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Session 2000-01
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Standing Committee Debates
High Hedges Bill

High Hedges Bill

Standing Committee C

Wednesday 21 March 2001

[Mrs. Ray Michie in the Chair]

High Hedges Bill

10.30 am

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): I beg to move,

    That, if proceedings on the High Hedges Bill are not completed at this day's sitting, the Committee do meet on Wednesday 28th March at half-past Ten o'clock.

Good morning, Mrs. Michie. Welcome to our proceedings on the High Hedges Bill, which I have chosen—perhaps trivially—to call my ``Height and Light'' Bill. We all know of constituents who have been afflicted by a particular misery to which the English law usage does not recommend itself. The Bill is an attempt to address that nuisance and alleviate the problems of our constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that there is a financial resolution in connection with the Bill, copies of which are available in the Room. I also remind members of the Committee that adequate notice should be given of amendments. As a general rule, I do not intend to call starred amendments, including any that may be reached during an afternoon sitting of the Committee.

Clause 1

Complaints to which this act applies

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Taylor: I do not intend to weary members of the Committee, for whose support I am grateful, by talking at length to the clauses. Those who attended the debate on Second Reading will appreciate that there was reasonably broad support in the House for the Bill, so I shall not be self-indulgent this morning.

Clause 1 sets out the complaints to which the Bill applies. Let us suppose that a person owns or occupies a domestic property and there is a high hedge on someone else's land. If that person thinks that the hedge obstructs the light to his property and affects his reasonable enjoyment of that property, he or she can complain to the local authority. The Bill uses the shorthand term ``neighbouring land'' to describe where the hedge is situated. However, that does not mean that the hedge has to be growing in the land next door to a person's house. It could be situated several gardens down the road, but if it casts a shadow across a person's property and impacts on that person's enjoyment, he can complain to the local authority.

In addition, the hedge does not have to be growing in someone else's garden. It could be situated on parkland that backs on to a person's property. It is the effect that the hedge has on a person's quality of life that is important, not where it is located. There is also special provision for the owner of an empty property to bring a complaint under the Bill. For example, the owner may not be able to sell the house because of the high hedge. Such a situation is not unknown. The Committee will note that the Bill is limited to complaints about obstruction and light. High hedges can, of course, be the cause of other problems such as blocked views and worries about roots.

The Bill deliberately concentrates on the main problem rather than trying to solve all the difficulties that people encounter. Obstruction of light tends to be the main problem. It is also the factor that most readily lends itself to objective assessment. The Building Research Establishment, in association with the Tree Advice Trust, has been asked by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to develop an objective way of assessing the obstruction of light by hedges. The aim is to come up with tests that show whether a hedge is causing any obstruction of light and, if so, by how much it needs to be reduced to remedy the problem. I recommend that clause 1 stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

High hedges

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. John M. Taylor: Clause 2 defines high hedges. It makes it clear that the problem concerns evergreen hedges over 2 m in height, which includes leylandii and other coniferous hedges such as Lawson cypress and western red cedar. It also covers non-coniferous species such as laurel and privet.

The Bill is not intended to apply to individual trees, which can sometimes be the focus of disputes between neighbours. It does not set out to remedy all the perceived problems with trees, nor does it seek to discourage the planting of suitable trees in gardens. It concentrates on the main problem—tall, dense screens of foliage.

A complaint may be made to the local authority only if the hedge in question exceeds 2 m in height. That does not mean, nor should it be implied, that hedges over 2 m in height are necessarily problem hedges that should be trimmed. Whether such a hedge causes an unreasonable obstruction of light will depend on the particular circumstances of each case and will take account of objective tests being developed by the BRE. The effect of the Bill is to provide a starting point with some degree of certainty. One cannot make a complaint to the local authority unless the hedge exceeds the 2 m threshold. Equally, those on the other side of the hedge can be assured that they will not find themselves on the receiving end of a complaint, providing that the hedge in question is maintained at 2 m or lower. I recommend that clause 2 stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): I have no desire to impede the progress of the Bill, but I would like to put on record an interesting phenomenon that I encountered. If one lives in a conservation area, one has to obtain permission from the local authority to cut a tree if its diameter at chest height is more than 7 cm. Extraordinarily, when I wished to trim a leylandii hedge, I had to obtain permission from my local authority because each tree in the hedge was out of control and over the 7 cm limit. I mention that to my hon. Friend as an example of a way in which local authorities can be in the position of arbiter in cases within conservation areas. In a sense, one would have to complain to the local authority about the local authority.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I shall be brief because I wholeheartedly support the Bill and congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) on introducing it. On Second Reading, I registered my concern about cases in which hedges were more than 2 m in height but caused no problem with the obstruction of light. I suggested amending the Bill to introduce an overall limit of 4 m, which a householder could insist that the local authority enforce. That may complicate the Bill, but the overall height is significant whether or not light is excluded. At some point, I hope that changes can be made to limit the overall height of hedges to 4 m or 3 m—as I said on Second Reading—although perhaps not in Committee because of a shortage of time. I have not tabled an amendment because I do not want to complicate matters today, but that it is an important matter.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth): As was made clear on Second Reading, the Government support the Bill.

I listened carefully on Second Reading to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), which I understood to be about the desirability of including an absolute limit, in all circumstances, on the height of evergreen or leylandii hedges. The effect of that would be that even if a hedge were generally considered acceptable, legislation would prevent it from exceeding a maximum height. That it not necessary or desirable because there may be circumstances—if we think seriously then we will know that there are—in which evergreen hedges exceed 4 m and are acceptable to all concerned. If such hedges do not cause complaint, it would be wrong for legislation to state that they must be cut back.

My hon. Friend will recognise that the matter must be kept tight to ensure that the Bill passes through the House without creating unnecessary complaints or opposition. However, it is stated elsewhere in the Bill that light is the only objective criterion—that will be the grounds for making a complaint. That matter was discussed in the consultation process. Local authorities and Hedgeline, which has done much work to secure legislation on behalf of people throughout the country who are suffering because of the problem, accept and believe that light will be used as a proxy for many other problems. Clause 16 provides that if light is not an effective criterion for judging the complaints that arise, the Secretary of State may, by regulation, extend the powers of the Bill to cover complaints that have not been dealt with satisfactorily.

I—and people who were consulted—hope and believe that the overwhelming majority of cases and the problems that hon. Members have heard about from their constituents, will be dealt with by the powers of the Bill and by using light as a proxy for other problems that may be caused by high hedges. If that does not occur, amendments may be made by regulation at a later date. In that way, we will avoid the overall ban on hedges exceeding a certain height that was suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North on Second Reading, which he wants to explore further today.

Mr. Rowe: As one who comes from Kent, where fruit farmers have very high hedges that act as wind breaks, I find the proposition of an overall limit of 6 m on the height of hedges counterproductive. Many such hedges are in virtually open territory.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): I do not wish to impede progress. Clause 2 refers to:

    ``two or more adjacent evergreens''.

A number of my constituents have mentioned that the problem of light being blocked out by trees and shrubs arises because they live in small houses with relatively small windows. In some cases, the planting of a single leylandii in a particular place may effectively block out light completely. My constituent, Mr. Birkett, is involved in such a case. All the light has been blocked to his kitchen window, which is side-on to the neighbouring house. Perhaps the other provision to which the Minister referred will deal with complaints not covered by the Bill at a later date. For people living in relatively small houses with relatively small windows, just one triffid-like shrub or tree—whatever one wants to call them—can effectively shut out all the light from a person's home or rooms, without even forming a barrier.


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