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11.30 am

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) on introducing the Bill, which I support. It covers important principles with which I strongly agree, and would help to avoid some of the neighbour disputes that every Member has to deal with from time to time.

In Britain, we are often happy to allow people to do something, but are reluctant to legislate to prevent them from doing things. We are too slow in producing legislation to restrain people from infringing their neighbours' liberties. A big question of liberty underlies the Bill, and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) touched on it. He is perhaps a spokesperson for the libertarian right, which would allow people to do what they like with as little intervention by the state as possible.

I am drawn to some of the great writers on politics. Hobbes talked about life in the state of nature being "nasty, brutish and short". He said that imposition of a state and regulation of human life was important, and I agree with him.

Mr. Pound: I thought Hobbs was a cricketer.

Mr. Hopkins: It was another Hobbes.

Other great writers on liberty have dealt with these subjects at length, such as John Stuart Mill and, more recently, Sir Isaiah Berlin, who spoke of liberties conflicting and said that the liberty of the pike does not mean liberty for the minnow. A pond with one pike has many unfree minnows.

Mr. Bercow: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hopkins: Yes.

Mr. Pound: Speaking of minnows.

Mr. Bercow: As the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) observes entirely correctly, we are speaking of minnows, so I thought it appropriate to rise to my feet.

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On first principles, will the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) explain the pertinence of Isaiah Berlin's conception of positive and negative liberty in so far as it applies to the Bill? It is important not to misrepresent anyone in these matters. Will he confirm that the key point about Mill's advocacy was the distinction between self-regarding and other regarding acts? The erection of a high hedge would probably be regarded--certainly by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor)--as an other regarding act.

Mr. Hopkins: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I should like to debate these points. J.S. Mill agonised about whether one could intervene to prevent someone from damaging himself, and it was Isaiah Berlin who referred to liberties conflicting. The point about positive freedom is that the state intervenes to promote the freedom of the weak against the strong. I believe that the state, by choice and by careful legislation such as we promote in the House, can protect the liberties of the weak against the strong. I entirely agree with that proposition, which is why I sit on this side of the House rather than on the other side.

I have had some experience of neighbour disputes about arboreal matters. When I was young, I lived in a flat with an elderly landlady, who asked me to cut a branch of a neighbour's tree that was overhanging her garden. I made the rash assumption that she had consulted her neighbour and I got on my step-ladder with a saw. The neighbour came out of his house in a state of extreme agitation. He was very angry and tried to push me off the step-ladder. I was not a lawyer at the time, but I can think of several laws that could have been invoked. I felt that something had to be done to regulate relations between neighbours. Time and again, neighbours in my constituency have fallen into conflict with each other for various reasons, resulting in bitter disputes for which the law is often inadequate. Therefore, I support the principles underlying this important Bill.

I should declare an interest, because I may be the only Member present who has a leylandii hedge next to his garden. My neighbour keeps it trimmed at a reasonable level. We are extremely good friends, and he has not caused any dispute. If he were to allow his hedge to grow to a height of 30 ft or 40 ft, or whatever height they can grow to, I am sure that it would cause difficulty between us. I may be able to afford a lawyer, such as the hon. Member for Solihull, to take my side, but if I were an old-age pensioner living on a state pension I would not be able to do so and would be in extreme difficulty. If people could call in the local authority to help, that would be a good use of a local authority. That is how it should be.

Mr. Dismore: Presumably, if my hon. Friend were an impecunious pensioner, the community legal service would give him assistance. However, that would not be possible if the £0.5 billion package of cuts proposed by the Opposition were to go through.

Mr. Hopkins: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The community legal service is promoted by the Government.

My neighbour's fence was attractive when it first grew, because the row of cypress trees reminded me of my holiday in Tuscany some years previously. Sadly, my back garden's likeness to Tuscany ended at that hedge,

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and there is no other similarity. He chopped the tops off the trees, so they are now beheaded and less pretty. The hedge is an agreeable barrier between our gardens. I am not sure whether he is trying to keep my garden out of his garden, but it is agreeable because he keeps it trimmed at a reasonable level.

My neighbour's hedge does not exclude light, as it points south-west and my garden gets the best of the sun in the afternoon, so it is not a problem. The Bill is rather more nebulous about how I could deal with the situation if it were much higher. I suggest that consideration be given in Committee to an absolute height limit of 3 m or 4 m--I think that 3 m is reasonable--to prevent, for instance, the obstruction of one's view of the neighbourhood.

Mr. Pound: I do not want to disagree with my hon. Friend in the generality of his comments, but does he agree that the noble cypress standing alone can present a wonderful picture? In my garden, with the advent of spring, fornicating frogs are frolicking in the pond in the shade of a noble Lebanon cedar. Were there a row of cedar, that would constitute a problem, but where one stands alone it can be a landscape feature. I urge my hon. Friend to row back from a height limit, because we should consider spatial location rather than crude geometry. Height can be all right, if the tree is in the right place.

