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Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, my noble friend talks in terms of the closing date for receipt of consultation being at the end of this month. Has she anything to say about when the Government will pronounce their views on the consultation?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, my noble friend is far more experienced than I am in your Lordships' House and knows that I am not in a position to give a definitive response. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, also raised this question with me in advance of the debate and raised the point that we will give very fair consideration that the Bill may be amended with her agreement were we to respond following the closing of the consultation. But I am not in a position to give a time-scale for the end of the consultation period and the Government's response to the points raised. We will take account of all the points that have been raised during the consultation. We will, in particular, have very great regard to the knowledge and importance of the issues that were raised during this debate as we strive to develop what this debate has made quite clear--what we all view as the need to identify practical common-sense solutions.

8.21 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank all those who have taken part in the debate. We have had some very valuable contributions.

I should begin by saying that amendments can be made to the Bill either in this House or in another place if the Government feel they are necessary. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, referred to the definition of a hedge. The consultation document sets out that a civil legal judgment--I imagine that it was the Jones case--defined a hedge as,

Although the consultation document points out that the nature of that case--the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton made the point--means that it does not constitute a legal precedent, I remember Mr Jones telling me that the judge asked how one should define a hedge and then drew up that definition. It seems to me a very good one. Therefore, it would be very easy

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to incorporate such a definition in the Bill by amendment. Certainly, the Government suggest in the consultation document using it as a basis of defining a hedge. That is very important.

Various points have been raised and I shall run through them. The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, mentioned Mr Andrew Rowe's Bill. That was a much more complex Bill. It aimed at the same end, but the complexity of it made it a less satisfactory Bill than Mr Jim Cunningham's Bill. The very simplicity of this Bill makes it more effective. Mr Andrew Rowe started this whole process; we owe him thanks for that. The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, also said that people are looking for hope. That is absolutely right. People are reaching a point where they feel that at long last there may be a chance of something happening.

A number of speakers, including my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith and the Minister, mentioned cost and the issue of whether local authorities would face a financial burden. There are many areas in which local authorities are entitled to charge fees. Certainly, all planning applications are in that category. It may be that there is a case for local authorities being entitled to charge for such a service. I think it would be unfair to impose an additional financial burden on local authorities. But, again, that could be decided by regulation and not necessarily in primary legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, said that 5,200 cases were reported to local authorities last year. He also said that Mr Jones had trimmed the hedge between the properties. And, yes, he confirmed to me the other day that he still trims that hedge annually. It is the right to trim the second hedge that has taken all these years. It is only because of it being a covenanted and managed estate, the Bournville Estate, and it is the estate owners who have been able to enforce covenants. That option is not open to most people, particularly if they are in a freehold property.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, for his contribution. I remember very well his debate early last year. That debate, which was of great interest to all of us, concerned country hedgerows. I remember discussing the difference between the residential situation and the rural one. Although the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said that some places are half rural--my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith made the same point--there is in the Bill great discretion for the local authority. The local authority will know whether the hedge is a great asset, a great beauty, in the area, whether everyone wants to retain it, and whether the person complaining is being unreasonable; or whether, on the other hand, those involved have lost all their light, all their amenity. I think that we really should appreciate the experience and understanding of local authorities in these matters.

Opposite my home in Oxfordshire, which is in a conservation area, neighbours applied to convert a barn into a house. I thought that was a good idea because it was a disused property. I wrote to the local authority supporting the proposal. The property has a stone wall. But then I looked out one day and the stone

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wall was so high that it cut out my entire view. The point was made that hedges can do the same thing. I went over to the wall and measured it. It was 3.5 metres high. Additional stones had been put on top. I contacted the local authority but it told the owners of the property to apply for retrospective permission--and they obtained it. That is appalling. Had they said on the original application that they wanted to build the barn and add another 1.5 metres to the wall, I would have supported the conversion of the barn but would have asked the council to impose a condition to keep the wall at the historic height. The visual impact, whether of a hedgerow or of a wall, matters to people. It certainly matters to me, as I look out at that blank wall. I have been trying to encourage the owners to grow some ivy on it in order to improve the appearance. It is a nice stone wall but it is a great barrier. The visual impact of these hedges is an important aspect but it is not the only one.

