Established Hedges

Orders of the Day — High Hedges Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th April 2001.

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'. No complaint shall be made under this Act in relation to a high hedge by the owner or occupier of a domestic property if that property was constructed after the hedge was established.'.—[Mr. Chope.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 3, in clause 2, page 2, line 7, leave out from "means" to first "a" in line 9 and insert— 'a tree, shrub or two or more trees or shrubs forming'. No. 58, in page 2, line 7, leave out "two" and insert "six".

No. 84, in page 2, line 7, leave out "two" and insert "three".

No. 59, in page 2, line 7, leave out "adjacent" and insert "adjoining".

No. 2, in page 2, line 8, leave out "evergreens" and insert "trees or shrubs".

No. 60, in page 2, line 8, leave out "evergreens" and insert "conifers".

No. 70, in page 2, line 8, leave out "evergreens" and insert—

'plants, bushes, shrubs or trees'. No. 61, in page 2, line 10, leave out "two metres" and insert "twelve feet".

No. 85, in page 2, line 10, leave out "two metres" and insert "six feet".

No. 62, in page 2, leave out line 12 and insert—

'(a) "conifer" means any tree that bears or is capable of bearing cones.'. No. 71, in page 2, leave out line 12.

No. 63, in page 2, line 13, leave out "or shrub".

No. 86, in page 2, line 14, leave out from second "gaps" to end of line 15 and insert—

'between the extremities of each of the trees or shrubs do not exceed six feet in width.'. No. 4, in page 2, line 15, at end insert—

'(c) "ground level" means the height of the land of the complainant.'. No. 117, in clause 4, page 2, line 29, at end insert—

'(1A) The authority shall dismiss a complaint if the height of the hedge in metres is less than D/2 + 2, where D is the distance in metres between the hedge and the 2 nearest outside window wall of the complainant's property.'. No. 40, in clause 5, page 4, line 16, leave out "two metres" and insert "twelve feet".

No. 89, in page 4, line 16, leave out "two metres" and insert "six feet".

No. 51, in clause 16, page 11, line 36, after "2(1)", insert "to include deciduous trees".

No. 52, in page 11, line 36, leave out "any provision of'.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I am surprised that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) declined to move his new clauses, but I wish to speak to new clause 9 and the amendments grouped with it that are in my name. This debate is at the core of the Bill because it is about the definition of hedges that may be subject to complaints.

Some 3,000 members of the Hedgeline pressure group may feel that they are victims of high hedges, but we must also consider the 10 million or more households with gardens who enjoy the amenity, privacy and quality of life afforded by living trees and shrubs. With the increasing urbanisation of England and the Government policy of increasing housing density, a private garden space is an ever more precious asset, not only for humans but for wildlife. Gardening is one of the most popular pastimes in England, and if the gardeners of England woke up to the true threat posed to their privacy, freedom and quality of life by some of the broad and imprecise definitions in the Bill, we would see public opposition on a par with that now so consistently expressed against the European Union.

On issues such as the European Union, Members of Parliament must often wring their hands and say, "Nothing we can do about it, mate", but the form of the Bill is solely our responsibility and we should take it seriously. As legislators, we must ensure that if new restrictions are to be placed on traditional freedoms and backed by criminal sanctions, as in the Bill, those restrictions must be clear, precise, easily understood and essential, as well as being fair.

The Government have set up what they describe as a better regulation taskforce and laid down a number of tests for good regulation. I submit that if the promoter of the Bill accepted new clause 9 and my other amendments, the Bill would be much improved and accord more precisely with the definitions of good regulation that the Government claim to espouse.

New clause 9 addresses what happens when people find that there are plans for a development at the bottom of their garden. In one month, I have had five times as many complaints from owners of gardens backing on to a proposed backland development in the Jumpers area of Christchurch as I have had in an entire Parliament, right across my constituency, on high hedges.

I expect that many of the residents of Christchurch who are to lose their privacy and be overlooked as a result of the backland development will be considering what they can do. That they do not have a right to a view is well established in English law, but if they choose to plant a fast-growing conifer hedge, why should those who will benefit from the development of the backland be able to curtail the height of the hedge? The new clause would ensure that an established hedge will take precedence over houses that were subsequently constructed.

This is not purely of academic interest: it is a practical issue. Some people in the area have already established conifers at the end of their gardens. They are not causing any problem or loss of light to buildings because there are no buildings on the backland development. Residents would prefer the backland to remain as it is but some development seems inevitable. Thankfully, the local authority has rejected the application for an extremely high density development and discussions are taking place about a development of a slightly lower density.

Why should the developer be able to build new houses very close to the boundary of existing properties and then, under the Bill, be able to say that the tall trees at the boundary mean that the new houses do not enjoy sufficient light and that, effectively, the boundary hedge is a nuisance? It would be unjust and morally indefensible to enact a Bill that enabled those who develop land to force householders to cut down their existing and long-established hedges and trees simply because the developers chose to build houses far too close to the boundary line.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Liverpool, Garston

I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's constituents and with the new clause, but does he not fear that it would create a loophole in the difficult cases that the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) introduced the Bill to address? It could enable those who have bad faith and are engaged in neighbour disputes to plant fast-growing trees just before the buildings go up and thus escape the provisions of the Bill?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

The hon. Lady describes that as a loophole. If I had been living in a house with my family for 10 or 15 years and found that the person at the end of the garden had sold his land for development so that I faced the prospect of an unsightly development at the end of my garden, my first action would be to plant a fast-growing hedge. That would ensure some protection against the problem of overlooking and intrusion that would inevitably result from such a development. I do not accept what the hon. Lady says. If someone decides to build a house close to someone else's boundary, he should take the consequences if a loss of light results from a hedge that, although not well established, had been planted before the new house was built. That is the burden of my new clause.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst 9:45 am, 27th April 2001

Already we face the dilemma of the right to reasonable privacy on the one hand and other considerations, such as light, on the other. Surely our obligation is to try and strike a balance and take account of people's proper right to privacy, perhaps through the joys of nature and the growing of trees, hedges and shrubs. This is a difficult issue and we should not gloss over it.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is right. The issue was not glossed over in the Government's discussion document. In referring to situations in which the legislation might not apply, the document dealt with hedges that were already established. Effectively, the document says that if someone already has an established hedge it might be unreasonable to expect it to be cut down. Paragraph 5.43 on page 28 of the "High Hedges: Possible Solutions" consultation paper states: There may be a case for exempting from any system hedges which have previously been accepted as not causing a problem. It would be possible not to allow complaints from neighbours about hedges, unless they were bigger than when they moved into their neighbouring property. That is exactly my point. I have described a case in which a property has been built after the hedge has already been planted. The document continues: This would prevent new owners from upsetting an arrangement which had previously been acceptable to occupiers on both sides of the hedge.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

My main concern is that the new clause is somewhat prescriptive. I do not wish to stray into discussing later amendments, but has the hon. Gentleman looked at amendment No. 15 in my name and that of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), which deals with this issue in a more discretionary way?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I have not yet looked at that amendment, but I look forward to the chance to consider the arguments in its favour that the hon. Gentleman and, no doubt, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst will deploy. I decided to concentrate on the new clauses and amendments in my name and to leave it to others with amendments to make their own arguments. The hon. Gentleman says that the new clause is prescriptive. It has the advantage of being clear and transparent. I do not know how it compares with his proposal for addressing the problem.

This issue is comparable to that of rights of light, which have to be established for 20 years. Someone who constructs a building very close to someone else's boundary wall or building cannot say that their right to light has been removed or interfered with. There is a prescriptive right to light but it must be established over a 20-year period. I am sure that the new clause will appeal to my fair-minded hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor).

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

I would appreciate clarification of the words, "the hedge was established". Does that refer to the size of the hedge when the property or land was purchased? Could individuals make a claim for an onerous hedge if it exceeded the height that it was when the property or land was purchased?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

No. Under my new clause, "established" means that as long as the hedge had been planted before the house was built, the owner of the hedge would have total immunity against any action that might be brought against him under the Bill. That seems a perfectly reasonable approach. Somebody may enjoy what they think is a view over urban wasteland—or a wildlife area or undeveloped land, depending on how one wants to describe it—and suddenly find that an opportunistic planning application has been made because someone else has been able to get access to the backland. Under the rigid planning guidelines imposed by the Government, planning permission will almost inevitably be granted for residential development, because such a site would be described as brown land. What are people to do in such cases? As I pointed out earlier, they should do their best to protect themselves against the loss of amenity that would inevitably result from the construction of the development.

Those people have no right to a view—no one is suggesting that they should—so they have no absolute right to veto such a development, but they can protect their own amenity and privacy, as many people choose to do. Of course, they could plant a yew hedge but that would take so long to grow that by the time it had grown to a sufficient height the houses against which people sought protection might have been there for five, 10 or 15 years. Fortunately, the development of varieties of fast-growing conifer means that it is possible to plant a conifer that will grow so rapidly that it would have almost reached the height of the houses before they were fully constructed. In other circumstances, of course, that might be a nightmare for people and that is why I am not absolutely opposed to the Bill. However, in the circumstances that I describe, it is reasonable that a householder should have protection against the taking down or trimming back of his hedge because a neighbour has chosen to build and occupy a house at the end or side of his garden.

People will say that it is possible that such issues could be taken into account by local authorities when they decide whether it would be reasonable to enforce an action against an occupier of land. However, what is so undesirable about some aspects of the Bill is that there may be more than 10 million people with hedges in excess of 2 m in height—as defined by the Bill—who may be worried out of their minds; they are law-abiding citizens and they will be concerned that their gardens and their aspect could be ruined as a result of the arbitrary actions of an unreasonable local authority, or neighbours who are very much against tree protection. In drafting his Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull has not taken those worries sufficiently into account.

Last Saturday, I did some market-testing in Christchurch of some of the ideas reflected in the amendments. First, I encountered complete ignorance of the extent of the restrictions on personal freedom contemplated in the Bill. Householders told me that they had no idea that they could be ordered to have the hedge at the end of their garden chopped down to 6 ft or 2 m. I saw cupressus trees that are established parts of the landscape; ironically, the owner of one such tree wants to have it taken down, but because it is more than 18 ft tall, he has to obtain permission from the local authority—for nothing more than a large and well-established macrocarpa. If and when that tree is taken down, the fact that the owner would be unable to replace it with a hedge that could exceed 2 m is anathema to him. I hope, therefore, that the new clause will find favour with hon. Members.

Amendment No. 58 changes the definition of a high hedge so that instead of the present definition of two or more adjacent evergreens", it would be six or more adjacent evergreens". Again, my concern is that the Bill is over the top. In common parlance, a hedge is made up of many more than two shrubs or trees. If one talks about a hedge in the local pub or Conservative club, people do not say, "Oh, you mean any two trees in your garden which happen to be adjacent." The image in their mind is of a specific grouping of trees or shrubs in a line. It is extraordinary that the Bill uses a definition of "hedge" so narrow that it would include almost every evergreen tree or shrub more than 6 ft high.

It is not clear whether the campaign being waged by Hedgeline—an important single-issue pressure group—is against only cupressus and leylandii hedges made up of many individual plants that create an overwhelming threat to light and make people feel closed in. The definition in the Bill is far too wide. I realise that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has tabled an amendment similar to mine—the numbers involved are slightly different—but to ensure that the Bill accords with common parlance, my amendment would provide that a hedge should be defined as having six or more adjacent evergreens.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Liverpool, Garston

My constituency is somewhat different to that of the hon. Gentleman; it has smaller properties with smaller grounds. Many of the cases brought to my attention by constituents relate to problems caused when two or three trees are planted closely together in a small garden and a nuisance due to lack of light quickly develops. If the amendment were accepted, I am concerned that it could create a loophole and lead to cases such as I described, which are the very ones that the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) is trying to deal with. I understand where the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) is coming from, but is he not concerned that the amendment would render the Bill unable to deal with some of the very cases for which it is designed?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I hear what the hon. Lady says, but for how many cases is the Bill designed? Later, we shall discuss enforcement, costs and the number of people who will be adversely affected. In the light of future experience, we might find that some problem hedges are not caught by the current definition, although I have my doubts. Let us deal with the serious problems—

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I shall give way in a moment—I am answering the question put by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle).