Mr. Hopkins: My hon. Friend makes a good point, but I shall leave judgment on these matters to the Committee. There is a difference between a noble cypress standing alone and a dense row of them blocking light or blocking the view. In my garden, the only view that the hedge blocks is that of the aircraft taking off from our local airport, and I am not worried about losing that view. However, in other cases a view of attractive hills may be hidden by a high fence that does not exclude light, but makes the view from the garden much less pleasant.

I believe that there is a case for a height limit on hedges, perhaps at a higher level than the 2 m proposed in the Bill to avoid cutting out light. In Committee, I hope that consideration can be given to tightening up the Bill on overall height for other reasons besides blocking out light.

I cannot claim to have a background in the promotion of the Bill, but I congratulate all who have. I have an interest, however, and I hope that what I have said will be of some benefit and assistance.

11.40 am

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor). I think it is the fourth attempt to legislate after the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe): there were two attempts by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham), who spoke earlier, and one in the other place by Lady Gardiner of Parks--an apposite name and title in this context. Regrettably, having heard what has been said today, I suspect that this Bill's prospects are limited.

I want to cite some cases referred to me by constituents, which highlight not just the need for the Bill but one or two problems caused by its current drafting. Mr. Brazil, of Garrett road in Edgware, wrote to me at the end of last year to say:

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The Bill does not provide for that consideration, but I think that what Mr. Brazil tells me constitutes the fundamental reason why it is necessary.

Mr. and Mrs. Cullinan, of Rushden gardens in Mill Hill, wrote to me on behalf of half a dozen constituents. They raised similar but slightly different problems, again related to leylandii trees planted as a hedge. They wrote that the London borough of Barnet--when it was under Conservative control, I hasten to add--planted the trees some 15 years ago,

The couple's problems relate to whether the local authority is responsible for the trees, the damage caused by tree roots and the issue of light, as well as the question of obtaining legal advice under the present system. I am happy to report that the property involved has a new owner who seems a little more sympathetic, but time will tell. Mr. and Mrs. Cullinan have had to put up with the problem for more than 10 years.

Mr. Prendergast of Deansbrook road in Burnt Oak, whom I met when I was doing the doorsteps a few weeks ago, raises a slightly different problem. He has a very small garden, but there is a single large conifer on the next-door neighbour's property, which completely blocks out the light in his kitchen. Having seen the property, I can vouch for the problems that Mr. Prendergast is experiencing, and I think that they illustrate one of the drafting problems to which I referred. The House of Commons research paper on the Bill sets out the problem succinctly. It refers to the difficulties that trees and shrub hedges frequently cause, threatening roofs, gutterings and drains, depriving unwilling sufferers of light in their houses, and depriving them of the right to use their gardens in the way that they choose. The paper states:

Keen gardeners may be prevented from growing the plants they wish to grow by untopped and unmaintained fast-growing hedges. The burden of that continuing hazard can fall on people who are prevented by law from intervening to reduce the height of hedges.

I am pleased that the Government have seen fit to act. They have issued a consultation document, and have indicated that they would like to legislate when time

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permits. I am also glad that the hon. Member for Solihull has been able to take on the Bill. However, we need to be aware of the scale of the problem.

A 1999 survey of local authorities estimated that there could be as many as 17,000 existing problem hedge cases in England and Wales. The problem tends to occur when a hedge is not suitable for its location, and is not properly maintained. Once a well-maintained hedge is neglected and becomes overgrown, it too will create problems.

Much of the debate has focused on leylandii cypresses, which tend to be singled out for blame because they can grow by 1 m a year and reach heights of more than 100 ft. It is not the only culprit, however. People considering what to plant in their gardens should bear in mind the fact that other trees can also have a serious deleterious effect on their neighbours' properties. The Lawson cypress can grow by 60 cm a year, to 20 m, the western red cedar can grow by 75 cm a year, to 25 m, and even the common-or-garden privet grows by 60 cm a year and can reach a height of 13 m. I found that staggering. The yew tree can grow by 20 cm a year, to 13 m, and even holly can grow by 30 cm a year, to 10 m.

The 1993 report "Trees in Towns" found that the most common type of tree in urban areas, constituting 22 per cent. of the total, was the cypress type, such as leylandii. More important, cypress-type trees accounted for 50 per cent. of hedges that were higher than 2.5 m. People may assume that if they have a tree that is not a leylandii these arguments do not apply to them. They should understand that other types of tree can cause similar problems, and that what may be a dwarf now may become a giant triffid in a year or two.

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