The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said that the Bill deals with matters of human behaviour. That is absolutely right. We are talking about anti-social behaviour. My Bill on noise was a parallel measure. For years and years, if people had to complain about noise they had to become personally and directly involved themselves. That was a great deterrent because the neighbour, knowing that you were the person who had complained, came in and said what he or she would do to you if you did not withdraw your complaint very quickly. But my Bill on noise brought in an independent decibel measurement and a means whereby someone who was not directly and personally involved in the issue was able to intervene. I believe that it has worked very well.

There may have been a time when there was not enough anti-social behaviour for us to need to legislate, but over the past few years there has been considerable support for all the measures dealing with anti-social behaviour. I think in particular of such behaviour on estates--people had stopped wanting to live on such estates because of the anti-social behaviour of others. Everyone realises that anti-social behaviour is an important issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said that we do not want a ban on hedges. Of course we do not. I am not suggesting that for a minute. During my speech, I made the point that perhaps in a large area a delightful hedge which does not take too much light from anyone is the very thing one wants. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, referred to his own leylandii--I confirm what the Minister said that leylandii are not the only culprits--and said that he controls them. That is what the Bill is about. It does not propose a ban or abolition. It is a measure to control hedges to a reasonable height. I think that the noble Lord brought in red herrings with regard to satellite dishes and mobile phones.

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The conservation area point is an important one. In my Oxfordshire village there is a hedge of leylandii which is close to 100 feet high. It goes along someone's boundary on the road, so it does not affect anyone in terms of light. But the property has changed hands. The elderly people who live there did not do anything about them and the people who bought the house have had to go to all kinds of trouble to obtain planning permission to reduce their height. The suggestion that was put forward by someone--I think it was put forward as a negative rather than a positive suggestion--that we should control all hedges and demand that all hedges should be kept to a certain height is nonsense. Not for a moment does the Bill suggest such a thing.

The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, pointed out how well the quiet word of the noble Lord, Lord Graham, had worked on his neighbour. I think that the quiet word of the noble Lord, Lord Graham, would be a little more effective than the quiet word of an elderly and possibly timid old soul. I do not know that I would not react favourably if the noble Lord, Lord Graham, came round and had a quiet word with me. It depends on the person approaching you as well as what he is saying and also the attitude of the person you are approaching. Some people are unhelpful whatever your approach.

The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, said that the statutory nuisance route may not be the best way of dealing with this problem. I must ask her: what is the best way? The Bill is a way, and a good way, and no one else has come up with a better alternative. The noble Baroness said that local authority judgments must be subjective. Of course they must. Every local authority judgment is subjective. It is suggested in paragraph 3.27 of the document that guidelines would be put forward. That is very desirable. But at the end of the day it comes down to a subjective judgment. Unless something can be scientifically measured--perhaps a sample of bad food where the contamination level can be assessed scientifically--there are always subjective judgments. In any planning matter certain things are clear cut, such as whether a building is taking away the light or whether it infringes someone else's property. But the aesthetics of planning are very much a subjective judgment for every planning authority.

On the Minister's recommendation, I looked up paragraph 3.13 of the consultation paper, which says that there is no need to do anything because all the powers already exist. If that were really a practical matter, people would be using those powers now, but it is almost impossible for people in terms of cost and time. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, said that this has cost 20 years in terms of time. What is 20 years in most people's lives? It is a fairly large slice wasted in arguing over a distressing matter of a hedge that could be dealt with so simply under my Bill.

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The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, referred to stress. Hedgeline has quoted to me cases in which people have died because of stress leading to a heart attack. It believes that such cases have been directly linked to the aggravation caused by these problems. The noble Baroness also referred to the existing provisions for controlling hedges. What did she mean by that? I am not aware of any existing provisions.

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