If one defines almost every evergreen tree of more than 6 ft in height, in any garden in the country, as a potential subject of complaint, one is opening the floodgates to an enormous number of applications to local authorities, an enormous amount of wasted local authority time, and—most important, from my point of view—an enormous amount of unnecessary anxiety for the owners of the trees and shrubs in question.

In amendment No. 58, I am trying to bring us back to reality and say that a hedge is not two trees or shrubs but a minimum of six planted together in a line. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) does not think that that is a reasonable definition. I know that, in common parlance, a hedge normally comprises trees or shrubs of the same species or variety. I am not limiting the definition to that in my amendment.

It is no surprise that people have not woken up to the threat that they face from the narrow definition of hedge in the Bill. It is not even narrow enough for the drafters of the Bill; they have included the power in clause 16 to define a hedge as a single tree.

10 am

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

Like many hon. Members, I find myself in an unusual position this morning because the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) represents sweet moderation and the via media between the figures two and six. Does the hon. Gentleman accept from me that two of the trees that we are dealing with could be 6 ft or 12 ft wide? They grow not only high but wide. A hedge could reasonably be described as a barrier of vegetation. Two such trees could form precisely that: they are a barrier. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I do not, because we need to incorporate in our legislation terminology that accords with common parlance. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has not had the chance to look at the Royal Horticultural Society's "The New RHS Dictionary of Gardening". On page 515 of volume 2, hedges and hedging are defined. I will not trouble the House with the four or five columns of close print that follow from the definition, but hedges and hedging are defined as a continuous row of trees or shrubs, usually low-growing and closely planted to provide a boundary line, screen or ornamental feature in gardens or estates.… For hedging purposes generally, the closer the planting station the better, within range limits of 18 in to 35 in … The Bill refers to two trees planted, to take the extreme, 35 inches apart as amounting to a hedge. That is ludicrous. It does not accord with common parlance and it certainly does not accord with the horticultural dictionary prepared by that most respectable body, the RHS.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am beginning to suspect that the problem that we now face, which is fundamental to the purpose of the Bill as I understand it, is that the legislation seems to have arisen from the obsession with complaining and complaints. If we are not careful, if a Bill such as this were allowed to pass unamended, it would be a vehicle for a large volume of complaints based on the loose definition that the Bill offers, which does not sound anything like a hedge to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), to me or to many other people. Does my hon. Friend share my worry that the number of complaints that could arise as a result of the loose drafting of this part of the Bill could be substantial?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

My right hon. Friend is right. That is my big concern. People have not woken up to the implications of the Bill, and when they do, they may well decide, out of spite or for some other reason, to make a complaint against their neighbour. The consequences in terms of administration, worry and all the rest of it would be considerable.

The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) is a distinguished lawyer. He will be aware of the statutory definition in the Highways Act 1959. That legislation refers to "hedge, tree or shrub." That definition implies that there is a difference between the three, yet the definition in the Bill will effectively merge them. That is absurd.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

I am not sure whether this is a point of order or an intervention, but I deny absolutely that I have ever been employed as a lawyer. I always plied an honest trade before I came to the House, and I would never claim any association with the law except occasionally from the perspective of the defendant.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I apologise unreservedly. I had always associated the hon. Gentleman's wit, articulacy and general ability to hold the attention of the House with the fact that he had a legal training, because those are usually the main characteristics of people who have had a legal training. [Interruption.] That may be a slightly controversial remark, but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull, who is the promoter of the Bill, will agree with me on that, if not with my other remarks.

So the essence of amendment No. 59 is, I hope, apparent. I can pray in aid "The New RHS Dictionary of Gardening" and legal cases in relation to the definition of a hedge.

Amendment No. 59 would insert the word "adjoining" instead of "adjacent". My authority for making the suggestion is the "Dictionary of Legal Words and Phrases". I am keen that the Bill should be as clear and precise as possible. The dictionary defines "adjacent" as follows: 'Adjacent' is not a word to which a precise and uniform meaning is attached by ordinary usage. It is not confined to places adjoining, and it includes places close to or near. What degree of proximity would justify the application of the word is entirely a question of circumstance. An example is given of an appeal case in 1904, in which two boroughs in New Zealand six miles apart at their closest were held to be adjacent for the purposes of statutory contributions to the cost of building a bridge. I will not read out all the other references in the dictionary in relation to "adjacent", but the House will be interested in the use of the phrase "adjacent to the common boundary", which was included in a restrictive covenant. That was the subject of litigation in 1968, and the result was a finding that the expression was too vague to be enforceable.

The Town and Country Planning General Development Order 1963 contains a reference to premises adjacent to a quarry. It was decided that a processing site to which china clay was piped three or four miles from the place where it was extracted was not adjacent. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull will accept that it is better to use the expression "adjoining" than the imprecise word "adjacent". The word "adjoining" is a legally recognised term that has a specific meaning. It is included in section 10(3)(b) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, and is held to mean the contours of land immediately adjoining the site in question". The Housing Act 1957 defines adjoining land as Any area of land which is continuous and some part of which is contiguous with a clearance area may properly be described as adjoining land within this section. It does not depend upon any accident of ownerships and boundaries. The issue of adjoining occupiers is also dealt with in the Rent Act 1977. So the expression "adjoining" is very well known and established in legal definitions.

I am afraid that I cannot understand why the Bill's drafters have chosen instead to use such a vague and discredited expression as "adjacent". We know that "adjacent" is the type of word loved by new Labour because it is open to so many different interpretations as to be effectively meaningless, but we in the House should use precise language so that we produce precise legislation that ordinary people can understand.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Liverpool, Garston

The hon. Gentleman has very helpfully cited some definitions, but when he defined the word "adjoining", did I hear him use a definition that included the word "adjoining", as that would not assist us quite so much?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I am not sure whether I understand what the hon. Lady is seeking to say, but if she likes, I shall ask one of my colleagues to pass behind the Speaker's Chair and give her the extracts from the dictionary, and she will be able to understand my point. I am sure that if she thinks that I have misrepresented the legal position, she will be the first to say so later in the debate. I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst for passing that document to the hon. Lady.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: I never had a PPS, so this is an historic day.

Amendment No. 60 represents another of my efforts to try to improve the Bill and make it more precise. Under amendment No. 60, the word "evergreens" would be replaced by the word "conifers". Under amendment No. 62, the word "conifer" would be defined as any tree that bears or is capable of bearing cones. Those amendments should find favour with the promoter because, surely, the Bill should attack the mischief that is popularly perceived as the real problem.

Two graceful, mature holm-oaks—50 ft apart, but with their leaves touching—do not form a hedge in my submission. Pittasporum, eucalyptus, holly, ivy, laurel, rhododendron and yew are not the problem trees and shrubs in need of legislation, backed by criminal sanctions. Let us be blunt; the problem is cupressus, especially the cupresso siparius cross, created by crossing cupressus macrocarpa with chamaecyparis neotkatensis to produce cupressocyparis leylandii.

On page 781 of volume I of "The New RHS Dictionary of Gardening", the leyland cypress is defined as now by far the commonest conifer in gardens. It states: It is grossly over-planted to the exclusion of many far more attractive conifers, though it is of value as a screen or tall hedge, making a solid green or yellow-green wall to 35 m tall"— 115 ft, in ordinary language— and is much used by birds for nesting and roosting. Its dense foliage giving good protection from inclement weather and predators. That tree is the problem. It is fast growing, dense, with impenetrable uniform surface, lacking any seasonable variation or interest in shape and it stays the same throughout its life, except for its enormous increase in size. I am not the only one who says that cupressus is the problem; that was what the Government found when they consulted on the subject.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby 10:15 am, 27th April 2001

Would the hon. Gentleman concede that, in fact, he would create another loophole in attempting to remove other evergreens from the list of trees which some hon. Members would like to be eliminated as hedging material? Does he accept that yews can grow to a substantial height and can form a substantial barrier and that they might possibly be an alternative to leylandii if it were banned as a hedging material?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

The hon. Lady has a room very close to mine, and we often exchange pleasantries, but I find her intervention uncharacteristically authoritarian and intolerant in tone, because she seems to have it in for yew hedges. Yew hedges have been part of the English landscape for generations, and she seems to want to have a go at them and to put them in the same category as all the other problem trees.

I shall pray in aid the Government's consultation paper. In discussing leylandii and the other plants, paragraph 5.26, on page 25, states: The definition used refers to all woody plants. However, the complaints received by the Department are generally limited to coniferous species, including, but not exclusively, leylandii. I have not specified leylandii in my amendments, because the problem does not exclusively relate to leylandii, but it is reasonable to concentrate on where the real mischief lies; otherwise everyone who has a yew, laurel or holly hedge that is more than 6 ft tall will be alarmed and fear they will be the victims of this rather intolerant legislation.

I recognise that there is a problem—especially with cupressus and coniferous trees, not exclusively with leylandii—and my amendments would narrow the Bill's scope so that it would concentrate on the real mischief. By so doing, we would ensure that any complaint made would be much more likely to be relevant and serious, so an enormous amount of local authority time would not be wasted dealing with trivial complaints. We would not alarm many garden owners and plant lovers by threatening them with criminalising their evergreen plants and trees which are not a serious problem.

I hope that the House will accept that my amendments would be in the spirit of the results of the consultation that took place and would accord with the Government's thinking on them. My message is that we must spare the evergreen and focus on a more restricted group of trees—the conifers. I anticipate that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst may find that a problem, because in substituting for the word "evergreens" the expression "conifers", I must concede that six types of conifer are not evergreen—the larix, the pseudolarix, the gingko, the glyptostrobus, the metasequoia and the taxodium. If someone were prepared to argue that it would be wrong to include non-evergreen conifers, I should be prepared to concede that my drafting of amendment No. 60 was too rigorous.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

In fact, my hon. Friend may have noticed that, distressingly, he and I will be at odds on these amendments. I shall seek to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to explain why. My hon. Friend wants to narrow the Bill's scope unnecessarily and I would broaden it under my modest amendment. I do not take issue with him in the precise matter that he raises now, but I give him notice that he and I will, I am afraid, be on different sides of the argument, as he will hear if I succeed in catching Mr. Deputy Speaker's eye later.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving me notice of the position that he intends to adopt. However, I shall move on from that argument about the amendment, because other Members will have a chance to contribute to the debate on it.

I move on, as quickly as possible, to amendment No. 61, which would replace the words "two metres" with the words "twelve feet" in clause 2. There are two reasons for the amendment. The first is to move away from the ludicrous metric obsession in which I am surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull—the Bill's promoter—has indulged. Why cannot we use the old imperial measurements that everyone understands?

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor Conservative, Solihull

I have no personal fixation with metric measurements, but my hon. Friend may be interested to learn that, when I took A-level physics in this country under the Oxford and Cambridge examination board—I regret to say that that was 41 years ago—we used entirely metric measurements then.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I always knew that there was a good reason why I never studied physics at school; that was obviously it. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having told me about it.

Most people in this country have not had the benefit of studying physics to the high level that my hon. Friend did. They talk in feet. If one buys a Christmas tree, one is charged for it by the foot and not by the metre. Indeed, although the Government seem obsessed with talking in kilometres in relation to the exclusion zones for foot and mouth, they really mean miles. People understand the term "two miles", but they do not understand its equivalent in kilometres.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Transport and the Regions)

If only to give the Hansard writers a little relief from our digression into "Gardeners' Question Time" and from having to reach for their Latin dictionaries, will my hon. Friend reflect on his mention of Christmas trees? He rightly wants to buy a Christmas tree measured in feet. If he were to do the environmentally friendly thing and, for two consecutive Christmases, he bought trees with roots and planted them in his garden, they might constitute a hedge.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Because I am an environmentally friendly member of the public, I make it my practice normally to buy Christmas trees with roots, so that I can replant them after Christmas. In my garden, I have two such trees—and one of them still has a bauble on it from last Christmas. If anyone wishes to visit my garden, he will be able to see successfully replanted Christmas trees. As my hon. Friend said, if over a period of two or more Christmases one plants two or more trees in the garden, one may find—before one knows it—that criminal sanctions are threatened because a coniferous or evergreen hedge has been established.

