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Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman asks about regulations, which are a worry for hon. Members when they consider all sorts of Bills, not only this one. I can confirm that the regulations that would be made under clause 13 to extend powers would be subject to the affirmative procedure. Therefore, as the hon. Member for Solihull said, the hon. Gentleman should have no worries in that regard.
Unfortunately, despite the Government's commitment to introduce new laws to solve hedge problems in England and Wales, we could not find room for such a Bill in this Session's legislative programme. We are therefore pleased that the hon. Member for Solihull is pursuing the matter and that the Bill would apply to England and Wales. The hon. Gentleman has explained the contents, how the complaints system would work, how a local authority would be able to require an owner to cut back a hedge and what enforcement action would be available should he fail to comply. I do not want to cover the same ground, but I should like to outline a few reasons why the Government support the Bill.
First, the Bill is targeted at the types of hedge that are the main cause of the problem. Our consultation suggested that the vast majority of concerns relate to evergreen hedges that form tall, dense screens of foliage. It also showed that obstruction of light is the most frequent cause of complaint, and that the effects are primarily felt in residential properties. All those points must be satisfied before the procedure in the Bill can be triggered.
Another reason why we are attracted to the Bill is that it encourages people to resolve matters amicably. The best way to settle hedge problems is, without doubt, for neighbours to talk to each other and to agree a solution. The Bill proposes that local authorities need pursue complaints only after all other avenues have been explored. I listened with interest to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), as I have done many times before. He believes that there should be little or no government, and that that would make men free. That state existed a long time ago, when people had to carry spears and clubs, so such a state of affairs was not ideal then and I doubt that it would be now. I do not share the right hon. Gentleman's philosophy.
The Government will consider whether we can help people to achieve a negotiated outcome through advice and information on the new complaints system. One idea is for local authorities to have a pack to send out when anyone asks them for help with hedge problems. It could contain advice on steps that people could take to settle disputes between themselves, and could perhaps also include a sample letter for people to send to their neighbour asking them to reduce the size of their hedge, and a leaflet about any local mediation service.
Mr. Forth: The Minister has been helpful in telling us that he expects guidance on the obstruction of light, but the Bill also refers to privacy and neighbourhood amenity. Is he hoping to provide guidance on those matters, or will we leave them to people's judgment, bearing in mind the fact that there is an appeals process, which may complicate the issue further?
Mr. Ainsworth: These are important issues, and the problems cannot be solved purely by objective tests. However, if we can get some objectivity into the tests--the obstruction of light may be a proxy for many of the other problems caused by these trees--we can give local authorities the same discretion as they have on planning matters. By and large, the proposed procedures are the same as those that local authorities already run through under the planning system. That is our intention. With a degree of common sense and discretion for local authorities, we are convinced that the overwhelming majority of these cases could be settled. The lobby groups and the hon. Members who have been raising this issue for a long time are also convinced of that.
In this way, hedge owners will be able to take a view on the possible outcome of a complaint to a local authority. If the result was not in their favour, such information would provide powerful encouragement for them to talk to their neighbours and agree on a solution, rather than facing the prospect of having one imposed on them by the local authority. If all else fails, however, the Bill ensures that the hedge is cut back when circumstances justify such action, thus providing the relief that hedge sufferers have long sought. It also provides effective enforcement powers to make certain that that happens.
The Government support the Bill because it could well alter general assumptions about what constitutes a reasonable hedge height. That might lead to a greater willingness to settle matters amicably. Owners might be more inclined to co-operate with their neighbours if they knew that the local authority could force them to cut back their hedges. People might also voluntarily reduce the size of their hedges. We hope that the Bill will help to prevent problems from arising in the first place, and that it will have a lasting effect.
Many hon. Members have expressed worries about costs. We estimate--we have tried to make estimates, as far as practicable--that a fairly high proportion of cases will go to appeal. We believe that there will be costs to the Department--a money resolution will be needed to cover those--and that there will be costs over and above what local authorities can charge complainants. We will have to try to settle that in the usual way when drawing up the revenue support grant settlement.
I hope that the Minister agrees that the worst-case scenario today would be the House giving the nod to a Bill after inadequate consideration, or having missed something, only to be obliged to return to the matter later. Accordingly, although the Minister said that I should be reassured, may I ask for a further assurance on the subject of the regulations? Will he assure me that they will be subject to a consultation period of not less than three months, and that there will be proper notice of the requirement to give effect to whatever regulations subsequently flow?
Mr. Ainsworth: I have given the hon. Gentleman the assurance that I think he sought. Any regulations that flow from clause 13 will be subject to the normal affirmative procedure, involving a vote in the House, if that is called for by the hon. Gentleman or any other Member. I do not know how much further I can go. I would expect that to satisfy the hon. Gentleman; it satisfies most people in such circumstances.
As for our being expected to rush the Bill through, this is a Second Reading debate, and there will be a Committee stage. No doubt the hon. Gentleman can talk to the Whips if he wishes to be a member of the Committee, where his company and input will be appreciated as much as they are here.
The Bill represents a careful, measured and proportionate response to the problems caused by high hedges. It strikes a proper balance between the rights of hedge owners and those of their neighbours. Such issues of balance and proportion are central to any consideration of the human rights implications of the Bill. I am sure that Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), will wish to note that we have taken advice, and consider that the Bill will be compatible with the European convention on human rights.
We have had a full debate, in which many have taken part. That serves to show the concerns about the high-hedge problem, and to demonstrate that those concerns are widespread. The Bill is essential to bring relief to those who live in the shadow of high hedges, and I commend it to the House.
I thank all those who have taken part in the debate, not least my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who resolved the dilemma of his principles versus our friendship in favour of his principles.
I warmly thank the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham), who is in his place, for constantly encouraging and supporting me. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) conducted an extended examination of the Bill. I think that he will be kind enough to concede that I was able to deal with some of his problems by way of interventions. He asked whether a neighbour of a neighbour could complain--in other words, if an even longer shadow could be cast. I am advised that such a person could also complain. The complainant does not have to be the actual next-door neighbour. He will have heard the Minister, with the authority of speaking from the Dispatch Box, deal with the point about compliance with the Human Rights Act 1998.