. My point relates to the issue of amenity and to the subjective judgment of a local authority in that respect. I want to emphasise the importance of ensuring as much objectivity as possible.

Maria Eagle rose--

Mr. Chope: I shall give way to the hon. Lady, but I must bring my remarks to a close soon.

Maria Eagle: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not close his remarks too soon, as I am enjoying his speech.

The hon. Gentleman has done the House a service by illustrating precisely the sort of dispute with which the Bill is designed to deal, although I accept that it does not cover oak trees. It deals with circumstances in which a landowner is being unreasonable and an owner of abutting land is suffering the consequences. Even though the affected person could cut down the overhanging branches, he may not do so, perhaps because the work is too expensive. The Bill provides a possible solution and could assist in disputes that do not seem capable of being resolved without difficult and complex litigation in the civil court.

Mr. Chope: I hear what the hon. Lady says, but as recent remarks have shown, the Bill does not deal with disputes involving a large deciduous tree that is causing loss of light during the summer months, when people wish to enjoy the amenity of their houses and gardens. It is no exaggeration for me to say that I have more complaints about light problems in relation to deciduous trees that are

27 Apr 2001 : Column 576

protected by tree preservation orders or that are situated on local authority land, but very close to houses, than about so-called high evergreen hedges.

The Bill does not address such problems, but they need to be dealt with at some stage. It seeks perfectly legitimately to deal with a particular area of concern, but it should deal only with that particular mischief. It should not be open to wide interpretation and amendment that could ultimately make it very oppressive. I know that any changes would have to be subject to affirmative resolution, but as we have seen with deferred voting procedures and all the rest of it, that can be nonsense. The other night, the Chamber was filled with hon. Members who were angry about the Government's attitude to number plates, but were not permitted to vote on the basis of the arguments that were advanced. If we had had a chance to do so, I am sure that hon. Members on this side of the Chamber would have won. However, the decision was deferred until Wednesday, when the Government's large majority stomped through the Lobby--many people did not even know what they voting on--to ensure that our prayer against the measure was defeated. Thus, the affirmative resolution procedure does not provide a sufficient safeguard.

Next Section

IndexHome Page