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. After nearly 50 minutes of my hon. Friend's speech, we have now heard that he had an interest to declare at the outset. Should he not have done that already? Will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, give advice to other Members who wish to take part in the debate?

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

I do not think that there has been any breach of order in the House. It struck me that Christmas had come a little early this year, and one or two other events may have to be dealt with before then.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

All I can say is that the way in which some hon. Members wish to curtail our activities means that it will not be long before one has to declare in such a debate that one has a couple of Christmas trees in the garden. The main reason for amendment No. 61 is not that it uses imperial measurements that people understand.

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor Conservative, Solihull

I rise to give my hon. Friend another opportunity to mock me on the matter of imperial and metric measurements. Although he might be more comfortable if the Bill said that the height of hedges should be limited to 6 ft 6 instead of 2 m, does he not accept that it is consistent with other legislation? He has already quite fairly prayed in aid planning legislation, and town and country planning legislation can direct that one can have a fence of up 2 m in one's rear garden without planning permission. Does he not accept, in his fair-minded way, that it is consistent to say that, if one can have a fence of 2 m, one can have a hedge of 2 m? Is there not a read-across with other legislation?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I accept that some people could make such a read-across, and my hon. Friend obviously does. However, I do not think that hedges are equivalent to fences. To return to a point that I made earlier, town and country planning legislation introduced the requirement that one would have to obtain planning permission to put up a fence above a particular height. However, if walls and fences above that height are already established, town and country planning law does not say that, unless one applied for permission for them, one might face sanctions because they were above the height of the fences for which one would have to seek planning permission if one wanted to erect them today.

My concern is that we are talking not just about new hedges, but about established hedges. That is why the need to obtain planning permission to put up a new fence of up to 6 ft 6 is not equivalent to the need to respond to complaints from neighbours if one already has an established hedge that is more than 6 ft 6 inches high.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Would my hon. Friend not argue—subject to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor)—that a fence is an artificial construct the height of which can be determined from the outset? It can therefore be covered by planning law. Hedges, trees, shrubs and so on are gloriously natural phenomena and restrictions on their height would be an interventionist event in itself. The comparison between hedges and fences is therefore invalid.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

My right hon. Friend makes another excellent point. With perhaps the exception of a yew hedge—it grows slowly, at a rate that is hardly perceptible each year—most of the hedges that we are considering grow significantly each year and need to be pruned and trimmed to keep them at a particular height.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said that trees and bushes are natural phenomena. However, the issue here is not the fact that they are natural phenomena but the fact that they are often planted in unnatural places. That is when the problems arise.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

If we are talking about defining what is an unnatural place, we are getting into very dangerous territory. When I represented the constituency of Southampton, Itchen, people complained that their next door neighbours had fridges in their garden. One could argue that to have a fridge in the garden is to have a fridge in an unnatural place even though the people who owned it did not necessarily think that that was so. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we should bring all the sanctions of the criminal law to bear even in cases such as that? I hope not.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Following the point of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), as the Bill does not specify that the plants should be in a straight line or in a particular configuration, is it not entirely possible that nature will, from time to time, place plants, trees, shrubs or whatever in such a way that they meet the Bill's requirements perfectly naturally? They need not necessarily be a deliberate construct, but could perfectly naturally fall within the compass of the Bill as it is broadly drawn at the moment.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

My right hon. Friend is right. That is a much better response to the hon. Member for Hendon.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon 10:30 am, 27th April 2001

May I hark back to the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) on Second Reading? We are dealing with forest trees that are planted in back gardens, which is an unnatural place for them to be growing.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

An enormous number of forest trees are in back gardens in my constituency, and not just conifers or evergreens; many are oaks and pines. The hon. Gentleman is right, but many forest trees grew naturally before land was developed. That is why the councils and councillors in Christchurch and East Dorset local authority areas jealously guard established trees and do not allow them to be cut down.

There is an appeal before the planning inspectorate in respect of a case in Mudeford in which a large oak—a forest tree—had been growing on some land before a house was constructed there. The planning authority said that the tree should not be cut down and the house should be built almost around it. The person who has bought the house finds it impossible to get into the garage because the tree is in the way. He has applied to have it taken down, but the local authority is understandably resisting that because the tree was there before the house was built and adds significantly to the amenity of the area. The hon. Gentleman is in destructive mood if he thinks that the failure to chop down to 6 ft 6 any forest tree growing in an urban area should automatically give rise to criminal sanctions. That is over the top and unreasonable, and I shall continue to think that if the Bill gets on the statute book unamended.

I have chosen 12 ft rather than 2 or 4 m. The Royal Horticultural Society dictionary defines a hedge as being a maximum of 17 ft and a minimum of 2 ft. If it is higher than that, it is normally described as a shelterbelt. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull would agree with that definition. That gives us a height range for hedges of between 2 ft—more properly described as edging—and 17 ft, at which point they become a shelterbelt. If we are going to attack high hedges, it is reasonable to deal with those in excess of the mean between 2 and 17 ft, which is anything in excess of 9 ft 6 in. I do not want to be too oppressive and have settled on a reasonable compromise of a high hedge being in excess of two thirds of the height range as defined by the RHS, or 12 ft. I stand by that. Indeed, when I discuss amendment No. 117, the House will realise that other independent experts have shown a great deal of support for that interpretation.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I must confess that I am slightly puzzled by my hon. Friend's approach and ask him to explain it in more detail. The main thrust of the Bill, as made clear by the introductory remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) on Second Reading, is to deal with hedges that deny light to people. Why is it acceptable to apply an arbitrary height to the hedge rather than allowing for light impediment to be the main criterion by which it will be judged? That is in danger of going against the Bill.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

If the House were to accept my amendment No. 117, which I shall discuss in a moment, it would make the arguments about amendment No. 61 fairly redundant. However, I take issue with what my right hon. Friend said about me choosing an arbitrary figure. The RHS dictionary says: There is no hard and fast definition of hedges by height, but living barriers more than … 17 ft tall are usually referred to as shelterbelts. Continuous plantings less than 20 in. high are usually referred to as edging. Thus, anything between 20 in, which I rounded up to 2 ft, and 17 ft is a hedge. If the definition of a high hedge is to be meaningful, it needs to be two thirds of that range. "Tall hedge" would be a better expression. We talk about how tall trees and shrubs are in the same way as we talk about how tall humans are. A tall person is someone who is significantly above the mean height. The hon. Member for Garston is looking at me. We can measure ourselves against each other later if she so wishes.

The Bill introduces criminal sanctions that could be used against tens of millions of householders. I am trying to ensure that it is precise and not oppressive, which is why I am suggesting the definition in amendment No. 61.

Amendment No. 63 would remove from the definition of "hedge" anything to do with a shrub, so that we restrict the Bill's effects to the real mischief. The hon. Member for Hendon said that we are dealing with forest trees that are planted in inappropriate places. That does not include forest shrubs, because no such thing exists in that sense. A tree normally has a single leader whereas a shrub is divided into several stems near the ground. Most horticulturists and gardeners understand the distinction between trees and shrubs. The amendment would limit rather than expand the Bill's scope to that which is strictly necessary. However, I do not want to labour the point.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Liverpool, Garston

The hon. Gentleman has the definitions before him. Given his knowledge of horticulture, which is apparent this morning, can he tell me whether some shrubs grow above 6 or 12 ft in height?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Very few do. Graham Stuart Thomas, a distinguished horticultural writer, published the book "Ornamental Shrubs, Climbers and Bamboos" in 1992. Chapter 2 deals with shrubs in history and says: The broad definition of a shrub is a woody plant making several stems from the base. If in general it makes just one or perhaps two stems it is classed as a tree. Although I have not brought the book with me, I looked at it in preparing for the debate, and discovered that the learned author said that there were some examples of shrubs that would grow up to 18 ft or more, but that they were the exception. An example of an evergreen shrub that might, in particular circumstances, grow above that height, is a drimys. My mother has a drimys in her garden which is substantially in excess of 15 ft, but the height of the shrub will depend on the conditions in which it is growing.

I am concerned about the hon. Lady's desire to go all out for an all-embracing Bill. Why do we not concentrate on the real mischief, which is caused by conifer hedges, such as leylandii, which are fast-growing and cause a genuine problem to neighbours who are adversely affected by the resulting loss of light? I urge the amendment on the House because it would moderate the Bill.

I now come to what I consider to be one of the most important amendments in this group, No. 117. It is designed to introduce precision and to exclude from the scope of the Bill complaints in which the height of the hedge in metres is less than D/2 + 2, where D is the distance in metres between the hedge and the nearest outside window wall of the complainant's property. The hon. Member for Hendon was prominent among those calling, on Second Reading and in Committee, for an objective test to calculate what is an unreasonable obstruction of light caused by a high hedge.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Liverpool, Garston

Given that in speaking to amendment No. 61 the hon. Gentleman was promoting the virtues of imperial measurements, why does he use metres in amendment No. 117?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

The hon. Lady is really on the ball. That is a very pertinent question, to which I will give a direct answer. I was able to table the amendment only after I had tabled the others, because I had tabled a parliamentary question asking whether the Government had yet received a response about the work that they had commissioned to try to find a definition of obstruction of light. I received a parliamentary answer on Monday, but I had tabled most of the other amendments on the Friday before the Easter recess. When I received the answer, I could see that there was a very precise definition in the accompanying document. Although I regret as much as the hon. Lady does the fact that it is expressed in metres, I hoped to draft an amendment that was as uncontroversial as possible, so I adopted the precise definition in the document in the hope that it would find favour with the Government and the House. I am a reasonable person and I try to compromise if I think that doing so will benefit the outcome. I hope that in that spirit the hon. Lady will see the wisdom of my amendment.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

Having introduced some figures to the equation D/2 + 2, I find that if we take D as 2/2 + 2, we have a height of 3 m, which equates to approximately 9 ft 9 in, which is approximately 6 ft 6 inches away from the back window of a property. Would the hon. Gentleman consider it acceptable to have a hedge of 9 ft 9 inches approximately 6 ft from his back door? I will be happy to translate the figures into metres, if the hon. Gentleman feels that it is appropriate.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 10:45 am, 27th April 2001

In this particular case, I am not exercising my judgment, but relying on that of experts. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst thinks that it is a bad idea to do that, and perhaps I wi11 come to regret it.

I am prepared to be generous to the Minister and the Government because they commissioned the research to try to find an objective test for working out what is an unreasonable loss of light resulting from a high hedge. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) has had a chance to look at the document placed in the Library in response to the parliamentary question that I asked, but if she reads it, she will find that it resulted from a commission given, for a fee, by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to the Tree Advice Trust. The project was carried out for the trust with funding from the Department.

The report, Building Research Establishment publication draft No. 203701, was prepared by Dr. Paul Littlefair of the BRE's environmental engineering centre. He pays tribute to a number of people who gave their time to discuss proposals and give advice and information. It is important that the hon. Lady knows that those people are not obsessed with the subject but have a broad range of interests. They include Guy Barter, Colin Crosby and Paul Goacher of the Royal Horticultural Society and Richard Nicholson of East Dorset district council. The council is in my constituency, so I know what a distinguished expert and tree-lover Richard Nicholson is. I am delighted that his expertise was made available to the authors of the report.

