High Hedges Bill

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Mr. John M. Taylor: The clause deals with remedial notices drawn up by a local authority which set out the action to remedy an obstruction of light caused by a high hedge. In practice, those notices will contain a specific requirement to reduce the height of the hedge; they might also contain an on-going requirement to maintain the hedge to prevent problems arising in future. The point made earlier about the registered land charge is relevant.

The local authority cannot require removal of a hedge, or reduction of its height to less than 2 m. The clause sets out in detail what must be included in the remedial notice: as well as the work to be carried out on the hedge, it must specify when the initial remedial work should be carried out and explain the consequences of failing to comply with the notice.

Dr. Lynne Jones: I should like to highlight subsection (2)(d), which refers to action preventing recurrence of the nuisance. Will the hon. Gentleman explain how that will be done—how the local authority can ensure that the problem will not recur?

Mr. John M. Taylor: The matter will be neighbour-policed and the aggrieved person will know whether the remedy has brought satisfaction. If it has not, the aggrieved person will return to the local authority, so a specific self-starting inspection will not be necessary. The local authority will have a vested interest--intangible, but real--in ensuring that its remedial notice is complied with, as it would be difficult for a local authority to maintain its position as an enforcer if it did not follow through.

I believe that the problem will be self-solving because the aggrieved person will know whether the grievance has been addressed. If satisfaction has not be obtained, in Solihull as in Birmingham, the person who made the complaint and parted with £100 will return quickly to the local authority to state that he has not received satisfaction.

Sir David Madel: If a property is unoccupied and a notice has been agreed, can the local authority trim the hedge?

Mr. John M. Taylor: The Bill later provides that after a remedial notice has been served and if the owner of the property does not comply, penalties can be imposed, ultimately on a daily basis. In the final analysis, the local authority can trim the hedge and deliver the bill to the offending party. Remedies of last resort are available and they become more severe, as they should.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Variation or withdrawal of remedial notices

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. John M. Taylor: The subject of clause 6 follows on from our most recent exchange in Committee. A remedial notice could last for ever, or at least for as long as the hedge remains on the site. It is therefore important that the notice is not set in stone. Clause 6 provides that a local authority can vary or withdraw a remedial notice in certain circumstances.

The Bill covers two main sets of circumstances in which such provisions may be used, the first of which is when both parties apply jointly to have the remedial notice varied or withdrawn. Such an application can be made at any time after the notice is issued. For example, the local authority might specify a lower height than the complainant or hedge owner is happy about and together they could agree a higher limit. New occupants of the properties might later decide that there is no need for the formality of a remedial notice and that they are happy to rely on amicable agreement.

Secondly, either party can apply for a variation or withdrawal of a notice, but the local authority will only look at the matter if there has been a material change in circumstances since it was last considered. An application can be made only after the period for reducing the height of the hedge—for its first cut, as it were—has passed. In practice, people could apply only to vary or remove any continuing obligation to keep the hedge at its reduced height.

The Bill provides powers that allow the Secretary of State to set down regulations about the procedure for dealing with those cases. I understand that the Government intend to consult on draft regulations. Final regulations will be subject to the negative resolution procedure.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Appeal against remedial notice or decision of relevant authority

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. John M. Taylor: Clause 7 provides for a right of appeal against the local authority decision. If, when dealing with a complaint, the authority issues a remedial notice requiring work on the hedge, an appeal may be made to the Secretary of State. If the local authority decides not to issue a remedial notice, the complainant could appeal.

Subsequent clauses deal with the appeals procedures and the Secretary of State's powers to determine such cases. The provisions are intended to ensure that those affected by the Bill are guaranteed a fair and impartial hearing before their respective civil rights are determined. A remedial notice, or the decision in question, is suspended while the appeal is being determined.

Sir Sydney Chapman: I warmly welcome and support clause 7, but I should like to point out two matters arising from it. First, although the Bill is not concerned with strict planning law, for the first time the third party is being given the right of appeal. I welcome that because normally the applicant is the owner of the land and the high hedge, but the complainant in cases under the Bill is not the owner. I welcome that unique proposal and hope it becomes part of an Act of Parliament before the beginning of May.

Secondly, under planning law and rights of appeal there is a six-month period in which the applicant can choose whether to appeal. That period is often abused to spin out the matter, which is regrettable. I am pleased that that has been shortened to 28 days in the Bill, as that is sufficient time for the owner of the high hedge to decide whether he or she wants to appeal. I welcome those two exceptional points in clause 7.

Sir David Madel: My brief point follows on from that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman). The clause deals with grievances—with people who are upset or disappointed. If a person thinks that the local authority is being slow or inattentive to his or her grievance, is he or she to approach the Secretary of State or the local ombudsman? I am a great believer in the local ombudsman and was present when the law establishing the post was passed, but I have found it hard to explain to constituents the difference between the local ombudsman and the parliamentary ombudsman.

The public are slowly coming to understand the local ombudsman's powers, but local authorities could help. Perhaps they could insert a note with the yearly council tax bills, reminding council tax payers of who the local ombudsman is and what his powers are. The public need to be made aware of whether they go to the Secretary of State or to the local ombudsman when they have a grievance about the local authority's performance.

Mr. Robert Ainsworth: I shall clarify the position as best I can, according to my understanding of the Bill. Hon. Members will notice that, although local authorities are not to be tied down to a specific period within which they must deal with a complaint, the word ``reasonable'' is used. If a local authority were to fail to process complaints that it had received in what was deemed to be a reasonable time, recourse could be had to the local ombudsman, just as in cases of maladministration brought against a local authority.

As the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet said, in the event of a complaint being either upheld or rejected, all parties would have to be properly notified of the local authority's decision and any appeal would have to be made within 28 days. That does not mean that action to rectify the problem with the hedge would have to be taken within 28 days; for that, an appropriate compliance period would be set. I understand that concerns have been raised about the impact on wildlife if people were required to cut down hedges at certain times of year. The local authority could take such issues into account when setting the compliance period. However, once the local authority had notified all parties of its decision to reject or accept a complaint and of the action required, there would be a period of only 28 days in which either party could appeal to the Secretary of State against the decision.

Mr. John M. Taylor: I am always glad to be informed about planning matters by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet. As a distinguished architect, he is something of an expert on such matters. He might share my satisfaction that the proposed treatment of hedges contains a parallel to the treatment of a fence. One can erect a fence of up to two metres in height on the boundary of one's property without planning permission. The Bill makes consistent the permissible heights of a hedge and of a fence. That is sensible, if not necessarily elegant.

The planning inspectorate's role in dealing with appeals is important. It must be said that people who own high hedges, too, have rights under law and should be entitled to go to appeal if they so wish. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Sir David Madel), I have always supported the concept and role of the local ombudsman. One of my constituents once asked me what the difference was between maladministration, for which one would go to the ombudsman, and perversity, for which one would go to a judicial review. My frank answer was that the difference is the cost: one goes to the ombudsman for nothing, whereas one goes to judicial review at enormous expense.

My hon. Friend's remarks were well placed. I assure him that I believe the local government ombudsman to be the proper recourse for a complainant to the local authority who feels that the authority has not adequately attended to the complaint.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8

Appeals procedure

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

11.15 am

 
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