|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Taylor: My hon. Friend flatters me. I do not wish to persuade the House by the merits of the arguments in my humble address. I believe that the arguments and merits of the Bill stand by themselves and commend themselves. As I said, my Bill is conceptually simple because it deals with height and light. I know that the Building Research Establishment, or BRE, in association with the Tree Advice Trust, has been asked by the DETR to develop an objective way of assessing obstruction of light by hedges. The aim is to come up with a test that will show whether a particular hedge is the cause of an unreasonable obstruction of light, and if so, how much it needs to be reduced to remedy the problem.
At the end of the day, most people are looking for a mechanism that will lead to the height of the hedge being reduced because views might incidentally be restored and worries about roots allayed. If the Bill's obstruction of light criterion provides a remedy in a high proportion of cases, it might be possible to rely on that one measurement. If not, clause 16 will allow the Government to bring other grounds of complaint within the scope of the legislation. The Bill therefore provides flexibility to extend the complaints system if experience shows that that is either necessary or desirable.
Clause 1 concentrates on complaints about high hedges that, it is claimed, obstruct light unreasonably. However, it is important to understand what is meant by high hedges, so clause 2 provides a definition: evergreen hedges more than 2 m in height. That covers leylandii and other coniferous hedges such as Lawson cypress and western red cedar, as well as non-coniferous evergreen species such as laurel and privet. The Bill is not intended to apply to individual trees; although they can be the focus of disputes between neighbours, I have not set out to remedy all perceived problems with trees, nor to discourage the planting of suitable trees in gardens. My Bill concentrates on the main problem: tall, dense screens of foliage.
A complaint can 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 inferred, that hedges more than 2 m in height are necessarily problem hedges that should be trimmed. Whether or not such a hedge causes unreasonable obstruction of light will depend on the circumstances of the case, according to the 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 put a complaint to the local authority unless the hedge exceeds the 2 m threshold. That approach is consistent with that adopted in respect of garden walls and fences under the town and country planning system: the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted
Mr. Forth: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have just obtained from the Vote Office the Hammond report. Have you received any request or notification from the Government that a Minister intends to come to the House to make a statement at 11 o'clock this morning, or that the Government are making some provision to allow Members of Parliament to ask questions about the report? You will know that there has been widespread reporting in the media regarding the document's contents. Now that we have the report itself, I wondered whether you had had any hint, nod or wink from the Government indicating whether they intend to come clean about its contents.
Mr. John M. Taylor: To respond to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman), who asked me whether the screen had to be continuous--whether, if there were gaps it could be treated as comprising separate items of shrubbery--and whether, in the final analysis, it would be a matter for the local authority's judgment. My view is that it would probably be for the local authority to judge, although the old adage about the elephant comes to mind--it is hard to define, but you recognise one when you see one. The same is true of an obstructive and oppressive high screen--you recognise one when you see one.
Clause 3 defines the reference to domestic property in clause 1. It makes it clear that one can make a complaint under the Bill if one believes that the high hedge in question is causing an unreasonable obstruction of light to one's garden or home. One person might be concerned only about the effect of a hedge on the garden, whereas another might be concerned about lack of light in the living room. In both cases, a complaint could be made under the Bill.
Clause 4 sets out the procedure for dealing with complaints. A complaint goes to the local authority--that is, the district, borough or unitary council or their Welsh equivalents. The authority may charge a fee if it wishes to. The Bill provides for the Government to set a maximum fee and enables local authorities to refund fees in appropriate cases. The local authority is given a power to reject a complaint if it believes that the complainant has not taken all reasonable steps to resolve the matter without involving the authority, or if it considers that a complaint is frivolous or vexatious. If the local authority decides to reject a complaint, it must inform the complainant as soon as it can and explain the reasons for its decision.
If the local authority proceeds with a complaint, it must decide two matters which are set out in clause 4(3). First, it must decide whether the hedge is causing an unreasonable obstruction of light to the complainant's property so as to affect the reasonable enjoyment of that property. I envisage the authority applying the objective tests now being developed by the Building Research Establishment. If the authority finds that the hedge is causing an unreasonable obstruction of light, it must then consider what action, if any, should be taken to remedy the problem and prevent it from recurring. The Bill requires the authority in making that decision to take into account all relevant factors, including the extent to which the hedge contributes to the amenity of the neighbourhood and affords privacy to its owner, as well as any legal obligations relating to the hedge.
It is clearly desirable that local authorities handle complaints made under the Bill in an objective and broadly consistent manner. In addition to the BRE tests, I know that the Government propose to provide local authorities with guidance on the legislation. Many cases will boil down to a question of balance: the authority will find that a hedge is causing an unreasonable obstruction of light to the complainant's property; it will consider whether there are any relevant factors that might lead it to decide against requiring the owner to cut it back; then, if there are none and the authority decides that action should be taken, it will issue a remedial notice under clause 5.
Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend is being characteristically generous in giving way. Does he envisage that the Bill will be cost neutral to local authorities and that the fees that it allows local authorities to charge will cover the costs? If so, can he give us his ideas as to the general scope or scale of the fees, so that we can judge whether the Bill will provide people with an attainable remedy in terms of the fees that they might be asked to pay?
Mr. Taylor: I shall not pretend that the measure will necessarily be cost neutral. There will be fees chargeable by the local authority to the complainant, probably of the order of £100 per complaint. Most local authorities are likely to require one full-time member of staff to supervise the activity. I suspect that there will be a net cost to local authorities, albeit not necessarily a large one; I do not intend to estimate how much it might be. None the less, I believe that a money resolution may be necessary and, if I am successful this morning, that money resolution will have to be laid before the House very soon.