Others who contributed, and who may be known to hon. Members, include Clare Hinchliffe and Alan Bridgeman of Hedgeline, the single-issue pressure group that has been articulating the concerns of people throughout the country who are worried about fast-growing, dense conifers; Alistair Redler of Delva Patman Associates and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors; Becky Hesch of the London Tree Officers Association; Chris Colwell of the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea; and Barbara Milne of the London borough of Bromley. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst knows of Barbara Milne; she may be well one of his constituents. Other contributors were Jim Smith of Islington borough council, which demonstrates that a full range of areas is represented, and David Hall of an organisation called Envirobods Ltd.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the excellence of my constituent, but given the excellence of the list of people whom he has named, does he wonder why none of them appears to have been appointed a people's peer in the list announced yesterday? It strikes me that there has been a significant omission in this regard.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I agree, but perhaps their time will come. If they, using their expertise, are able to produce a rational, common-sense solution to this problem, which affects a significant minority of houses, they will be worthy of elevation to the other place, so that their expertise can be made more widely available in debates on such subjects in future.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

I have had a further opportunity to look at the equation in amendment No. 117, and I think that it may have been mistakenly written down. It should probably be 2D + 2, rather than D/2 + 2, and I should be grateful for a copy of the development of the equation so that I can study it in depth.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I am sure that the hon. Lady will have an opportunity to study the document in depth. Unfortunately, I have only one copy with me today and as I am about it to refer it, I do not think that I can offer to surrender it via the PPS

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

Or the right hon. PPS—the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Indeed.

Perhaps I can cite for the hon. Lady the answer that the Minister gave me on 23 April, in which he stated: The Building Research Establishment … and Tree Advice Trust have been asked to produce guidance on the impact of evergreen hedges on daylight and sunlight to buildings, and loss of sunlight to gardens; and to devise a method for calculating what height a hedge needs to be in order to alleviate any obstruction of light.Draft guidelines, including the proposed procedure for calculating hedge height, have recently been issued by BRE for limited consultation. Copies have been placed in the Libraries of the House. These guidelines will be tested against the sample of problem hedges and will be refined—as necessary—in the light of the results of these field tests and the consultation. The final report on this project is due to be submitted to my Department at the end of July 2001."— [Official Report, 23 April 2001; Vol. 367, c. 71W.]

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Liverpool, Garston

An important point has just occurred to me. The hon. Gentleman is seeking to include the formula in its existing form in the Bill, yet the experts to whom he gives so much credence are prepared to change it at a later date in the light of experience. Would it therefore not be better for the hon. Gentleman to submit a provision allowing for regulations to change the formula which, I am sure he agrees, is far too rigid to include in the Bill?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I do not agree. The formula may be too precise for the hon. Lady, but my amendment would create a threshold; if that threshold is not satisfied, a complaint cannot be made. The amendment does not state that once the threshold is passed, a complaint will automatically be sustained and it will be possible to get a remedy from the local authority; it creates a minimum threshold at which a complaint can be made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull has said that the matter will be subject to consultation, as the Minister confirmed in his written answer. The crunch issue is how a person living in a house with someone else's cupressus or leylandii hedge at the end of the garden can assess his chances of being able to make a satisfactory complaint if there is no objective measurement. Noise can be metered but, despite efforts, it has not been possible to produce an easily assessable measure of lux coming through windows that would enable the right remedy to be provided.

The BRE, a distinguished body, has therefore produced guidelines resulting from discussions with the people to whom I have referred. The guidelines on daylight to windows of dwellings are based on those in the BRE report issued in 1991, entitled "Site Layout Planning for Daylight and Sunlight: A Guide to Good Practice", except that they propose that angular criteria be replaced by spacing to height ratios for ease of application. The BRE established guidelines for good site layout planning for daylight and sunlight, and there is a read-across to the position in which a hedge at the end of someone's garden may be causing loss of light to his windows. The BRE's conclusion is reasonable.

Paragraph 4 on page 3 of the BRE document is headed, "Loss of light to windows" and states the obvious fact that high hedges can obstruct daylight to windows. It continues: Even if a window faces north, significant loss of diffuse sky light can occur. The extent of the loss of light will depend on the distance from the hedge to the window. The guidelines given are intended to be used for the main rooms of a house. These include living rooms, dining rooms, kitchens and bedrooms. Loss of light to toilets, bathrooms, storerooms … hall, stairs and landing … is deemed less important and such windows need not be analysed.These guidelines apply to dwellings, and not to outbuildings … Where a dwelling has a conservatory the opening between it and the house and not the front or side faces of the conservatory is taken as the window position. The hon. Member for Crosby expressed great interest in that. The BRE also deals with hedges that are directly opposite a window and states: Where the line of the hedge is parallel to the window wall, measure the horizontal distance between the outside window wall and the centre of the hedge, halve it and add two metres. That is the formula in my amendment. The horizontal distance is divided by two, and 2 m is added to that figure. That gives what the BRE describes as the "action hedge height". If the hedge is 1 m above that height it is likely to cause significant loss of light, but if it is at or below it, it will not.

If my amendment were incorporated in the Bill, people who saw themselves as victims of high, dense hedges would be able to work out easily whether they were likely to get a reasonable result if they complained. It would also be possible to give tremendous security to people who were worried that their hedge might be too high and that they might receive an order from the local authority and be subject to criminal sanctions. Had the BRE's work, which was published only this week, appeared two or three years ago, we probably would not be having this debate, as there probably would not be a need for the legislation before us.

It is because I feel passionately that that solution is right and reasonable that I would like it to be included in the Bill. If it is not, as I have said, millions of households will wonder whether or not they will be adversely affected by the measure. It might be argued that the Government's original agenda envisaged that the BRE report would come out after the election had been called and the Bill was no longer a live issue in the House. However, we should take advantage of the fact that the guidance has appeared, even though it is only in draft and is subject to consultation. Why should we not legislate on the basis of it, rather than go for the much more draconian and wide-ranging solution in the Bill?

To try to keep matters simple, amendment No. 117 is limited to the loss of light to windows directly opposite a hedge. The BRE document includes a series of calculations dealing with side windows and garden light. As hon. Members will know from my subsequent amendments, I am concerned about trying to achieve a remedy for loss of light to the garden, for which the document also has solutions that could be included in the Bill. The most important matter, however, concerns people whose main living room windows are adversely affected by loss of light caused by hedges at the end of their garden, which might be quite close.

As the hon. Member for Crosby has worked out, if the amendment is accepted, most hedges will not be caught by the legislation. It is therefore sensible, as only a small minority of cases which are indeed appalling warrant the intervention of the criminal law. If we do not discuss all the amendments to the Bill, I hope that we will get publicity for the BRE's recommendations.

If constituents tell their Members that there is a problem, Members will be able to say, "These are the figures. How does the hedge measure against the reasonable guidelines advanced by the Building Research Establishment? Do you not think that it would be reasonable to trim it back in line with them?" We are much more likely to arrive at solutions based on consensus and good neighbourliness in what I would describe as the traditional English fashion if we do that rather than using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, with the force of the criminal law and enormous local authority bureaucracy.

11 am

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

To take up the hon. Gentleman's reference to a nut, I refer him to the High Hedges Bill research paper 01/20 of 7 March 2001, which refers to the the number of complaints … received by … 30% of local authorities as being 5,200. The paper states that the DETR estimated the likely number of problem hedges in England and Wales to be 17,000. In my opinion, that constitutes a significant problem.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Indeed. I am not trying to belittle the problem. I am saying that we have a potential solution before us. Why do we not take advantage of it? Legislation should be as precise as possible and open to as little interpretation and discretion as possible, especially where the criminal law is involved. I am sure that the hon. Lady would agree with that. People need to know where they stand in relation to the hedge at the end of their garden or somebody else's garden. Given the work that has been done by the BRE, I think that we have the makings of a solution.

It is not only the BRE that has undertaken work in this area. The solution was forecast to an extent in the "High Hedges: Possible Solutions" consultation document. Paragraph 5.39 on height and distance limits, states: A simpler way to define problem high hedges might be to rely on easily determined objective measures, based on the main physical features which tend to lead to problems. The obvious factors are the height of the hedge and its proximity to a boundary or a building. A solution which allowed people to complain about hedges over a certain height and within a certain distance of a boundary or building might seem to lack refinement but would probably cover most of the hedges causing most of the problems. It would also have the benefit"— I emphasise this— of simplicity, certainty and of being clearly understood. Those advantages are overwhelming when dealing with problems that could affect many people.

The document continues: There is the tricky question of where the thresholds should be set, above which a complaint might be triggered. A 2 metre height limit would be in line with practice in other countries and the existing planning restrictions on walls and fences in this country, though a higher limit of say 3 or 4 metres might be more suitable for hedges.A graduated system, so that relatively low hedges near a boundary might be subject to complaint, whereas those further from the boundary would be allowed to grow higher before any regime kicked in, would be more flexible but would also be more complicated. A simple scale might be to allow hedges to reach the same height as their distance from a boundary, above a 2 metre threshold, before a complaint would be valid. Surprisingly, that solution is similar to that reached by the BRE. That approach would be extremely helpful in dealing with the problem.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Although I can well appreciate my hon. Friend's desire for certainty in legislation, this rather formulaic approach seems not to take account of the huge variation in the configuration of houses and gardens in relation to one another, and particularly in relation to boundaries. Does he agree that there must be considerable flexibility and perhaps even subjectivity in trying to take into account enormous variations in, for example, the constituencies of the hon. Members for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), my constituency and that of my hon. Friend, to mention only a few, to say nothing of your constituency, Mr. Deputy Speaker? There is huge variation in garden and house sizes. Should not the Bill fully allow for that? Is my hon. Friend satisfied that his formulae will allow such flexibility?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Yes, I am. Having considered the matter with a certain scepticism and having always been keen that we should try to find an objective measurement, I think that the work of the Building Research Establishment has produced a formula that can be applied and calculated easily by ordinary people.

I appreciate that some gardens are much smaller than others. I accept that there will be differences in the distance between a house and the end of the garden. That is taken account of. In my formula, D is the distance between the outside window wall of the complainant's house and the centre of the hedge. If we halve that distance and add 2 m and it is found that the hedge height is greater than that, there is a cause of action and the complaint can be entertained by the local authority. If the hedge height is lower than that measurement, no complaint can be made. What could be clearer than that? Such an approach would save an enormous number of wasted complaints.

I accept that my amendment on its own would not deal with what happens where the hedge is to one side of the window, but a similar formula can be applied in that situation. I shall not deal with the formula that applies to the loss of light to gardens because I have tabled a separate amendment in a different group to deal with that. Paragraph 5 of the BRE report tends to show that that is an extremely difficult matter to assess.

The BRE was able to produce guidelines on site layout planning for daylight and sunlight and a guide to good practice, and similar guidelines can be used to determine the thresholds that, if exceeded, can trigger the remedies set out in the Bill. I understand my right hon. Friend's scepticism but I think that my response answers his point.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

I am attempting to follow what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but would he care to inject a little clarity for me? Is he now in favour of the first formula, which is D/2+2, whereby a distance of 6 ft 6 inches from the house would allow the owner of an adjoining property to have a hedge of 9 ft 9 inches, or is he in favour of the next formula that he puts forward, where there is a proportional relationship between the distance from the back of the window to the centre of the hedge and the height of the hedge, namely a distance of 6 ft equating to a hedge height of 6 ft? I favour neither formula.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

The hon. Lady has confused me because she is dealing with feet rather than metres. I have been trying to simplify these matters. I have used the formula that is set out in the BRE report, with a view to overcoming this very problem. I think that she has misunderstood the issue. I do not know whether she has had the chance to slip out to the Library to obtain a photocopy of the relevant document. If and when she succeeds in doing that and she reads the document, she will find that my amendment is wholly in line with paragraph 4 of the recommendations of the BRE and the advisers. She will understand that it is a reasonable compromise.

The hon. Lady may be surprised that it will result in, for example, a 9 ft hedge being acceptable at the end of somebody's garden. Why should it not be acceptable if it is not causing any loss of light?

There were some asides, both in Committee and on Second Reading, about losses of views. People living many houses away from another house might be able to use the Bill's provisions so as to get trees chopped down that are obscuring their view of the sea, for example.

Highcliffe castle is one of the best tourist attractions in my constituency. If one looks at old pictures of the castle, one sees that there were no trees around it at all, so if the houses that now exist close to the castle had existed then, they would have had uninterrupted sea views—and the wind that would come with them. Generations ago, however, holm-oaks were planted in the area and there are now many green and protected trees, subject to tree preservation orders, around the castle. Are we saying that, other things being equal, people who bought houses close to the castle should be able to have those large evergreen trees taken down so that they can have a view?

