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Mr. Forth: I am not sure about that. My hon. Friend should not provoke me by continuing to use the word "experts". If there is one thing that is guaranteed to put me off almost anything, it is associating it with the word "experts". I believe in the gifted amateur approach to life and I always feel much more comfortable with people who approach a subject with an attitude of common sense. As soon as anyone gets out a slide rule, I become suspicious. I am not as convinced on that as my hon. Friend would like.
The difficulty of considering such definitions simply on the basis of what is in a Bill is that that can be a purely academic exercise, but we are dealing with extremely personal matters that directly affect people's lives. That is the Bill's objective. Given that that is the case, we are obliged to satisfy ourselves that what is proposed is appropriate and will not be counterproductive.
My fear is that as the Bill does not provide adequate definitions, especially in clause 2, we might be in danger of raising expectations unrealistically and unnecessarily--as Parliaments so often do--and creating a great deal of disappointment. People who expect a ready solution to their problem are likely to be extremely disappointed when they consider the number of stages through which the process might be forced to go, never mind the necessary balancing of the interests of the person complaining and the person complained against. We shall deal with that in subsequent amendments and, possibly, on Third Reading.
Whether or not one agrees with the main thrust of the Bill, it cannot be allowed to progress without being amended. Clause 2 is a good example of something that needs to be changed. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull and the Minister respond, they will deal in detail with the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and I have made. Unless someone does that, I will be reluctant to support the Bill. It will not advance us in its present form. In fact, it could make matters worse.
Mr. Robert Ainsworth: My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) tabled amendments to change the word "evergreens" to "trees and shrubs" and he gave good reasons for that. However, the Bill deals with an issue that has been widely discussed for some time, and the consultations on it have been made known to the House. He is well aware of the dangers of drafting legislation too widely so that its scope unintentionally covers things that are not a problem.
During the consultation, it was made very clear to us that almost the entire problem relates to evergreen plants. There is a temptation on the one hand to narrow the definition to coniferous trees, but laurels are a problem, and on the other to widen it to include deciduous plants; but we have attempted to acquire knowledge of the problems that exist and found that deciduous plants are not the cause. I ask my hon. Friend to accept that although regulation will provide us with the opportunity to change the definition if it proves necessary to do so, this is the broad proposal on which we consulted, it has widespread support and it is believed that it will solve the overwhelming majority of the problems.
The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) referred to people's inability to understand clause 2, and he wants to amend it so that simple folk or amateurs like him can understand it. However, those amendments would bring within the scope of the Bill situations in which three shrubs were planted almost 6 ft apart. He complains that the definition of a hedge may not be appropriate. Well, it certainly would not be appropriate if we accepted those amendments. We would lose a lot of the support that we have for the Bill if we included cases of complaints about individual trees or lines of trees, rather than a hedge that is a significant barrier to light.
The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) wants to increase from two to six the number of plants in the definition of a hedge. He does not think seriously enough about the size of the plants in relation to small gardens. If we amended the definition to include a greater number of plants, we would exclude from the Bill's protection many people with small gardens, in which the effect of inappropriate hedges can powerfully affect people's lives and their enjoyment of their property.
Mr. Chope: Does the Minister accept that there is understandable concern that one very large evergreen tree, or for that matter a deciduous tree, can cause just as much of a problem as a hedge? Why are the Government supporting the concept of a Bill that deals with hedges, rather than coming clean and dealing with trees that block a lot of light, which would clarify the matter for everybody?
I shall talk briefly about new clause 9, in which the hon. Member for Christchurch proposes that a complaint cannot be made by people occupying a property built after a hedge has been established. He did not point out to the House that that would remove from the protection of the Bill someone who bought a property constructed when the adjacent hedge was a reasonable size and did not create any problems but which was subsequently allowed to reach greater dimensions. I commend the hon. Gentleman for studying the draft BRE document, which he praised. He therefore knows that there is an intention to consult further and that there is provision for the fact that a hedge was already in existence to be taken into account in any ruling. He is moving from covering that situation in guidance to including a rigid provision on it in the Bill. Irrespective of changing circumstances after the establishment of a hedge, he is arguing that its existence prior to the construction of the complainant's property means that no complaint can be considered and no protection given.
I urge the hon. Gentleman to think seriously about exploring that other route so that the point can be covered. I accept that people who move next door to a nuisance are not automatically entitled to demand its removal. Such considerations should be taken into account, but if the hon. Gentleman's proposal were included in the Bill, he would remove protection from people in difficult circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman also attempted to include the formula in the BRE document in the Bill. As I tried to tell him in an intervention, that document is in draft and further consultation is proposed. If the formula is shown to be workable and has support from local authorities that responded to the original consultation and from others who have been heavily involved in the problem, it can be incorporated in guidance and there is no necessity to include it in the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman's new clause and amendment demonstrate clearly the schizophrenic attitude that Conservative Members still have to local government. The hon. Gentleman's colleagues on the Front Bench are attempting to make noises and to smile at local government, suggesting that all the sins committed in their years of power are past and they have become the friends of local government; they have confidence in it and are trying to rebuild some kind of relationship with it. However, whenever the rottweilers on the Back Benches
The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said that we were transferring responsibilities from the courts to the murky waters of local government, to which his colleague on the Front Bench, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton), said, "Hear, hear." There is therefore schizophrenia on the Opposition Front Bench too. There is not always such a division between the Back and Front Benches; the Front Bench, too, thinks that local government is so murky that it cannot be trusted to act according to guidance. It believes that rigid regulations have to be introduced and amendments and new clauses tabled because local government cannot be trusted at all.