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Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 17:

"( ) The Secretary of State shall after consultation with representatives of local government issue guidance to local authorities with regard to the exercise of their powers and functions pursuant to this Act."

The noble Baroness said: I noted this morning that the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, referred to the need for a degree of flexibility in the application of the Bill. I accept that necessity, but I also believe that it requires some objectivity. We certainly need the assurance that local authorities will act neutrally when administering the provisions of the Bill. At the Second Reading stage the Local Government Association told me that it wanted to avoid long-winded, philosophical discussions on each and every dispute—one person's nuisance is often another person's aesthetic choice. I well understand that concern.

It is also proper that those who are involved in a dispute should have the assurance that some common standard is being applied between different local authorities. Of course, circumstances will be different: what applies in the suburbs may not be right for the open countryside. However, while accepting that consideration, it should not be open to local authorities to take inconsistent decisions. Indeed, one would rapidly find oneself in the courts. I believe that local authorities would welcome some assistance in the broad criteria to be applied.

I recognise that I probably should have made the amendment state that the Secretary of State "may issue guidance" rather using the word "shall", but I trust that that will not be too much of a stumbling block. I suggest, therefore, that the Secretary of State should consult representatives of local government, and issue guidance to assist them. I beg to move.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: This is a very good amendment, one that is worthy of support and inclusion in the legislation. As a result of my experience, that of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, and, indeed, of

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everyone else who has spoken in this Committee stage, we are all well aware that there needs to be some measure of consistency in interpreting what the Bill intends to achieve. We also need to try to sweep up the issues at the next stage. I take the view that the action on this matter has recently been ratcheted up significantly as regards both this Bill and the one in the House of Commons.

After the decisions taken in this House in recognition of the fact that there is a need for some legislation in this respect—and, I have to say, the enormous work sympathetically carried out within the department—it would be a pity if we were to fall at the last hurdle in ensuring that people understand exactly what is involved in this issue. This amendment deals particularly with local authorities, because they will have to carry out these functions. Therefore, when the Secretary of State, the Minister, and his colleagues consider the next step to be taken, they ought to bear in mind that there are bodies such as Hedgeline that have a vested interest in the kind of provisions that will be considered.

I must confess that while sitting here I have opened my post, which I would normally have opened first thing but I was delayed. Inside was the latest Hedgeline bulletin. It is headed,

    "We have another chance for legislation

    Hedge Law could be passed this time around".

On the back there is a contact sheet. It is a voluntary, unaided, unpaid organisation, but it has a network of people all over the country who must have appeared out of the woodwork—but I must be careful; that is another branch of what I want to say.

There are lots of little people who are unprotected and unarticulate, looking for someone to be their champion. In the first instance that is the Government through, I hope, aiding and abetting the passing of the law, but ultimately it is the local authority. That is how it should be. When the Minister decides to consider the matter, even on another Bill, he should take care that when the guidance is produced it goes through the hands not only of local authorities but also of those who seek to represent the people at the sharp end—that is not us.

I mentioned Hedgeline. The department may have the addresses of other such organisations. It is better to take the opportunity to get the provisions right in the first instance than to find what local authorities think sensible becoming the subject of dispute among other people.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: I support the principle behind the amendment. It is good to have guidelines and the Minister has already indicated that there will be guidelines. I support the point of the noble Lord, Lord Graham, that the consultation should be wider. Hedgeline has great expertise in the subject, built up over many years, so it would be one organisation to consult, but it may be wider than that. The guidance should be issued not only to local authorities but also to the general public so that the various functions suggested by the noble Baroness can be incorporated and local authorities know their rights.

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There is a need for general guidance on the issue, so although I agree with its principle I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw the amendment and the Minister will tell us that he plans guidance in any case.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I can offer the assurance that all Members of the Committee seek. Guidance will be produced to local authorities under the legislation. I give a cast-iron assurance that there will be prior consultation, not only with local government but also with a range of interested organisations including, of course, Hedgeline. The guidance will have to take into account the determination of appeals, guidance to occupiers as to the way in which they should make their complaints on such issues as giving prior notification. All those matters will need to be covered and we shall need to consult extensively to achieve that.

However, we believe it can be achieved without placing the guidance on a statutory footing. There will be consultation and effective guidance to all, which will be widely available to the public.