We should concentrate on the particular mischief, which is the loss of light. If we extend the argument to rights to views and permission to cut down perfectly good trees because they interfere with somebody's view, we will be in dangerous territory. That is another reason why I oppose the wide drafting in the Bill.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend. His point is probably answered in clause 4(4)(b), under which the local authority will be obliged to take into account the extent to which that hedge contributes (or, if reduced in height, would still contribute) to the amenity of the neighbourhood". That may be a saving provision to protect against the problems that he foresees. These matters are all, of course, highly subjective and we would all be at the mercy of the local authority, but we are anyway, in relation to normal planning matters. The Bill may have anticipated the point, and clause 4(4)(b) may answer it.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I accept my right hon. Friend's point, but my problem with clause 4(4)(b) is that it leaves a subjective test in the hands of the local authority.

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor Conservative, Solihull

We all accept that there are difficulties with subjectivity, but as the law stands, the only remedy of a citizen adversely affected is to resort to the law of nuisance, which my hon. Friend, as a distinguished barrister, knows is one of the most convoluted and difficult areas of English law. The merit of my Bill, if I may say so, is to introduce rather more objective tests. Height, after all, can be measured, and light is capable of being measured. My favourite game is cricket. The umpires determine whether play is possible by carrying a photographer's light meter. I suggest that there is more objectivity in the Bill than in the English law of nuisance.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I do not dispute that one iota, but there would be even more objectivity in the Bill if my amendment No. 117 were accepted. My hon. Friend says that it is easy to measure light. Indeed, the BRE was specifically commissioned to establish whether it would be possible to define easily and objectively the loss of light against which a remedy could reasonably be introduced. The BRE came up with the calculation relating to the distance between the hedge and the window affected and the height of the hedge. That formula is objective, not subject to different interpretations. There are problems with measurement by means of a light meter. As a cricketer, my hon. Friend knows that the light varies enormously in English conditions. At what stage is the light to be measured?

I have a constituent who has a house in the green belt, right next to a waste disposal plant. He has been complaining bitterly about the noise generated by the plant. It is impossible, through the Environment Agency, to get an objective noise measurement, because the Environment Agency says that the noise must be measured over a one-hour period. Surprise, surprise, whenever its officials arrive, the people involved in the activity are having a tea break, because the Environment Agency has tipped them off that its officials are coming. That illustrates the difficulties. Where will a light meter be placed? In what circumstances? Will the light be measured on a cloudy day, or in the middle of winter, or in the middle of summer? The answer proposed by the BRE is a sensible solution.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst 11:15 am, 27th April 2001

Before my hon. Friend is too persuaded by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), the promoter of the Bill, if he glances again at clause 4, he will see that it refers to a judgment about whether the hedge is capable of affording privacy to an occupier of the neighbouring land, and it then goes on to the matter in subsection (4)(b) to which I referred earlier, concerning amenity. Surely these matters must, by definition, be subjective. Once one moves away from the possibility of the scientific measurement of height, distance, light and so on, the Bill obliges those who are making judgments on these matters to deal with difficult matters such as privacy and amenity. That cannot be precise or objective.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I accept that, but we can try to have as precise a threshold as possible for entry into the process. That is what my amendment seeks to achieve.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth):

The hon. Gentleman seeks to justify his amendment on the grounds that it will increase objectivity through the measures proposed. However, the BRE document, which he has praised, is a draft document intended for consultation and then for use in guidance. He proposes to put formulae from that document into legislation. Does he accept that his amendment would introduce rigidity, not objectivity?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

My amendment would introduce precision. If the Minister is using the word "rigidity" in the sense of creating precision, that is certainly what I seek to do. It is unfortunate that the Bill, which the Government support, has been introduced before consultation on the document has taken place. If I had not tabled a question, I do not know when the document would have been published. It was not volunteered by the Minister or his Department. I tabled a question asking whether it was available, and as a result, on Monday this week, it was placed in the Library. We might have been able to get it much earlier, at the end of March, as the document has a March date.

We are told that the document is out for limited consultation. We know that it is based on precise guidelines set out in 1991 on the siting and layout of buildings, with reference to light. There must be equivalent guidelines applicable to loss of light from a high or thick hedge. The Minister accepts that. I suggest that there should be a minimum threshold which must be satisfied before a complaint can be started.

I am not saying that once the complaint is entertained, it will inevitably be upheld and that enforcement action will follow. That is a legitimate area for subjectivity and discretion, but it is important that people realise as early as possible what they can do to take their hedge outside the control and interference proposed by the Bill. That is all that I am trying to do, and it seems perfectly reasonable.

I accept that because of the late production of the document and the fact that it is still subject to consultation, the Bill may have to be amended, but as clause 16 gives the Government the power to change almost everything, it will always be possible for the Government to amend the arrangement. The Minister shakes his head, but clause 16 is drawn in the widest possible terms and effectively gives the Government power to amend anything in the Bill, including the definition of a high hedge.

I do not accept the argument that because the consultation has not been completed, we should not deal with the matter in the Bill. The Bill gives the Government and local authorities a blank cheque. There is widespread suspicion about local authorities, and I speak as someone who led one.

Before the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull, I was about to tell the House of an example in my constituency. Suffolk avenue in Christchurch is a row of houses and gardens that back on to allotments. A row of established oak trees is situated on the border between the allotments and the houses. The trees are so tall that they hang over the gardens. They do not cause much loss of light in winter, but most people do not enjoy the amenity of their gardens during that part of the year. In the summer, the trees are oppressive in the extreme. Nobody suggests that they should be cut down, but people want the local authority to trim some of the overhanging branches, which are about 30 or 40 ft high and could fairly easily be removed from the allotment land, which is owned by the local authority.

I have corresponded about the matter with Christchurch council on behalf of my constituents. It argues that common law allows people to trim the trees if they want to do so. Andrew Wall, the parks assistant in Christchurch, wrote on 10 February 2000 to a constituent of mine who expressed concern. The letter stated: The Council will only carry out work on the trees if they are dead, dying, diseased, liable to cause damage or a danger to public safety. Any work that you have carried out will be at your own expense. The letter demonstrates the council's insensitivity to the circumstances of a particular householder. In subsequent correspondence in which the chief executive was involved, a plea was made on the grounds of amenity. The council's attitude will cause much concern and explains why people think that local authorities should be left with as little discretion as possible and want the clear and precise definitions for which the original consultation document argued.

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor Conservative, Solihull

Will my hon. Friend confirm that my Bill would not deal with those problems? He might be mildly interested to know that my local authority, Solihull borough council, takes precisely the same view of existing trees as his council. It will intervene only if they are dead, dying or dangerous—I think that those are the approximate criteria. As he has digressed and spoken about some oak trees in his constituency—I dare say that it is perfectly fair for him to do so—will he confirm his understanding that my Bill would not grant relief in such a case?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I understand that the Bill as currently drafted would not grant such relief, but it could be amended using the powers contained in clause 16 to cover deciduous trees, so as to ensure, for example, that a single oak tree is defined as a hedge. My point relates to the issue of amenity and to the subjective judgment of a local authority in that respect. I want to emphasise the importance of ensuring as much objectivity as possible.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I shall give way to the hon. Lady, but I must bring my remarks to a close soon.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Liverpool, Garston

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not close his remarks too soon, as I am enjoying his speech.

The hon. Gentleman has done the House a service by illustrating precisely the sort of dispute with which the Bill is designed to deal, although I accept that it does not cover oak trees. It deals with circumstances in which a landowner is being unreasonable and an owner of abutting land is suffering the consequences. Even though the affected person could cut down the overhanging branches, he may not do so, perhaps because the work is too expensive. The Bill provides a possible solution and could assist in disputes that do not seem capable of being resolved without difficult and complex litigation in the civil court.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I hear what the hon. Lady says, but as recent remarks have shown, the Bill does not deal with disputes involving a large deciduous tree that is causing loss of light during the summer months, when people wish to enjoy the amenity of their houses and gardens. It is no exaggeration for me to say that I have more complaints about light problems in relation to deciduous trees that are protected by tree preservation orders or that are situated on local authority land, but very close to houses, than about so-called high evergreen hedges.

The Bill does not address such problems, but they need to be dealt with at some stage. It seeks perfectly legitimately to deal with a particular area of concern, but it should deal only with that particular mischief. It should not be open to wide interpretation and amendment that could ultimately make it very oppressive. I know that any changes would have to be subject to affirmative resolution, but as we have seen with deferred voting procedures and all the rest of it, that can be nonsense. The other night, the Chamber was filled with hon. Members who were angry about the Government's attitude to number plates, but were not permitted to vote on the basis of the arguments that were advanced. If we had had a chance to do so, I am sure that hon. Members on this side of the Chamber would have won. However, the decision was deferred until Wednesday, when the Government's large majority stomped through the Lobby—many people did not even know what they voting on—to ensure that our prayer against the measure was defeated. Thus, the affirmative resolution procedure does not provide a sufficient safeguard.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

Like many hon. Members, I am anxious to hear the hon. Gentleman continue to speak for some time, although I fear that he might risk being accused of having delighted us for too long.

If the hon. Gentleman is anxious to extend the scope of the Bill, may I draw his attention to amendment No. 2, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore)? The amendment includes virtually everything and anything that has ever existed on God's green earth. If he has any worries about oak trees, I suggest that he supports that amendment, which will ensure that he and his constituents are satisfied.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I shall consider doing so after we have had the opportunity to hear the remarks of the hon. Member for Hendon.

I tabled three further amendments in the group. Amendment No. 40, which is a consequential amendment, involves similar reasoning to that of amendment No. 61. It would restrict the remedial reduction of the hedge's height to 12 ft. Amendments Nos. 51 and 52 would limit the scope of clause 16. They would ensure that the Secretary of State cannot amend the definition of the term "high hedge" willy-nilly. For example, they would not allow him to amend it to cover a single tree, but they would specifically allow him to extend it to cover deciduous trees, which are a big problem.

I should like to refer to one more constituency case, involving a lady whom I visited last Saturday and whose neighbour has a high leylandii hedge on one side of the garden. The loss of light that the hedge causes is nothing compared with that caused by the oak tree that stands a few feet away from her house in a neighbour's garden. The tree is listed, and from 11 o'clock onwards, its leaves mean that her garden is in almost complete darkness. The remaining light is excluded by a silver birch that is protected by a tree preservation order. In my view, such a tree is not a significant forest tree that is worthy of being subject to such an order. My constituent has no light in her garden because of the tree preservation orders that protect those large deciduous trees. Of course, the local authority and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are responsible for the orders. There is a significant problem in trying to balance the importance of large trees in terms of amenity and residents' need for a reasonable amount of light in their homes and gardens. The Bill does not currently deal with that problem, which is as great as or greater than that caused by leylandii.

The amendments that I have tabled all argue for a better application of the principles of good regulation. They guard against the unintended consequences of good intentions and they lift the hidden burden of the measure: worry about implications and application. That burden is not apparent in the Bill. In accordance with the principles of good governance, the amendments would also introduce certainty and predictability. I commend them to the House.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon 11:30 am, 27th April 2001

I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on his speech. It probably holds the record in this Parliament for a Friday speech. He finished in a little under two hours, which is probably the parliamentary equivalent of being out for 199. That is quite an achievement.

I have considerable anxiety about the hon. Gentleman's comments, however, especially his opening remarks when he spoke of the threat to gardeners. As has been said, we are considering the interests not only of those who own the hedges—the hon. Gentleman's position—but of the victims. There are 17,000 about whom we know. The threat to gardeners is a double-edged sword—or scythe. I am worried about the threat to gardeners who suffer from the shade created by high hedges—for example, those who have to replace their sun-loving plants with hostas and ferns. The hon. Gentleman has indulged in a great deal of scaremongering, which will create misplaced anxiety. A good neighbour has nothing to fear from the Bill.

