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With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 4 and 11 together.
I have already announced that I intend to bring forward separate Bills on high hedges and clean neighbourhoods within the current legislative programme. The precise timetable will depend on political co-operation in the Executive and the Assembly. I am hopeful that the legislation can be in place by the time that the new councils are formed in 2011.
The legislation will cover mainly the fast growing, evergreen types of hedges, although it will not be exclusive. It will also cover other types of trees and hedges that can cause nuisance. Its main focus will be evergreen trees; for example, leylandii such as the Castlewellan Gold.
Now is an appropriate time to legislate. New councils are being formed that will have greater responsibilities as a result of legislation that will be put through the House. The Department will put the matter out for public consultation. Obviously, local government will give its response.
Should the legislation be enacted, councils would not act as negotiators in disputes; rather, they would be required to investigate complaints and to reach decisions on whether a hedge adversely affects a complainant’s reasonable enjoyment of his or her property. If a complaint is upheld, the council would serve a notice on the hedge’s owner, which would require him or her to reduce the size of a hedge within a specified deadline. Failure to do so would be an offence.
That is what happens in England. I suspect that the Department will replicate that closely. However, if there are any means to do it better, the Department is happy to look at them and to listen to any suggestions that might come from local government, in particular.
Did I hear the word “consultation” in the middle of that response? The Minister’s illustrious predecessors went to consultation on at least two occasions. That is one reason why the problem has dragged on for so long. I am delighted to hear that the matter of disputes between neighbours could be resolved through the legislation. Will the matter be put out to consultation again?
Yes; my intention is to consult on the matter. I will take it to the Executive and then to consultation. Hopefully, with the will and support of the Assembly and the Executive, consultation will move forward as quickly as possible, and legislation will be brought to the House. Some people have suggested that that should be done quickly. If the House co-operates with me and it wants the legislative process to be the fastest possible, the House will find that the Minister will also co-operate. Therefore, I look forward to help from the members of the Environment Committee who have spoken about the issue to ensure that the measures are delivered quickly.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister develop that legislation alongside clean neighbourhoods legislation? Is there any thinking on that issue? The SDLP has lobbied the Department on that issue for some time. It would be interesting to hear what cognisance or recognition there is of that suggestion, which would give local councils stronger powers to deal with environmental issues.
I will take the clean neighbourhoods legislation forward separately. I do not want to blur the issues. There will be two separate pieces of legislation. Departmental officials are already working on both aspects of legislation. The Member is quite correct: the SDLP has lobbied on the issue. I am glad that, at last, that party has been useful for something.