Baroness Hamwee: I was seeking such an assurance through this process. It cannot get better than a cast-iron assurance. I thank the Minister for that. He and I and the noble Lord, Lord Graham, used the term "guidance", while the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, used the term "guidelines". I think we are talking about guidance, which is something more—the Minister nods. I wanted to be clear as guidance has a firmer status. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 agreed to.

Clauses 7 to 14 agreed to.

Clause 15 [Interpretation]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 18:

    Page 11, line 38, after "interest" insert "for a term of not less than five years"

The noble Baroness said: This is possibly the worst drawn amendment I have ever tabled. I realised that when drafting it, but it is a probing amendment. The Bill refers to an occupier being someone entitled to possession of land by virtue of an estate or interest in it. My amendment, which seeks to stimulate discussion, specifies:

    "for a term of not less than five years".

At a number of points the owner or occupier is the subject or perhaps object of a provision, either as the complainant or the offending neighbour. Issues of liability are raised so that the owner or occupier may be required to take action. It raises the grounds on which an appeal may be made. Is an occupier in a different position from an owner and under what circumstances would it be reasonable for an occupier to have to undertake the cost of taking the remedial action?

The Bill seems to allow picking and choosing between owners and occupiers. I am unclear—although guidance might assist—as to the basis for deciding whether the

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complaint should be directed, for instance, at the owner of the land or at someone who is occupying it on a relatively short-term basis. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Baroness admitted that this is perhaps not her best ever drawn amendment. I do not like to agree with her, but on this occasion I had better do so. It would alter the definition of an occupier if it were to require their entitlement to possess the land by virtue of an estate or interest in it for a term of not less than five years.

The term "occupier" crops up throughout the legislation and so the amendment would have far-reaching consequences. It would mean that people on shorter-term tenancies would not be able to bring a complaint under the legislation, but would have to persuade the owner to submit it instead. If the owner refused to go to that trouble, up to five years is a long time to endure the misery of a high hedge, as I am sure Hedgeline members would testify. It could of course be for longer if someone repeatedly renewed their tenancy.

Were the amendment applied, the owner would be responsible for complying with any remedial notice and could be prosecuted for failure to do so, even though the terms of the tenancy agreement might specify that responsibility for maintaining the hedge rests with the tenant. We could argue that that is hardly fair or equitable.

If the property changed hands while a local authority was considering the complaint, it would be reasonable for it to ask the new occupiers of the domestic property from which the complaint originated whether they wished to continue and proceed with the matter. There are therefore administrative solutions to any problems that might be thrown up where the parties to the complaint change over time. Local authorities have powers in Clause 4 not to proceed with a complaint they consider frivolous or vexatious. That might cover, for instance, a situation where someone makes a complaint on spurious grounds just before their tenancy is due to expire.

I am not sure that that offers any reassurance to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. However, I have tried to explore some of the difficulties with the amendment that I think would unnecessarily complicate the simplicity of the Bill's drafting—which, as I have said several times, is a distinct virtue.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: The amendment is interesting and has made me think about the distinction between owner and occupier. I also understand the Minister's point about one's legal obligations. However, I ask him to consider before the next stage yet another scenario—when the owner or person responsible for a given piece of land cannot be found. Rutland Gardens, for example, in central London, has a central garden which was purchased some years ago by an unknown

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person on the basis that he could build houses on it. However, it may have been sold to him by a very smart con man because, as everyone knows, under the Open Spaces Act, there is no way in which anyone could obtain the right to build on that site. The garden has therefore been totally neglected for many years, and Westminster Council is unable to get anyone to take action on it.

There is another patch near the Royal Geographical Society. Although the owner's identity is known, there is great dispute about who is responsible for trimming the few bits of greenery on the land, which is much smaller than the patch in Rutland Gardens. There are many such instances.

I know from experience of many cases in which people's electricity supply was cut off because the landlord could not be found. That situation has changed, but many cases still revolve around the need to identify and locate individuals. If someone has a hedge and the adjoining owner cannot be found, how will the Bill work for him? Will the council cut down the trees, or will people have the right to cut them down at their own expense? What will happen if they cannot find anyone on whom to serve notice? It is an interesting point. I shall read this debate. Perhaps the Minister will think about what I said and we can discuss it again at a later stage.

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