The measure would be used way down the track, when all other methods of resolving a dispute had failed. The Bill makes it clear that parties should try to resolve the dispute amicably. On Second Reading, we heard much about the need for mediation. The Bill will apply to a minority of cases, when one or both sides are intransigent. The local authority's function will be mainly arbitration.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's analysis. He began by saying that the problem was widespread and significant and affected a large number of people. He then claimed that he expects most disputes to be resolved amicably, that the Bill is almost otiose and that it will be used rarely. The hon. Gentleman cannot credibly maintain both positions. If there are many complaints, which will all be tackled amicably, is there any need for the Bill?

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

The answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question is straightforward. There is currently no framework or legislative background against which disputes can be tested and resolved. The Bill provides a framework, which enables people to know where they stand and provides another option for the person who is suffering if the dispute cannot be resolved amicably. The only current option is to go to law so that the learned friends of the hon. Member for Christchurch can resolve the matter. Without such a framework, we leave 17,000 people to suffer. The Bill is therefore necessary; I hope that it will be used in relatively few cases.

I shall briefly presage the arguments that I want to advance on another group of amendments. It will help people to resolve their differences if we set out the criteria whereby local authorities judge disputes, because that will enable them to know what they should take into account.

In an earlier intervention, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) made the important point that if we are too prescriptive, we run the risk of creating a formula that does not reflect the different sorts of gardens and properties in this country. The gardens in my constituency are larger than those in central London, but I suspect that, on average, they are significantly smaller than those in Christchurch. More stringent requirements should apply to smaller gardens. Amendment No. 11, which I hope to move later, deals with that point by providing for taking account of the location of the hedge in a rural, urban or suburban environment.

When we discuss hedges, we are considering barriers, especially to light. Basing our discussion on the word "hedge" means that we have somewhat lost the plot.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

Will my hon. Friend cover the vexatious issue of the formula D/2 + 2, as opposed to D being proportional to the distance from the back of the window to the centre of the hedge? That is important, given that so much of the new clause depends on the equation.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

The formula is nonsensical because it does not take account of the diverse circumstances that a local authority can face. I have set out criteria in a sequence of amendments. Some of them have been endorsed by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, who has also devised some criteria. They would provide a better method of testing whether a hedge should face the chop.

New clause 9 does not tackle the evil that the hon. Member for Christchurch is trying to address. I have great sympathy with his point, which is: who comes first—the hedge or the affected landowner? However, simply limiting the criteria to the construction of new property after the hedge was planted is the wrong approach. Later, I shall move amendment No. 15, which deals with the matter more constructively. It takes into account not only when the buildings were constructed but whether the complainant arrived in the property after the hedge was established. That does not necessarily mean that the person who is affected by the hedge has no rights, but that the local authority should take account of whether the hedge was there first. That constitutes a more flexible approach than new clause 9.

I shall consider my amendments that would broaden the Bill's scope. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst spoke of definitions that were too wide or too narrow and got lost in the middle of his contentions. I believe that the Bill's definition of a hedge that forms a barrier does not go far enough. Amendment No. 3 deals with the meat of those anxieties. I do not believe that it is appropriate to limit the definition of barrier to a line of trees or shrubs. One tree can form a barrier. We must not limit our consideration to evergreen trees, for the reasons that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst advocated when he seemed to speak against his own views. He was right to say that deciduous trees can form a significant barrier, especially in the summer, when most gardeners are worried about the matter. In winter, shade is less of a problem.

I want the Bill to contain a broader definition, which encompasses a single tree. I do not suggest that because of the lovely woodland oak that one sees here and there. I want the Bill to cover single trees that have been trained to form a hedge against a fence and perhaps above it. A single tree can grow upwards, sideways or both. If it is trained to grow sideways, it can form as much of a barrier as a whole line of leylandii. Limiting the definition to two or more trees is therefore the wrong approach.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Liverpool, Garston

I have every sympathy with the fact that the proper purpose of the Bill is to deal with the problems caused by nuisance neighbours deliberately planting these trees and shrubs, including leylandii, to create barriers. To that extent, I am sympathetic to broadening the scope of the Bill. However, I am concerned that, whenever we legislate in this place, it is perfectly possible, if we are not careful and very tight with our definitions, to create unintended consequences, in such a way that those whom the Bill does not aim to assist could very cleverly, with the aid of their lawyers, nevertheless manage to use its provisions. Is my hon. Friend convinced that amendment No. 3, in widening the scope of the Bill, does not go too far? Is he convinced that it will keep the Bill relatively narrow in scope, in the sense that it will deal with the problem with which the Bill aims to deal?

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

The answer to my hon. Friend's question is yes, particularly when considered with other amendments that I hope to speak to later, which set out a list of criteria that local authorities should take into account. Obviously, I do not wish to stray into that territory now, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If we set out a list of the issues that have to be considered, it will provide sufficient safeguards against that problem.

That is why it is important to consider single trees in this context. We also need to get away from the question of definitions of evergreens and conifers. There will always be arguments about whether an evergreen is an evergreen. I explored that on Second Reading when I gave examples of semi-evergreen trees. Are they caught by the Bill or not? We have heard today about the problems of deciduous trees. If we simply talked about trees forming a barrier that prevents light getting through, we would not have to worry about whether they were evergreens or not, or about calling horticultural experts to give evidence to local authorities about whether a tree was deciduous, evergreen or whatever.

Similarly, we can get over the argument about whether a shrub is a tree or a tree is a shrub. We have heard several definitions of a shrub. A good example of a shrub that can be used to form a hedge is the laurel. It is a shrub, it can significantly block the light, and it can grow extremely high. I am concerned as to whether the definition in the Bill would include a laurel shrub. I think that it might, because the laurel is an evergreen, and a shrub.

We must not however create loopholes by which unscrupulous gardeners could try to find a way round the strict definitions by finding some exotic plant or tree, perhaps one that they could import from overseas, to thwart the intentions of Parliament. Simply by using the terms "trees" and "shrubs", in whatever number, we can get over the problem of definition and concentrate on what is or is not a barrier to light. That is what the Bill is really concerned about.

I am concerned also by the suggestion that six bushes should be the minimum requirement for a hedge. My London flat has a small front yard with what I consider to be a hedge along the front. That hedge comprises three small bushes. I do not think that they are trees; they are probably shrubs. They quite adequately form a hedge, albeit a rather short one, and one that certainly does not block anyone else's light. Nevertheless, it would not be considered a hedge under that definition, although everyone in the area would consider it to be one. Similarly, and for the same reasons, I am concerned about the suggestion by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that three bushes would be sufficient.

The hon. Member for Christchurch went on to talk about the difference between "adjacent" and "adjoining". I have had the opportunity to study his notes, which were passed to me behind the Speaker's Chair by the hon. Gentleman's "Parliamentary Private Secretary", the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. I do not think that any difference is generated by the two terms. The words in the hon. Gentleman's notes are these: 'Adjoining land' (Town and Country Planning Act 1947 (c. 53) s.10(3)(b) was held to mean the contours of land immediately adjoining the site in question. 11.45 am

I do not think that the question of whether we are talking about "adjoining" or "adjacent" adds a jot to the argument. I am quite happy to stick with the definition that the hon. Gentleman read out. I suppose that we are straying into the realms of that well-known panel game, "Just a Minute", in trying to avoid hesitation, deviation and repetition. By saying that "adjoining land" means "adjoining land", I shall probably get the buzzer sounded on me straight away.

We then come to the argument about metres and feet. Frankly, I am not particularly bothered about metres and feet. If one of these disputes arises and the person from the local authority gets their tape measure out, it does not really matter which unit of measurement is used. In the end, metres are probably better.

I see that, later on, we may discuss a Bill to consider the implications of withdrawal from Europe. I know that Conservative Members get very excited about Europe. In fact, the whole issue of metres goes back hundreds of years, to Napoleon Bonaparte. I think that he first introduced the metric system. I vaguely recall reading that we first considered going metric in the 1850s, when there was a report from a Select Committee suggesting that that was the way forward. The decision to go metric long pre-dates our decision to join the European Union. If Conservative Members are somehow exercised that they are giving ground to the bureaucrats of Brussels by talking about metres in the Bill, as opposed to feet, that is nonsense. If we are talking about imperial measures, there was no greater imperialist than Napoleon Bonaparte.

A further amendment that I have tabled, which has the endorsement of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, covers the point at which the height of the land should be measured. That is especially important in a city environment, because one often finds that the back yards and back gardens of adjacent premises are at different levels. I gave the example on Second Reading of my London flat, where our back garden is about four feet lower than the back garden opposite us. We must be clear what we mean when we talk about the height of the land. I hope that my amendment will address that by referring to the height of the land of the complainant. If my other amendments are accepted, that will simply be a starting point, because all the other criteria will come into play. However, I hope that that one will provide a degree of certainty.

I referred briefly earlier to the formula proposed by the hon. Member for Christchurch—my hon. Friend the Minister also dealt with it—being simply an issue for consultation. I believe that the hon. Gentleman is making a grave mistake by trying to incorporate it in the Bill. We have heard today a degree of analysis and questioning of how the formula would operate, and what it would mean in practice. That is the sort of argument that should take place outside the Chamber. We should ask people who could test the formula to test it, perhaps to destruction, to see whether it worked, or whether a better one could be found. I suspect that a formula will not work in the end.

The promoter of the Bill mentioned the light meters used by cricket umpires, and perhaps that would be a better way objectively to approach the matter. This formula is not the way forward. If a formula were to be the solution, the way to achieve that might be to create a regulation-making power in the Bill, so that if and when a formula—or a series of formulae, dealing with the urban, rural and suburban environments—could be found to satisfy the criteria, the matter could be dealt with more easily by a statutory instrument. That could be amended if it needed tweaking later, in a way that primary legislation cannot.

Genuine gardeners and good neighbours have nothing to fear from the Bill. The only people who should be concerned are those who are intransigent, who are not prepared to listen to their neighbours, or who are not prepared to be good gardeners or good friends to the people who live round them. The Bill provides an excellent formula for dealing with these disputes. Some of the later amendments might improve it, but the hon. Member for Christchurch has engaged in incredibly mischievous scaremongering and his amendments simply do not hold up.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

It is already obvious that the Bill, although it appears to have modest aspirations, has a wide reach indeed, and could touch the lives of many people in many different ways. The scope of the amendments in this group alone—I tabled amendments Nos. 84, 70, 85, 71, 86, 4 and 89—illustrates the fact that the Bill contains some surprisingly controversial elements. Among other matters, the amendments address the definition of flora, the configuration of houses and gardens and the often conflicting criteria of privacy, access to light, quality of life and environmental considerations.

New clause 9, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), raises some important issues, with which all Members of Parliament will be familiar. Those include the relative rights of those who are already established and those who arrive on an adjacent—or adjoining, if one prefers—property. I favour new clause 9 for the simple reason that it would be odd if someone who sought to develop a property next to a long-established property which already had high hedges—as defined in the Bill—became exercised about their existence and sought to invoke the mechanisms in the Bill. That would be improper and unreasonable. It is a different matter if someone sets out to grow a high hedge, but the Bill should not provide a mechanism for people who knowingly develop a property near an already substantial growth of vegetation which then becomes a nuisance or blocks off light. For that reason, I hope that the promoter of the Bill will accept new clause 9.

I doubt whether the Bill is the correct way to deal with what is an undoubted problem. Too many hon. Members who have been made aware of a problem by constituents feel that they must support a Bill if it has a title that claims to deal with it. I dispute that logic, because we are here to judge whether a Bill is an appropriate, proper and acceptable mechanism for dealing with a problem. I doubt whether this Bill is the right way to deal with the problem of high hedges, although that opinion is of course subject to the debates that we will have on other amendments and to Third Reading, which will be an important occasion on which we can all summarise our feelings about the Bill.

When we consider some of the more detailed provisions of the Bill, it becomes immediately obvious—as the excellent, forensic analysis by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch illustrated—that they will require close attention. For example, clause 2, which is key to the Bill, sets out to define what is a high hedge. On that point, I am at odds with my hon. Friend. If one accepted the objects of the Bill and that it should be enacted to allow people to deal with the problems of the denial of light that my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) so eloquently set out in his speech on Second Reading, it would be unnecessarily restrictive to limit the definition of a high hedge to evergreens. The definition should be much wider, to enable people to make proper use of the mechanism in circumstances that justify it.

