High Hedges Bill

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Mr. John M. Taylor: I shall start by responding briefly to the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). When I read John Wyndham's ``The Day of the Triffids'', it frightened me, and I could not sleep well for a couple of days afterwards. The hon. Lady graphically illustrated the menace and misery that can be caused in such circumstances.

I express my gratitude to the Minister for intervening with authority in aid of the Bill. I would not have made such progress without his support and that of other hon. Members. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) that a remedial notice under the Bill would override the conservation area controls. I do not know whether he would regard that as a reassurance; perhaps he would.

The hon. Member for Luton, North was good enough to recognise that, at this stage in a Parliament, the time available for amendments is scarce. However, I assure him that the letter of statute will have a travelling companion in the form of guidance notes on the implementation of the Bill, which will be issued to local authorities by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Although such guidance does not have the full force of law, local authorities will be glad to have it. Such collateral consideration—or margin notes, if I may so describe them—will be afforded and carefully thought through by the Department. I speak as an Opposition Member—I am not claiming in aid a Department of State—but I am confident that collateral notes and guidance will be issued, which will be helpful to local authorities. My experience of local authorities is that they will say, ``Please tell us how to implement this'', and, when the guidance notes arrive, ``Thank you very much.''

I have attempted a brief response to the stand part debate, and I hope that the Committee will support the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

Domestic property

10.45 am

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

Mr. John M. Taylor: Clause 3 explains what is meant by domestic property. It makes it clear that people can make a complaint under the Bill if they believe that the high hedge in question is causing an unreasonable obstruction of light, either to their garden or their home. One person might be concerned only about the effect of a hedge on a garden. Another might be concerned about a lack of light coming into a living room, perhaps in one of the small houses to which the hon. Member for Don Valley referred. A complaint could be made under the Bill in either case, or in both cases.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4

Procedure for dealing with complaints

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

Mr. John M. Taylor: Clause 4 sets out the procedure for dealing with complaints. A complaint goes to the local authority—the district, borough or unitary council, or Welsh equivalent—which may, if it wishes, charge a fee. The Bill provides for the Government to set a maximum fee as well as enabling local authorities to refund fees in appropriate cases.

Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire): Clause 4 deals with the tricky subject of money. Clause 4(1)(b) refers to a complaint that

    ``is accompanied by such fee (if any) as the authority may determine.''

Clause 4(8) states that a fee

    ``must not exceed the prescribed amount''.

If a fee is to be charged, will it be uniform throughout the country, and what will the local authority do with the money?

I hope that there will not be differential fees, because that would cause trouble. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Luton, North is present, as he will know that the subsidy for pensioners' bus fares in Luton differs from that in south Bedfordshire. I will not explain the reasons for that, but I wish to draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull that differential fees might cause controversy.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): I, too, believe that there should be a standard fee, if that is possible and practicable.

Clause 4(8) states that local authorities have the power to decide whether to return the fee. I hope that they will do that as a matter of course when the complaint has been upheld and the complainant does not have adequate means. That is a matter not for the law but for the local authority's interpretation and sympathetic consideration.

The fee should cover the cost of processing a complaint or application, but local authorities will not find that cost a heavy burden and they should return the fee in the circumstances that I have outlined.

Mr. Hopkins: I echo the comments of the two hon. Gentlemen who have just spoken.

On Second Reading, I expressed the concern that the fee should be small enough not to deter the less wealthy from applying for hedges to be trimmed. I also believe that local authorities should be able to charge difficult neighbours who refuse to trim their hedges, but that would complicate the Bill and I do not wish to delay it. That is, perhaps, a thought for the future.

Mr. Robert Ainsworth: I want to clarify matters. I am sure that the Bill's promoter will explain his views and intentions. A few days after Second Reading, the House passed a money resolution late at night and following a short debate. If the Bill is enacted, it is intended that a maximum fee that local authorities can charge will be set in regulations. It is not intended that the fee should cover all the costs incurred by the local authority. Issues should not therefore arise in relation to the charge made by local authorities and what they do with that money.

During the consultation it was estimated that such complaints would cost about £200 to process. If the maximum charge was set at above £100, the situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North might arise: people without substantial means might be discouraged from making a complaint. It would be a case not of surplus money but of a charge being levied by the local authority to go some way towards offsetting the costs that it incurs.

I do not want hon. Members to misunderstand our intention. We believe that, generally speaking, the money will be returned to successful complainants. Such a lobby is asking Parliament to pass the Bill because, at present, people in such circumstances have no redress other than the courts, which are prohibitively expensive for dealing with those complaints. During the consultation, no great alarm was expressed at the thought that people would be obliged to spend a small amount if they were given a route to deal with the problem.

Mr. Rowe: The Minister is making a lot of sense. Does he agree that when the Bill becomes an Act, two developments should result? First, the owners of such hedges will quickly realise that they have an obligation to keep them under control, which they do not at present admit, so the number of complaints should fall in time. Secondly, it might be worth making the obligation to keep such hedges under control one of the elements in the seller's pack that the Government are introducing. Gradually, public understanding of the matter would increase.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman says that he believes that once people know that a remedy for the problem exists, many cases will be solved amicably. That is the view of everyone who was consulted. The Bill should be used only in the event of intransigence in unreasonable circumstances.

Hon. Members referred to triffid hedges. It is not leylandii or any other species that is the problem, but the people who own the hedges and their indifference to their neighbours' plight. As people realise that a remedy is available that they can easily and relatively cheaply use to deal with the problem, it is hoped that the problem will go away or be reduced to a relatively small number of cases in a couple of years. The costs of the appeal mechanism to local authorities and the Government should only exist in any quantity for the first two or three years, until existing cases have largely been dealt with and attitudes have changed.

The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent refers to seller's packs. He will notice that, under a later clause, if an order is placed against a hedge, it will become a land charge. Anyone who tries to sell or purchase the property will be told about the problem and that an order has been applied to the hedge involved.

Mr. John M. Taylor: To endeavour to reply to the debate on clause 4 after the Minister has spoken is, to some extent, to gild the lily. Hardly anything is left to say. He worked through my checklist, right down to land charges.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): It is worth pointing out that although we would like local authorities to keep their fees as low as possible—in any case, a maximum will apply—it is important to impose a fee to inhibit people from making vexatious claims against their neighbours.

Mr. John M. Taylor: I could not agree more. I believe that one of the hon. Lady's constituents incurred enormous costs to achieve a remedy through the civil courts, with all the uncertainties of the English law on nuisance. Her constituent would have felt that paying £100 to Birmingham city council for redress would have been infinitely preferable to the amount that that constituent ultimately had to pay.

The Minister elegantly covered the point about land charges. The answer to the general question about consistency throughout the country is that £100 is the maximum. My opinion is that the maximum will become standard but that it will be alleviated in cases of hardship.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Remedial notices

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

11 am

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