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Baroness Byford: I support my noble friend's amendment which provides a good, commonsense description of a hedge. Sufficient has already been said in the Chamber. We on these Benches await with interest the response of the Minister.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, for giving us a further opportunity to discuss the problems caused by some residential hedgerows and specifically to consider the question of what is a hedge. The noble Baroness's amendment to this Bill seeks to define what constitutes a hedge and thus what type of boundary feature might be subject to inspection by environmental health officers to determine whether they are a statutory nuisance. The definition proposed by the noble Baroness supported fully, if not in name, by my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton, is taken from the legal judgment in the case involving Michael Jones, the founder of Hedgeline. That
While, therefore, the noble Baroness's amendment represents one possible way to define a hedge, we want to reflect further on the matter in the light of the results of the consultation. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, and my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton have pressed me in advance of today's Committee stage to say something about progress with our consultation on possible solutions to nuisance hedge problems. As the Committee will recall, the Government sought views on four options, which included voluntary and legislative action. We are currently analysing some 3,000 responses. We made clear from the beginning that we did not have a preferred solution but looked to respondents to help us to decide whether more should be done to relieve this source of long-running and distressing neighbourhood disputes. We shall take account of the best way forward and hope to make a statement by the summer setting out our decisions and the reasons for them.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, and my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton have asked about the nature of the responses. I do not believe that it would be helpful at this stage to seek to go into details. The Committee will be as impressed as the Government by the number and range of the responses, including nearly 200 from local authorities, which represents about a 40 per cent response rate. The noble Baroness and my noble friend are worried that we are not moving quickly enough. We understand that people feel they can wait no longer for an answer to their problems. However, these are sensitive issues and it is important that we consider them carefully.
We have heard much today, and on previous occasions, about hedge victims and the bullying and problems that can occur, which have been witnessed by me and other members of the Government. But a hedge has two sides. The responses to the consultation show that some owners believe that they have a right to deal with, for example, the intrusion of noise or being overlooked from neighbouring properties and they do not see why the law should interfere. As ever, we recognise the need for a balance to be struck. If we rush in without thinking it through properly the law may become unenforceable, which will help no one. It is important that we arrive at the right answer.
The noble Baroness offers her Bill as a possible vehicle to implement any government proposals for legislative action on nuisance hedges. It represents, however, only one of the possible options to deal with hedge problems. The consultation paper included other legislative solutions as well as some that did not involve passing new laws. Noble Lords will understand, therefore, that I would be pre-judging our
I understand people's desire for early action to bring them relief from the ills associated with these hedges. The noble Baroness and my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton believe that the Bill offers a simple solution to nuisance hedge problems, building as it does on the established system for dealing with statutory nuisances. However, as I explained to noble Lords at Second Reading, the Government have concerns about whether using the statutory nuisance regime to control hedging is the best answer. The main point to bear in mind is that currently statutory nuisance laws regulate activities that are prejudicial to health. The courts have shown that they expect more stringent tests to be satisfied for any matter to be a statutory nuisance. Therefore a person would need to establish that there was a direct causal link between the alleged nuisance and an illness.
In the case of problem hedges, the matter is far from straightforward and the outcome in any particular case uncertain. Therefore we have to consider whether the statutory nuisance route is unlikely to provide the clear-cut remedy that the noble Baroness and my noble friend seek to address in raising the plight of nuisance hedges.
I repeat: we understand people's desire for early action but the best way we can serve them is by making certain that we come up with workable solutions. We should have more to say on the matter in the summer.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: Before the noble Baroness sits down--I may have missed this point--we are told that consideration is being given to the 3,000 responses. After three months she is unable to give us positive news. Can she tell us when she expects the outcome from the analysis of replies to be available? From her long experience, the Minister will understand that this private measure needs to clear its stages in the House of Lords and in another place--and we know what can happen in the month of July to Bills which do not have government approval.
As I said, what the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, does at the next stage is entirely within her gift. However, the Minister may be able to help us. We do not intend to allow the issue to go away. The Bill may not be the solution, but we should like to engage with the Government on the best way forward.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I am sorry not to be able to be more helpful to my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton than to repeat that we understand the urgency of the situation. We hope to be able to make an announcement in the summer about the evaluation and the Government's preferred option with regard to the different choices.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: I thank noble Lords who have taken part in the debate on the amendment, which has clarified the present position. It is a long time since the consultation ended on 31st January. It is natural that people are impatient.
I have received many letters, but perhaps I may refer to two which I have received in the past couple of days. One sought to deal with the issue through an anti-social behaviour order. The person stated:
The other letter goes on at great length for a couple of pages, but one paragraph is headed "Government policy" and states that the question at the core of this issue is whether a small number of bullies should be allowed to cause grievance and nuisance to neighbours and reduce the value of neighbours' homes. It asks whether, alternatively, the Government will stand up to the many against the bullying few as they promised to do when elected in 1997.
I have referred to those letters because they were the most extreme in their declarations. But other letters have reflected the great frustration and unhappiness being caused. The Minister says that there are two sides to a hedge. There certainly are: the sunny, bright, light side; and the dark, shady side. I agree with the noble Baroness when she says that the answer must be right and enforceable. I should like to say how greatly I appreciate the helpfulness of the noble Baroness and of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, when approached with questions on this issue. I appreciate that the Government want the solution to be thorough and right. But it cannot be right that the only person who has succeeded at present is Michael Jones. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, mentioned the cost; but he did not say that the case had taken 20 years. I have received many letters saying that people cannot believe that any issue could take 20 years.
I agree that the consultation document is somewhat complex. The writers of some letters have enclosed copies of their responses to the department. I have some sympathy with the department on the time it will take to analyse those responses. Some indicate that they like option four, but also like a little bit out of option one, and perhaps a taste of option two. On
The noble Baroness referred to the regulation of activities prejudicial to health. There are clear-cut cases. We have received correspondence from women whose husbands have died from the worry caused by such cases. So it is not the case that one cannot establish that the situation is prejudicial to health. However, the Minister referred to the courts' expectations. I do not think that the majority of cases would come to court. In the vast majority of cases, a word from the council--and I emphasise that the council would come only if requested to do so, and it should be able to charge for its services; it would be wrong otherwise--would draw an individual's attention to his hedge. While sometimes the nuisance is deliberate and the bullying element comes into the matter, it is at other times simply a lack of care and thoughtlessness. People do not notice the hedge because it does not affect their light. They are on its sunny side.