My amendments seek to remove the restrictive definition of evergreen and add a much wider definition that would allow the Bill to be used in wider circumstances. That may seem paradoxical, because I have already cast doubt on whether the Bill is appropriate, but it is proper for hon. Members to try to amend a Bill so that it reaches the statute book in a form with which they are comfortable. If the Bill were to succeed, I would prefer it to have a wider scope.

I listened carefully to the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and he appeared to wish to make this a Bill for the elimination of leylandii, if I may put it so crudely and inelegantly. I well understand that, but if we accept that the problem is potentially much wider—as my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull argued son Second Reading—it is logical that the Bill should cover the widest possible scope. My amendments therefore seek to widen the scope of the Bill.

12 noon

I am happy to say that I do not disagree further with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and I am much more in tune with his reasoning on the other amendments. It strikes me that the definition of a hedge as two or more adjacent evergreens is ludicrous and, as my hon. Friend said, flies in the face of all understanding and logic. I am sure that if we knocked on 100 doors in our constituencies and asked people what they thought a hedge was, the last thing that they would do would be to point to something that met the definition in clause 2. That simply is not what most people think of as a hedge. If we are really talking about barriers, not hedges, the Bill's aims, aspirations and description could be highly misleading.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there are people, unfortunately, who would take advantage of the Bill if the definition of a hedge were extended to six trees? I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) that one tree can constitute a significant barrier. There are some who would not use one tree as a significant barrier, but we all deal with cases in which people use two trees—or even one, in some cases—to cause significant annoyance and nuisance to an immediate neighbour whose only crime has been to live next door, quite peaceably, and get on with their own affairs.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

That may happen in some extreme cases. The hon. Lady raises an important question on which I should like to touch, although it is not entirely appropriate at this stage of the debate. Do we use a Bill such as this to deal with that restricted, limited and unfortunate set of circumstances? This is a problem of our times. Because we are developing a blame culture and a complainant culture, Members of Parliament often feel obliged or persuaded to use statute to meet the complaints of an ever-narrowing number of people, and I am not sure that that is right.

I do not see it as my job here to assist in the making of law to deal with an ever-diminishing range and focus of complaints. I am not saying that if the Bill does not deal with every conceivable set of complaints it is defective. We must at some point accept that there must be limitations on the aspiration, effect and scope of legislation. It is not necessary to deal with everything. I argued a moment ago for widening the scope of the Bill in what I believe to be a reasonable way. However, it does not have to meet every criterion. If this were intended to be the high hedges and single intrusive trees Bill, we should have called it that—then we would all know what we were talking about. What worries me is the danger of inadvertently providing a mechanism to engender and encourage a huge number of activities.

The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said that he believed that the majority of the problems arising in this area would be dealt with by amicable discussion and mediation, and that we would be left with a hard core of cases. However, every time we extend the scope of this, based on the definitions in clause 2, we are in danger of going against that and providing people with more and more mechanisms under which they can resort to the provisions. When we say "hedge" we should mean "hedge".

I have been very modest in suggesting that the definition should be three or more adjacent evergreens. One is in danger of getting into a very narrow debate. I simply wanted to make a point, and if I had to make the choice, I might even prefer to go along with my hon. Friend's proposal rather than my own.

Photo of Mr Christopher Gill Mr Christopher Gill Conservative, Ludlow

My right hon. Friend has been somewhat critical of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). Perhaps he would be interested in the contents of a letter that I received only this morning from a Mrs. Porter of The Wheatlands, Bridgnorth. She writes concerning high hedge abuse. There is no question but that high hedges cause enormous difficulties between neighbours. She says: I see dozens of Bridgnorth people suffering under a dark, heavy cloud of leylandii. She continues that they can grow up to 100 ft high blocking out light/views and imprison dwellers in their own homes. From my experience, leylandii are the cause of the greatest difficulty in this respect.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Of course I accept what my hon. Friend says. I am pretty sure that almost every Member of the House—were they to take the trouble of attending on these occasions—could produce a letter from a constituent of the kind produced by my hon. Friend. We have to judge whether we think that the Bill is an appropriate response to the emotional cases raised with us by constituents. We have to make a judgment about the number and seriousness of such cases and whether the Bill offers a proportionate response to them. That is what we are here to do.

My concern, which I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, is that in many respects the Bill is disproportionate and would be an over-reaction; in its details lie the seeds of misunderstandings that could lead us into difficult circumstances.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

The right hon. Gentleman raises a most important point which in many ways cuts to the heart of our debate. He will be aware of biblical references to the upas tree which poisons all that come close to it. I am sure that he must be aware that, in many cases, disputes between neighbours are conducted by arboricultural proxy—that is a severe problem. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept the point made so well and so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) that, far from increasing the scope for litigation—moving into those murky waters of compensation and blame and all the other things that the right hon. Gentleman rightly condemns—the measure removes the thrust from the civil courts and places it in a more detailed, defined, narrowed locus? In fact—and this is a remarkable and extraordinary thought—it may actually reduce the amount of civil legislation and dispute.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Almost by definition, the measure would have that effect. However, it would plunge us into the even murkier waters of local authorities and Secretaries of State. Currently, local authorities and Secretaries of State are much murkier than our judiciary. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion will not lead us on to a higher, more brightly lit land where we can all mediate together and deal with our problems amicably. Of course, I accept that much of what we are talking about can be vexatious—one person could use trees, shrubs, hedges or whatever against another; that is simply part of human nature. Much of our work in this place tries to deal with the more negative aspects of human nature. All of that, I accept. However, we are discussing whether we should be driven by the type of definition in clause 2 into the arms of the local authority and on through inspectors, appeals, complaints, Secretaries of State, fines and so on. We are discussing whether that panoply—set out in the Bill—is appropriate.

The definition of "hedge" in the Bill is inappropriate and could be misleading. In another of my amendments, I propose to broaden the definition—away from "evergreen"—for the reasons that I gave earlier. Amendment No. 85, in which I propose to substitute "six feet" for "two metres", has already been well rehearsed. I merely place myself in the camp of those wrinklies and crumblies who feel much more comfortable with feet and inches than with centimetres and metres. I make no apology for that.

I shall not dwell on the matter, but in the context of a Bill such as this, it is perfectly appropriate for us to make the point that we should have feet instead of metres. Perhaps we should have both—I would accept that; younger generations—my children's generation—are on the other side of that particular fence, but I do not want to labour the point.

However, I do want to discuss briefly amendment No. 86. The Bill needs provisions to deal with the distance between the trees, shrubs, bushes or whatever we end up including in the definition. That point has a direct bearing on the matter of light. Self-evidently, if such flora overlap or abut one another, they will obstruct the light. If, however, there are distances between them, they will not obstruct the light—or will do so to a much lesser extent. There is a lacuna in the Bill—certainly in clause 2—in that no reference is made to that.

The Bill includes the words "form a barrier", but contains no remotely adequate definition of a barrier. It deals with height—something dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch in the now rather controversial formula that has already, properly, absorbed some of our time this morning. It refers in clause 2(2)(b) to a line of trees or shrubs … regarded as forming a barrier, despite the existence of any gaps, if the gaps do not significantly affect its overall effect as a barrier. Those words are entirely inadequate. They serially give rise to the prospect of endless debates as to just what they mean. I seek in amendment No. 86 to give some precision or definition to the point. It follows the thrust of what my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch was saying. I am seeking to amend the Bill in a different way, but the same context.

Whether in amicable discussions and mediation, in making submissions to the local authority or in the appeals process and whether eventually the majesty of the Secretary of State is brought to bear, it defeats me how on earth we can pick our way through clause 2(2)(b), which says: a line of trees or shrubs is to be regarded as forming a barrier, despite the existence of any gaps, if the gaps do not significantly affect its overall effect as a barrier. That is pushing the language beyond its limits. I might even go so far as to say that it is gobbledegook. It does not mean anything. Those words will not take us any measurable way in the direction of resolving the often fraught and emotional disputes between neighbours.

My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull is an eminent and experienced law practitioner, and he perhaps thinks that he understands the words of his Bill. I am sure that he does, because otherwise he would not have brought it before the House, but I defy him to say that the average neighbour, even in Solihull, where all the residents are people of extreme discretion—otherwise they would not have elected my hon. Friend—could pick his way through clause 2(2)(b) and come out feeling that he knew what on earth a high hedge or a barrier was or what constituted a gap.

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor Conservative, Solihull

I wish to correct my right hon. Friend on only one point. I am not a legal practitioner. I went straight many years ago. I have not held a practising certificate since 1988. I require that to be on the record lest anyone think that I ought to declare an interest.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I apologise to my hon. Friend. I was aware that he was not a practising lawyer. It was my slackness of language that gave rise to the possibility of misunderstanding. I am grateful to him, and I will try not to repeat the offence. I paid a sort of compliment when I said that he was an experienced law man, but I should have said that it was only until 1988.

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor Conservative, Solihull

I am entirely satisfied with my right hon. Friend's explanation, and I take his words kindly.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

The problem with clause 2 is clear. In the attempt that has properly been made in the Bill to define "high hedge", we end up in more difficulty than we started with. Most people in our constituencies thumbing through the statute book, as I suppose that they must regularly do to look for some redress against the obnoxious hedges growing along their property, would look at clause 2, if it becomes law, and say that "hedge" seemed to mean only two or more evergreens. We have an immediate problem in terms of number and the restriction to evergreens. Then we get into the difficulty of what is or is not a barrier.

I admit that the Bill is explicit in the sense that it says that a hedge exceeds 2 m, but perhaps people of my generation are not certain what 2 m is. Who knows? Certainly, when they come to clause 2(2)(b), they will be completely mystified.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Liverpool, Garston

I know that the right hon. Gentleman is not a legal man—or a law man, as he quaintly put it—although I sometimes think that he operates like one in this place. Is he not aware that a court of law will take the ordinary English sensible meaning of phrases such as "high hedge" in statutory interpretation?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I would hope that that was the case, but I defy even this country's law courts to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion given the wording of clause 2(2)(b). Even the hon. Lady, with her experience of the law—I shall be no more explicit than that in case I get into even more trouble—might struggle a bit.

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor Conservative, Solihull 12:15 pm, 27th April 2001

Surely that last exchange is a complete diversion—the whole purpose of the Bill is to help people stay out of the law courts.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

In that case, let us substitute for the law courts the infinite wisdom of our local authorities and of their planning departments and the inspectors who, apparently, will be appointed by the Secretary of State to deal with the appeals, and I would argue in the exactly the same way.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

We are in danger of making a mountain out of a molehill. Even if we consider local authorities, the thrust of the Bill is about conciliation and common sense, and the right hon. Gentleman knows that.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

The difficulty is that, sitting here in the House, we may genuinely think that we are providing a mechanism of last resort, but my argument is that the folk outside will not believe that, nor will they see the mechanism in that light. These are highly disputatious and emotional matters in which people invest much of their personal, family, emotional and, often, financial capital, but it is suggested that the legislation will not have to be used because most things will be settled. However, it is also argued that the Bill is needed because they are not easily settled, so a large number of people will invoke the mechanism. It is like those ghastly advertisements that we now see on television, saying, "Where there's a blame, there's a claim." The Bill is almost in the same category, saying, "Come on, folks, here's a mechanism—get stuck into it."

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

I have experience in local government and I know how it operates. Conciliation takes place nine times out of 10, but there are extreme cases. Not too long ago, an individual took a shotgun to his neighbour, and we must deal with those situations.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

In this case, we may end up taking a shotgun to the Secretary of State, which may or may not be bad thing, because we could simply shift the dispute from one between one neighbour and another to one with the local authority and, eventually, the Secretary of State. That is all we are doing. Of course I cannot claim anything like the hon. Gentleman's distinguished record in local government.

In fact, looking around the Chamber, several hon. Members have distinguished local government experience. I am afraid that I was only a modest elected councillor between 1968 and 1972—which only reinforces how old I am. I served only as a member and a vice-chairman of a couple of committees, but I have a view about how wise it is to import into such matters the local authority.

