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Mr. Loughton: In fact, the Minister was not listening quite so closely to me. I think that he has mistimed any comments that I made from a sedentary position.

Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that it is clearly the policy of the Conservative Opposition--it will be a Conservative party manifesto commitment--to devolve greater powers to local government, starting with giving it a fourth option, so that local people through local authorities can decide how they want to be run? That option has been taken away from them by the Government.

Secondly, we propose to give far greater planning control to local people rather than have it imposed on them centrally--a concept that the Government have unashamedly promoted.

Mr. Ainsworth rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Our attention should be focused clearly on hedges this morning.

Mr. Ainsworth: I will accept your stricture, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I do not know whether Hansard picked up the "Hear, hear," but I am pretty sure that I know where it was said from and what was being said at the time.

I do not believe that the new clause and the amendments are necessary or would improve the Bill. I suggest that the House think seriously before supporting any of them.

Mr. Chope: I do not wish to speak further, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I hope that we can push the new clause to a vote.

Mr. John M. Taylor: The citizens for whom I seek relief do not need legal dictionaries, mathematical formulae or horticulture encyclopaedias to define their misery. I reject the new clause and all the amendments. I urge right hon. and hon. Members to withdraw the motion, failing which I urge the House to vote no.

27 Apr 2001 : Column 593

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:--

The House divided: Ayes 1, Noes 35.

Division No. 198
[12.42 pm


Swayne, Desmond

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. Andrew Dismore and
Mr. Jim Cunningham.


Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Boateng, Rt Hon Paul
Brady, Graham
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Browne, Desmond
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cox, Tom
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire
Dowd, Jim
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Efford, Clive
Foster, Don (Bath)
Gapes, Mike
Harris, Dr Evan
Hurst, Alan
Joyce, Eric
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Loughton, Tim
Luff, Peter
McCabe, Steve
Mackinlay, Andrew
Olner, Bill
Pearson, Ian
Pound, Stephen
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
St Aubyn, Nick
Skinner, Dennis
Soley, Clive
Steen, Anthony
Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann
Temple-Morris, Peter
Whitehead, Dr Alan
Wilson, Brian

Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. John M. Taylor and
Mr. Christopher Gill.

Question accordingly negatived.

27 Apr 2001 : Column 593

New Clause 10

Complaint where relevant authority is owner or occupier of land

'. If a complaint under this Act is brought in respect of land of which a "relevant authority" within the meaning of section 1 is the owner or occupier it shall be referred forthwith by that authority to the Local Government Association which shall nominate another local authority to consider the complaint.'.--[Mr. Chope.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

New clause 10 was originally grouped for consideration with new clauses 7 and 8, which were tabled by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). For reasons that I have not yet understood, the hon. Gentleman decided not to move new clause 7, but we can debate the issues to which his proposals relate now, as new clause 10 deals with similar matters. That is no doubt why the grouping was so decided.

The new clause addresses an issue that was debated on Second Reading, when the hon. Member for Hendon expressed particular concern about local authorities being judges in their own cause and about fundamental breaches of natural justice and human rights. The Bill ensures that if a local authority is the owner or occupier of land on which there is a hedge that is causing loss of light to an occupier of adjoining land, the decision on whether a complaint should be entertained and on remediation rests with that authority, which will be the relevant authority under the Bill. That means that the local authority will be judge in its own cause. However enthusiastic people are about the Bill, they should not be enthusiastic about such a fundamental breach of natural justice. Even if justice is done in such cases, it is hard for it to be seen to be done.

27 Apr 2001 : Column 594

The hon. Member for Hendon argued that on Second Reading. The hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) suggested that the explanatory notes dealt well with the matter. The hon. Member for Hendon said that he was not satisfied by that. I, too, am not satisfied that the Bill tackles the problem. The explanatory notes simply state that there is a right of appeal. That is different from dealing with a complaint fairly in the first place.

My solution is slightly different from that of the hon. Member for Hendon. A case in which it was obvious that the local authority would be judge in its own cause should be referred to the Local Government Association, which should nominate another local authority--probably an adjoining local authority--to deal with it. That is a reasonable solution. Rights of appeal would remain, but the new clause would give complainants more confidence that they would get a fair trial if they were complaining about the local authority.

Mr. Forth: I defer to my hon. Friend's greater knowledge of such matters, but is he satisfied that the Local Government Association has the competence to determine such matters? Is he equally satisfied that another local authority would have the local knowledge to deal with the matter adequately? The possession of local knowledge is the point of the complaints procedure. I hope that my hon. Friend will explain the reasons for his confidence in the Local Government Association and the nominated authority.

Mr. Chope: Since my right hon. Friend was an elected member of a local authority, all the local authority associations have combined to form the Local Government Association. All local authorities belong to that association, to which they pay a subscription. The Local Government Association says that it supports the Bill, and I hope that I can tease out of the promoter whether the support is predicated on local authorities' being allowed to be judges in their own cause if they are the owners of the land on which an offending tree is situated.

Mr. Gill: In Bridgnorth district council, which is one of my local authorities, debates have raged about whether to renew the subscription to the Local Government Association. I do not yet know the outcome, but if it does not continue its membership, would it be ultra vires in referring such matters to the Local Government Association?

Mr. Chope: No. A local authority does not have to be a member of the Local Government Association to refer an issue to it if such referral is required by statute. The new clause would require a local authority that would otherwise be judge in its own cause to refer the matter to the Local Government Association as an independent adjudicator. If Bridgnorth district council was not a member of the Local Government Association and there was a complaint about a tree on its land, it would refer the matter to the association. Obviously, as all other local authorities would be members of the association, it would nominate another authority. In practice, the Local Government Association would always nominate an authority that was a member to adjudicate on these matters.

27 Apr 2001 : Column 595

1 pm

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst asks how we could be sure that such local authorities would have sufficient knowledge and expertise of the locality to be able to deal with the issue. The answer is that we could not, but that we would at least be in a better position than we shall be under the terms of the Bill as drafted, which would make the local authority judge in its own cause. If the complainant were suspicious of, and dissatisfied by, the outcome, they could appeal, but the appellate authority--the planning inspectorate--would probably have even less knowledge, on a subjective basis, of the circumstances than the neighbouring local authority which would probably be nominated by the Local Government Association. I agree with my right hon. Friend that this is not perfect, but, in my submission, it is a heck of a sight better than what is contained in the present proposals.

Mr. Robert Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman said in response to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that we could not be sure that the knowledge and expertise would exist. I think that we can be pretty sure that the structures and resources to implement his proposal do not exist at the moment and would have to be created. Unlike the proposal in the Bill, which allows for such complaints to be dealt with through the normal planning inspectorate appeals mechanism, is not the hon. Gentleman's proposal bound to entail additional costs?

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