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(a) any expenses incurred by the Secretary of State in consequence of the Act; and
(b) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money so provided by virtue of any other Act.
The Government support the private Member's Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor). It brings relief to thousands of people in England and Wales who feel that their quality of life is blighted simply because they cannot persuade their neighbours to cut their hedges to a reasonable height.
The Bill gives people the opportunity to refer disputes to their local authority, which will consider whether the hedge is causing a serious problem. Local authorities are given powers in appropriate cases to require the owners of hedges to cut them to a reasonable height and to ensure that they do so. It also provides rights of appeal to the Secretary of State against the decisions of local authorities.
The main costs of the Bill will fall on local authorities. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions estimates that it will cost it some £2 million to deal with the backlog of about 10,000 existing cases spread over a period of three years. Thereafter, we expect the case load to drop considerably. Those costs will be met, in part at least, by fees paid by the complainants. Transfer of resources to the revenue support grant settlement will cover any shortfall.
The Secretary of State intends to delegate his appeal functions entirely to the planning inspectorate, assuming that 20 per cent. of cases go to appeal--in other words, 2,000 cases over the initial three years. That could amount to a cost of £2.1 million. Demand is then expected to fall when the backlog has been cleared.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): The Government seem to have money to throw around on this matter, so why did the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions today tell one of my constituents, a business man who has appealed against his business rates levy, that his appeal could not be heard until February 2003? I imagine that the reason is that the Government are saying that they have not the resources to allocate to business rates appeals. I am talking about people
The Minister comes to the House tonight and says that the Government have £4 million available. Why are they choosing to spend it on high hedges rather than on enabling business men to get a timely resolution of their rating appeals? The Minister knows that, pending an appeal, the full rates demanded must be paid, despite the fact that the gentleman in question might win his appeal in two years' time. The Government say that they have this spare money to spend on high hedges. Why cannot they spend more money on speeding up the rating appeal process?
The Minister underestimates the number of cases that will arise under the Bill, if it ever reaches the statute book. An enormous number of people have complained about their neighbours' high hedges. Under the wide definition used in the Bill, any two conifers, not deciduous trees, planted close together amount to high hedge and could result in a complaint being made and the local authority being involved, and so on. I should be interested to know why the Minister thinks that that will result in only about 10,000 cases, given that our constituency postbags suggest that a very much larger number might be involved.
Mr. Robert Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that there is no a real problem, but that flies in the face of half the comments that he has made and the fact that Conservative Front Benchers support the measure. A very real problem exists for many people, but there is no proper way forward for them. The courts are not adequate to deal with the size of the issue that they face, and the measure could provide a solution to that problem. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman can say, on the one hand, that we are throwing money around--effectively wasting it--and, on the other, that we have massively underestimated the problem, which could be much bigger than he thinks.
There was a consultation process, to which not only members of the public, but a large proportion of local authorities responded. A national organisation has been working on the problem for some time, so some reasonably serious estimates of the size of the problem exist, and our estimates were changed as a result of the consultation.
That the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 76) (HC 233), which was laid before this House on 15th February, be approved.--[Mrs. McGuire.]
Line 31, at end add--
'( ) The committee shall have power to appoint a sub-committee, which shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, and to report to the committee from time to time.
( ) The committee shall have power to report from time to time the minutes of evidence taken before the sub-committee.
( ) The quorum of the sub-committee shall be three.'.-- [Mrs. McGuire.]