I do not regard local authorities as representing necessarily the most reliable way to resolve disputes. I have worries, which will be reflected in later debates on other groups of amendments, about the cost burden that the Bill could place on local authorities, but we can only use our judgment now. My judgment is that the mechanism would represent an incitement and there would be an incentive to people to invoke them. The hon. Gentleman's view, which I respect, but disagree with, is that the mechanism would be used only as a last resort and thus would be rarely used. I think that we have to let the matter rest there and let other hon. Members judge for themselves.

To finish my remarks on clause 2, I suggest that beyond any doubt, the current wording is entirely unsatisfactory and faulty, and it will need to be changed. I have suggested some changes, but I would not want to die in the last ditch about what I am saying. In fact, I am rather attracted to one or two of the amendments tabled by hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, but we should not agree to clause 2 without any change and without making it much more explicit.

I was happy to attach my name to amendment No. 4 which was tabled by the hon. Member for Hendon. I was persuaded when, on Second Reading, he pointed out that circumstances—mainly but not exclusively in an urban context—can be different. He said: I have a small garden at the back of my Westminster flat. He is very fortunate to have that; he is obviously a man of some substance. He added: Behind my garden is a neighbouring garden, where the level of the ground is nearly 4 ft"— I am glad that he used measures that I can understand— higher than that in my garden. Slipping effortlessly between imperial and metric measures in the impressive fashion that we would expect of him, he asked: Is the 2 m measured from the level of my garden or from the level of the other person's garden, because a tree may be only 1 m high in my neighbour's garden, but it will be far more than 2 m high on my side of the fence?"—[Official Report, 9 March 2001; Vol. 364, c. 561–2] That is a perfectly reasonable question. The thrust of our amendment is to seek to clarify the matter. In doing so, it illustrates a point that has become very clear in the debate. In so many different ways—such as the measure of light to which my hon. Friends have referred, the subjectivity of privacy or amenity and the difference between densely packed urban development and the sprawling acres of Solihull and Christchurch, which will be the subject of another amendment—we must hesitate before we seek to apply exactly the same criteria in every circumstance.

The example of the hon. Member for Hendon is interesting. In the debate on whether the formula should be D divided or multiplied by 2 and whether 2 m should or should not be added to it, we heard some interesting exchanges. The formula relates to the distance between someone's window sill and boundary on the one hand and to the height of the shrubs on the other. The exchanges illustrated, as well as one could expect, the huge difference that there inevitably must be between the hon. Gentleman's Westminster flat and garden and the acreage that exists in the constituencies of many other hon. Members present. We must be careful about trying to apply a one size fits all approach to widely differing circumstances. The issues of light, privacy and amenity are completely different in an inner-city urban context from the reality and the perception of those criteria in areas such as mine, which is often called a leafy suburb—and I am happy to say that it is just that. However, even Bromley and Chislehurst has a large number of modest terraced dwellings with very small gardens in an urban context. The amendment would apply to them, and that is why I was happy to put my name to it. We must be careful about the extent to which we expect one provision in a Bill to deal with every possible variation.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this issue is addressed on page 5 of the BRE's publication "Hedge Height and Light Loss"? That deals with the special case of land sloping from window wall to hedge and suggests that the hedge height must take account of that. It defines how that should be done, so will he accept that the issue has been considered by the experts? They have found a way of incorporating such cases in the formula.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am not sure about that. My hon. Friend should not provoke me by continuing to use the word "experts". If there is one thing that is guaranteed to put me off almost anything, it is associating it with the word "experts". I believe in the gifted amateur approach to life and I always feel much more comfortable with people who approach a subject with an attitude of common sense. As soon as anyone gets out a slide rule, I become suspicious. I am not as convinced on that as my hon. Friend would like.

The difficulty of considering such definitions simply on the basis of what is in a Bill is that that can be a purely academic exercise, but we are dealing with extremely personal matters that directly affect people's lives. That is the Bill's objective. Given that that is the case, we are obliged to satisfy ourselves that what is proposed is appropriate and will not be counterproductive.

My fear is that as the Bill does not provide adequate definitions, especially in clause 2, we might be in danger of raising expectations unrealistically and unnecessarily—as Parliaments so often do—and creating a great deal of disappointment. People who expect a ready solution to their problem are likely to be extremely disappointed when they consider the number of stages through which the process might be forced to go, never mind the necessary balancing of the interests of the person complaining and the person complained against. We shall deal with that in subsequent amendments and, possibly, on Third Reading.

Whether or not one agrees with the main thrust of the Bill, it cannot be allowed to progress without being amended. Clause 2 is a good example of something that needs to be changed. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull and the Minister respond, they will deal in detail with the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and I have made. Unless someone does that, I will be reluctant to support the Bill. It will not advance us in its present form. In fact, it could make matters worse.

Regrettably, the Bill is a good example of well-intentioned legislation that does not meet the requirements that we have in mind. I hope that we will be able to improve it so that on Third Reading, sceptics like me will be persuaded to support it. I do not feel inclined to do that now, but there is a little way to go before we see it in its final form. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull will recommend to the House that some amendments—I like to call them improvements—that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and I have suggested can be incorporated.

Mr. Robert Ainsworth:

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) tabled amendments to change the word "evergreens" to "trees and shrubs" and he gave good reasons for that. However, the Bill deals with an issue that has been widely discussed for some time, and the consultations on it have been made known to the House. He is well aware of the dangers of drafting legislation too widely so that its scope unintentionally covers things that are not a problem.

During the consultation, it was made very clear to us that almost the entire problem relates to evergreen plants. There is a temptation on the one hand to narrow the definition to coniferous trees, but laurels are a problem, and on the other to widen it to include deciduous plants; but we have attempted to acquire knowledge of the problems that exist and found that deciduous plants are not the cause. I ask my hon. Friend to accept that although regulation will provide us with the opportunity to change the definition if it proves necessary to do so, this is the broad proposal on which we consulted, it has widespread support and it is believed that it will solve the overwhelming majority of the problems.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) referred to people's inability to understand clause 2, and he wants to amend it so that simple folk or amateurs like him can understand it. However, those amendments would bring within the scope of the Bill situations in which three shrubs were planted almost 6 ft apart. He complains that the definition of a hedge may not be appropriate. Well, it certainly would not be appropriate if we accepted those amendments. We would lose a lot of the support that we have for the Bill if we included cases of complaints about individual trees or lines of trees, rather than a hedge that is a significant barrier to light.

The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) wants to increase from two to six the number of plants in the definition of a hedge. He does not think seriously enough about the size of the plants in relation to small gardens. If we amended the definition to include a greater number of plants, we would exclude from the Bill's protection many people with small gardens, in which the effect of inappropriate hedges can powerfully affect people's lives and their enjoyment of their property.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Does the Minister accept that there is understandable concern that one very large evergreen tree, or for that matter a deciduous tree, can cause just as much of a problem as a hedge? Why are the Government supporting the concept of a Bill that deals with hedges, rather than coming clean and dealing with trees that block a lot of light, which would clarify the matter for everybody?

Mr. Ainsworth:

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There are people with complaints against their neighbours who believe that the Bill as it stands will solve problems that it will not solve. We receive many complaints about problems concerning individual trees in all sorts of circumstances. If we considerably widen the scope of the Bill to individual trees, we would lose much of the support that we have from local authorities. We must always strike a balance. We know that the problem is fairly widespread and we believe that the Bill will deal with the overwhelming majority of cases. If it does not, the House can, using the affirmative resolution procedure, make regulations to change the definition. We have defined a hedge as two or more trees because we do not want to rule out small urban properties that would have a problem with a greater number. That number may apply, in many circumstances, to properties in the constituency of the hon. Member for Christchurch, but it would not necessarily apply to smaller gardens and enclosed spaces in urban environments.

I shall talk briefly about new clause 9, in which the hon. Member for Christchurch proposes that a complaint cannot be made by people occupying a property built after a hedge has been established. He did not point out to the House that that would remove from the protection of the Bill someone who bought a property constructed when the adjacent hedge was a reasonable size and did not create any problems but which was subsequently allowed to reach greater dimensions. I commend the hon. Gentleman for studying the draft BRE document, which he praised. He therefore knows that there is an intention to consult further and that there is provision for the fact that a hedge was already in existence to be taken into account in any ruling. He is moving from covering that situation in guidance to including a rigid provision on it in the Bill. Irrespective of changing circumstances after the establishment of a hedge, he is arguing that its existence prior to the construction of the complainant's property means that no complaint can be considered and no protection given.

I urge the hon. Gentleman to think seriously about exploring that other route so that the point can be covered. I accept that people who move next door to a nuisance are not automatically entitled to demand its removal. Such considerations should be taken into account, but if the hon. Gentleman's proposal were included in the Bill, he would remove protection from people in difficult circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman also attempted to include the formula in the BRE document in the Bill. As I tried to tell him in an intervention, that document is in draft and further consultation is proposed. If the formula is shown to be workable and has support from local authorities that responded to the original consultation and from others who have been heavily involved in the problem, it can be incorporated in guidance and there is no necessity to include it in the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman's new clause and amendment demonstrate clearly the schizophrenic attitude that Conservative Members still have to local government. The hon. Gentleman's colleagues on the Front Bench are attempting to make noises and to smile at local government, suggesting that all the sins committed in their years of power are past and they have become the friends of local government; they have confidence in it and are trying to rebuild some kind of relationship with it. However, whenever the rottweilers on the Back Benches get to open their mouths, they display an utter lack of confidence in any local authority to act according to guidance, even in areas such as the one we are discussing.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said that we were transferring responsibilities from the courts to the murky waters of local government, to which his colleague on the Front Bench, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton), said, "Hear, hear." There is therefore schizophrenia on the Opposition Front Bench too. There is not always such a division between the Back and Front Benches; the Front Bench, too, thinks that local government is so murky that it cannot be trusted to act according to guidance. It believes that rigid regulations have to be introduced and amendments and new clauses tabled because local government cannot be trusted at all.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Transport and the Regions)

In fact, the Minister was not listening quite so closely to me. I think that he has mistimed any comments that I made from a sedentary position.

Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that it is clearly the policy of the Conservative Opposition—it will be a Conservative party manifesto commitment—to devolve greater powers to local government, starting with giving it a fourth option, so that local people through local authorities can decide how they want to be run? That option has been taken away from them by the Government.

Secondly, we propose to give far greater planning control to local people rather than have it imposed on them centrally—a concept that the Government have unashamedly promoted.

Mr. Ainsworth:

rose

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Our attention should be focused clearly on hedges this morning.

Mr. Ainsworth:

I will accept your stricture, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I do not know whether Hansard picked up the "Hear, hear," but I am pretty sure that I know where it was said from and what was being said at the time.

I do not believe that the new clause and the amendments are necessary or would improve the Bill. I suggest that the House think seriously before supporting any of them.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I do not wish to speak further, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I hope that we can push the new clause to a vote.

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor Conservative, Solihull

The citizens for whom I seek relief do not need legal dictionaries, mathematical formulae or horticulture encyclopaedias to define their misery. I reject the new clause and all the amendments. I urge right hon. and hon. Members to withdraw the motion, failing which I urge the House to vote no.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 1, Noes 35.

Division No. 198][12.42 pm
AYES
Swayne, DesmondTellers for the Ayes:
Mr. Andrew Dismore and
Mr. Jim Cunningham.
NOES
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)Luff, Peter
Boateng, Rt Hon PaulMcCabe, Steve
Brady, GrahamMackinlay, Andrew
Brooke, Rt Hon PeterOlner, Bill
Browne, DesmondPearson, Ian
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)Pound, Stephen
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Cox, TomSt Aubyn, Nick
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs ClaireSkinner, Dennis
Dowd, JimSoley, Clive
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)Steen, Anthony
Efford, CliveTaylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Foster, Don (Bath)
Gapes, MikeTemple—Morris, Peter
Harris, Dr EvanWhitehead, Dr Alan
Hurst, AlanWilson, Brian
Joyce, Eric
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)Tellers for the Noes:
Lilley, Rt Hon PeterMr. John M. Taylor and
Loughton, TimMr. Christopher Gill.

Question accordingly negatived.