Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Chope: Additional costs are bound to be created by the Bill, both for the Government and for local authorities. In the original consultation paper, it was envisaged that every local authority involved with this legislation would have to take on an extra officer to deal with it. The Government have slightly modified their view on that since the consultation paper, no doubt as a result of Treasury pressure, but even in the initial stages, there will be an enormous amount of work to be done by local authorities. That is going to cost money.

Mr. Ainsworth: Surely the hon. Gentleman's proposal would involve the setting up of a structure that does not exist. The costs would be bound to be greater than if the complaints were dealt with through the planning inspectorate and the normal appeals procedures that already exist.

Mr. Chope: I think that the Minister misunderstands the purpose and, indeed, the wording of new clause 10. In the very special situation in which the landowner being complained against was the local authority--the relevant authority under the terms of the legislation--the matter would be referred to another local authority nominated by the LGA instead of that local authority deciding the case itself. Another local authority, which would also be dealing with its own cases, would take on in addition a case from a neighbouring authority, if that neighbouring authority was the subject of a complaint.

This is not just an academic argument. One of my constituents is concerned about some high conifers in the Friars Cliff area of Christchurch, which adjoin a public car park in the ownership of the borough council. The trees are situated between the edge of the car park and the highway. People are concerned because the trees are

27 Apr 2001 : Column 596

already of a significant height, which is likely to increase dramatically over the coming years. Those people want the trees to be properly maintained by the local authority. It may be that the local authority will find the money to enable that to happen, but there is concern about that because the local authority has already admitted that it cannot afford to maintain its deciduous trees, except where they are dangerous. I have already referred to the case in Suffolk avenue in my constituency. How can we be sure that the local authority will be able to maintain those existing conifers? If somebody complains, the issue should be dealt with by a neighbouring local authority rather than the local authority that is itself the subject of the complaint. A basic principle of natural justice is involved.

I agree that new clause 10 does not cover the situation in which the local authority is the complainant. Under the present terms of the Bill, it is impossible to envisage a situation in which that would happen--certainly in my constituency, where the local authority no longer owns any housing--but if the Bill were to be amended to include non-domestic property, as contemplated in clause 16, a chief executive or members of a local authority might claim that they suffered a nuisance in their offices from a tree growing in a nearby garden which was spoiling their view of Christchurch, or wherever it might be. Those people could then effectively be required to be judge in their own cause and order that the tree or hedge should be cut down accordingly. That would be unconscionable in the view of any fair-minded person and such cases should also be referred to a neighbouring authority for adjudication.

I am disappointed that no amendment was tabled by the promoter of the Bill to rectify the problem I have discussed, especially following the concerns that were expressed on Second Reading.

Mr. John M. Taylor: I can tell my hon. Friend that I am disposed to accept new clause 10.

Mr. Chope: If that is the will of the House, I am delighted that my hon. Friend is demonstrating more flexibility on that point than in the previous debate.

Mr. Forth: I am not happy about the new clause. I can understand the motivation of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch in tabling it, and for a moment he almost persuaded me, but the Minister's intervention placed some severe doubts in my mind on the basis of the additional cost. In fact, I am surprised that my hon. Friend has not been similarly persuaded by that factor. Of course his logic is impeccable and if local authorities--which are suggested in the Bill to be great repositories of quasi-judicial wisdom--are the owners of the land in question, that would cast doubt on the validity of the mechanism. I do not wish to get involved in a discussion of the concept of natural justice, which is something about which I have always had the gravest doubts--like social justice, I do not think it exists--but my hon. Friend is obviously wedded to the concept and has used it as the basis of his argument.

I can accept the common-sense approach that it would be a matter for concern if the person complained against were also to be--at least initially--the judge of the matter, and if the mechanism in the Bill were to be the sole method of resolving the issue. However, that is the

27 Apr 2001 : Column 597

point at which I become less happy with the new clause. For one thing, I wonder whether the Local Government Association, in all its majesty, has an appropriate mechanism to deal with the suggested responsibilities. Would the matter be dealt with at officer level, or would elected members be involved in making the decision about the nomination of another local authority? I can envisage circumstances in which that decision could be controversial.

My hon. Friend mentioned that a neighbouring authority could become involved, and the strength of that argument is that only a neighbouring authority would be likely to have the understanding and empathy for the local environment and amenities that would allow it to judge the matter properly. Let us take the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) as an example. His neighbouring authorities are both highly urban and rural. In which direction would one look for nomination to find an authority with an understanding of the circumstances? These very real questions might require difficult decisions.

Whether officers or elected members of the Local Government Association would deal with such cases is an interesting point. I assume that one could conceive of a mechanism to give the responsibility to one or the other. My hon. Friend was not able to spell out in the new clause which mechanism he would prefer--at least, he chose not to--so an element of doubt remains.

The way in which the nominated authority would seek to deal with these matters presents considerable difficulties. Let us set aside the question of whether authorities have the expertise. It goes without saying that the original authority would have had the expertise and we can assume that, in terms of planning and inspections, the nominated authority would also have that expertise. What degree of priority would the nominated authority give this matter? In involving the mechanism in new clause 10, would the subjects of the complaint, who were anxiously waiting for a decision, be satisfied that a nominated authority that had nothing to do with the issue and whose money was, as ever, somewhat scarce, would give it any priority? Would any regard be paid to time scales, for example? Would the whole process be put in jeopardy by the fact that the unfortunate nominated authority, having had the matter dumped unceremoniously in its lap, would have to make difficult decisions about whether to give it priority?

The point that the Minister made so trenchantly in his intervention changed my mind on this matter. What about the money? We must never forget about that. I have reservations about the financial implications of the Bill and its mechanism, but my hon. Friend seems to be importing into the mechanism yet another element of potential cost which has not hitherto been envisaged. As the Minister rightly pointed out, whereas it is arguable that the sort of normal, straightforward case that the Bill envisages would be dealt with seamlessly and effortlessly by existing staff, the new clause raises the awful prospect of finding additional staff to deal with the additional cases that it imports into the Bill. The Minister was right to point that out.

The Bill's promoter says that he is willing to accept the new clause, but is the Minister? The hon. Gentleman said in his intervention on my hon. Friend that he believed that

27 Apr 2001 : Column 598

it would lead to extra costs. I do not know whether the Minister has checked with the Treasury or the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, but if the Government are suggesting that we accept the new clause, they need to give a pledge that the money required will be found. It is one thing for the Bill's promoter to say that he will accept the new clause, and for my hon. Friend to introduce the new clause in good faith and support it with powerful arguments. It is a very different thing for a Minister of the Crown to say--if he is going to--that the Government will accept the new clause and that he will pledge the additional money that will be required for its implementation. That has interesting ramifications for the Bill and shows the great value of debates on Report; surprising developments occur. The combination of the comments of the Bill's promoter in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and the Minister's intervention leads us to a new set of questions that have suddenly arisen and to which we need some answers.

1.15 pm

I am not at all persuaded that the House should accept the new clause. It carries serious financial ramifications, so we await the Minister's comments with interest. He cannot leave us in a position--can he?--where the Government will allow the incorporation of the new clause without giving a guarantee that whatever money is necessary to support the provision and its effectiveness will be found. If that were not so, we should be tragically misleading all those people who we are told are waiting breathlessly for the passage of the legislation; there would be a serious question mark against the whole thing.

This is an interesting little development; I look forward with great interest to the Minister's comments. We shall then be able to judge the viability of the Bill were the new clause incorporated against the Minister's comments and against what he is prepared to guarantee.

Next Section

IndexHome Page