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House of Commons

Friday 27 April 2001

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock

PRAYERS

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Point of Order

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It has been brought to my attention that there is a an apparent discrepancy in the treatment by the Official Report of remarks I made yesterday in the House, and the leniency of the Editor's decision over any changes to them, and the treatment of a junior Minister's reply to a question I asked on 10 April. If Members are concerned that the treatment of Back-Bench Opposition Members of the House is perhaps different in the eyes of the Editor to that of junior Government Front Benchers, what remedy is there for that apparent discrepancy in treatment by the Editor of the Official Report?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman can write to me and I shall look into his complaint.

Orders of the Day

High Hedges Bill

Not amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

New Clause 9

Established hedges


'. No complaint shall be made under this Act in relation to a high hedge by the owner or occupier of a domestic property if that property was constructed after the hedge was established.'.--[Mr. Chope.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.36 am

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 3, in clause 2, page 2, line 7, leave out from "means" to first "a" in line 9 and insert--


'a tree, shrub or two or more trees or shrubs forming'.

No. 58, in page 2, line 7, leave out "two" and insert "six".

No. 84, in page 2, line 7, leave out "two" and insert "three".

No. 59, in page 2, line 7, leave out "adjacent" and insert "adjoining".

No. 2, in page 2, line 8, leave out "evergreens" and insert "trees or shrubs".

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No. 60, in page 2, line 8, leave out "evergreens" and insert "conifers".

No. 70, in page 2, line 8, leave out "evergreens" and insert--


'plants, bushes, shrubs or trees'.

No. 61, in page 2, line 10, leave out "two metres" and insert "twelve feet".

No. 85, in page 2, line 10, leave out "two metres" and insert "six feet".

No. 62, in page 2, leave out line 12 and insert--


'(a) "conifer" means any tree that bears or is capable of bearing cones.'.

No. 71, in page 2, leave out line 12.

No. 63, in page 2, line 13, leave out "or shrub".

No. 86, in page 2, line 14, leave out from second "gaps" to end of line 15 and insert--


'between the extremities of each of the trees or shrubs do not exceed six feet in width.'.

No. 4, in page 2, line 15, at end insert--


'(c) "ground level" means the height of the land of the complainant.'.

No. 117, in clause 4, page 2, line 29, at end insert--


'(1A) The authority shall dismiss a complaint if the height of the hedge in metres is less than D/2 + 2, where D is the distance in metres between the hedge and the 2 nearest outside window wall of the complainant's property.'.

No. 40, in clause 5, page 4, line 16, leave out "two metres" and insert "twelve feet".

No. 89, in page 4, line 16, leave out "two metres" and insert "six feet".

No. 51, in clause 16, page 11, line 36, after "2(1)", insert "to include deciduous trees".

No. 52, in page 11, line 36, leave out "any provision of".

Mr. Chope: I am surprised that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) declined to move his new clauses, but I wish to speak to new clause 9 and the amendments grouped with it that are in my name. This debate is at the core of the Bill because it is about the definition of hedges that may be subject to complaints.

Some 3,000 members of the Hedgeline pressure group may feel that they are victims of high hedges, but we must also consider the 10 million or more households with gardens who enjoy the amenity, privacy and quality of life afforded by living trees and shrubs. With the increasing urbanisation of England and the Government policy of increasing housing density, a private garden space is an ever more precious asset, not only for humans but for wildlife. Gardening is one of the most popular pastimes in England, and if the gardeners of England woke up to the true threat posed to their privacy, freedom and quality of life by some of the broad and imprecise definitions in the Bill, we would see public opposition on a par with that now so consistently expressed against the European Union.

On issues such as the European Union, Members of Parliament must often wring their hands and say, "Nothing we can do about it, mate", but the form of the Bill is solely our responsibility and we should take it seriously. As legislators, we must ensure that if new restrictions are to be placed on traditional freedoms and

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backed by criminal sanctions, as in the Bill, those restrictions must be clear, precise, easily understood and essential, as well as being fair.

The Government have set up what they describe as a better regulation taskforce and laid down a number of tests for good regulation. I submit that if the promoter of the Bill accepted new clause 9 and my other amendments, the Bill would be much improved and accord more precisely with the definitions of good regulation that the Government claim to espouse.

New clause 9 addresses what happens when people find that there are plans for a development at the bottom of their garden. In one month, I have had five times as many complaints from owners of gardens backing on to a proposed backland development in the Jumpers area of Christchurch as I have had in an entire Parliament, right across my constituency, on high hedges.

I expect that many of the residents of Christchurch who are to lose their privacy and be overlooked as a result of the backland development will be considering what they can do. That they do not have a right to a view is well established in English law, but if they choose to plant a fast-growing conifer hedge, why should those who will benefit from the development of the backland be able to curtail the height of the hedge? The new clause would ensure that an established hedge will take precedence over houses that were subsequently constructed.

This is not purely of academic interest: it is a practical issue. Some people in the area have already established conifers at the end of their gardens. They are not causing any problem or loss of light to buildings because there are no buildings on the backland development. Residents would prefer the backland to remain as it is but some development seems inevitable. Thankfully, the local authority has rejected the application for an extremely high density development and discussions are taking place about a development of a slightly lower density.

Why should the developer be able to build new houses very close to the boundary of existing properties and then, under the Bill, be able to say that the tall trees at the boundary mean that the new houses do not enjoy sufficient light and that, effectively, the boundary hedge is a nuisance? It would be unjust and morally indefensible to enact a Bill that enabled those who develop land to force householders to cut down their existing and long-established hedges and trees simply because the developers chose to build houses far too close to the boundary line.

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston): I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's constituents and with the new clause, but does he not fear that it would create a loophole in the difficult cases that the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) introduced the Bill to address? It could enable those who have bad faith and are engaged in neighbour disputes to plant fast-growing trees just before the buildings go up and thus escape the provisions of the Bill?

Mr. Chope: The hon. Lady describes that as a loophole. If I had been living in a house with my family for 10 or 15 years and found that the person at the end of the garden had sold his land for development so that I

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faced the prospect of an unsightly development at the end of my garden, my first action would be to plant a fast-growing hedge. That would ensure some protection against the problem of overlooking and intrusion that would inevitably result from such a development. I do not accept what the hon. Lady says. If someone decides to build a house close to someone else's boundary, he should take the consequences if a loss of light results from a hedge that, although not well established, had been planted before the new house was built. That is the burden of my new clause.

9.45 am

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Already we face the dilemma of the right to reasonable privacy on the one hand and other considerations, such as light, on the other. Surely our obligation is to try and strike a balance and take account of people's proper right to privacy, perhaps through the joys of nature and the growing of trees, hedges and shrubs. This is a difficult issue and we should not gloss over it.


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