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Mr. John M. Taylor: I wish to correct my right hon. Friend on only one point. I am not a legal practitioner. I went straight many years ago. I have not held a practising certificate since 1988. I require that to be on the record lest anyone think that I ought to declare an interest.

Mr. Forth: I apologise to my hon. Friend. I was aware that he was not a practising lawyer. It was my slackness of language that gave rise to the possibility of misunderstanding. I am grateful to him, and I will try not to repeat the offence. I paid a sort of compliment when I said that he was an experienced law man, but I should have said that it was only until 1988.

Mr. Taylor: I am entirely satisfied with my right hon. Friend's explanation, and I take his words kindly.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

The problem with clause 2 is clear. In the attempt that has properly been made in the Bill to define "high hedge", we end up in more difficulty than we started with. Most people in our constituencies thumbing through the statute book, as I suppose that they must regularly do to look for some redress against the obnoxious hedges growing along their property, would look at clause 2, if it becomes law, and say that "hedge" seemed to mean only two or more evergreens. We have an immediate problem in terms of number and the restriction to evergreens. Then we get into the difficulty of what is or is not a barrier.

I admit that the Bill is explicit in the sense that it says that a hedge exceeds 2 m, but perhaps people of my generation are not certain what 2 m is. Who knows? Certainly, when they come to clause 2(2)(b), they will be completely mystified.

Maria Eagle: I know that the right hon. Gentleman is not a legal man--or a law man, as he quaintly put it--although I sometimes think that he operates like one in this place. Is he not aware that a court of law will take the ordinary English sensible meaning of phrases such as "high hedge" in statutory interpretation?

Mr. Forth: I would hope that that was the case, but I defy even this country's law courts to arrive at a

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satisfactory conclusion given the wording of clause 2(2)(b). Even the hon. Lady, with her experience of the law--I shall be no more explicit than that in case I get into even more trouble--might struggle a bit.

12.15 pm

Mr. John M. Taylor: Surely that last exchange is a complete diversion--the whole purpose of the Bill is to help people stay out of the law courts.

Mr. Forth: In that case, let us substitute for the law courts the infinite wisdom of our local authorities and of their planning departments and the inspectors who, apparently, will be appointed by the Secretary of State to deal with the appeals, and I would argue in the exactly the same way.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): We are in danger of making a mountain out of a molehill. Even if we consider local authorities, the thrust of the Bill is about conciliation and common sense, and the right hon. Gentleman knows that.

Mr. Forth: The difficulty is that, sitting here in the House, we may genuinely think that we are providing a mechanism of last resort, but my argument is that the folk outside will not believe that, nor will they see the mechanism in that light. These are highly disputatious and emotional matters in which people invest much of their personal, family, emotional and, often, financial capital, but it is suggested that the legislation will not have to be used because most things will be settled. However, it is also argued that the Bill is needed because they are not easily settled, so a large number of people will invoke the mechanism. It is like those ghastly advertisements that we now see on television, saying, "Where there's a blame, there's a claim." The Bill is almost in the same category, saying, "Come on, folks, here's a mechanism--get stuck into it."

Mr. Cunningham: I have experience in local government and I know how it operates. Conciliation takes place nine times out of 10, but there are extreme cases. Not too long ago, an individual took a shotgun to his neighbour, and we must deal with those situations.

Mr. Forth: In this case, we may end up taking a shotgun to the Secretary of State, which may or may not be bad thing, because we could simply shift the dispute from one between one neighbour and another to one with the local authority and, eventually, the Secretary of State. That is all we are doing. Of course I cannot claim anything like the hon. Gentleman's distinguished record in local government.

In fact, looking around the Chamber, several hon. Members have distinguished local government experience. I am afraid that I was only a modest elected councillor between 1968 and 1972--which only reinforces how old I am. I served only as a member and a vice-chairman of a couple of committees, but I have a view about how wise it is to import into such matters the local authority.

I do not regard local authorities as representing necessarily the most reliable way to resolve disputes. I have worries, which will be reflected in later debates on

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other groups of amendments, about the cost burden that the Bill could place on local authorities, but we can only use our judgment now. My judgment is that the mechanism would represent an incitement and there would be an incentive to people to invoke them. The hon. Gentleman's view, which I respect, but disagree with, is that the mechanism would be used only as a last resort and thus would be rarely used. I think that we have to let the matter rest there and let other hon. Members judge for themselves.

To finish my remarks on clause 2, I suggest that beyond any doubt, the current wording is entirely unsatisfactory and faulty, and it will need to be changed. I have suggested some changes, but I would not want to die in the last ditch about what I am saying. In fact, I am rather attracted to one or two of the amendments tabled by hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, but we should not agree to clause 2 without any change and without making it much more explicit.

I was happy to attach my name to amendment No. 4 which was tabled by the hon. Member for Hendon. I was persuaded when, on Second Reading, he pointed out that circumstances--mainly but not exclusively in an urban context--can be different. He said:

He is very fortunate to have that; he is obviously a man of some substance. He added:

I am glad that he used measures that I can understand--

Slipping effortlessly between imperial and metric measures in the impressive fashion that we would expect of him, he asked:

That is a perfectly reasonable question.

The thrust of our amendment is to seek to clarify the matter. In doing so, it illustrates a point that has become very clear in the debate. In so many different ways--such as the measure of light to which my hon. Friends have referred, the subjectivity of privacy or amenity and the difference between densely packed urban development and the sprawling acres of Solihull and Christchurch, which will be the subject of another amendment--we must hesitate before we seek to apply exactly the same criteria in every circumstance.

The example of the hon. Member for Hendon is interesting. In the debate on whether the formula should be D divided or multiplied by 2 and whether 2 m should or should not be added to it, we heard some interesting exchanges. The formula relates to the distance between someone's window sill and boundary on the one hand and to the height of the shrubs on the other. The exchanges illustrated, as well as one could expect, the huge difference that there inevitably must be between the hon. Gentleman's Westminster flat and garden and the acreage that exists in the constituencies of many other hon. Members present. We must be careful about trying to apply a one size fits all approach to widely differing circumstances.

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The issues of light, privacy and amenity are completely different in an inner-city urban context from the reality and the perception of those criteria in areas such as mine, which is often called a leafy suburb--and I am happy to say that it is just that. However, even Bromley and Chislehurst has a large number of modest terraced dwellings with very small gardens in an urban context. The amendment would apply to them, and that is why I was happy to put my name to it. We must be careful about the extent to which we expect one provision in a Bill to deal with every possible variation.

Mr. Chope: Is my right hon. Friend aware that this issue is addressed on page 5 of the BRE's publication "Hedge Height and Light Loss"? That deals with the special case of land sloping from window wall to hedge and suggests that the hedge height must take account of that. It defines how that should be done, so will he accept that the issue has been considered by the experts? They have found a way of incorporating such cases in the formula.

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