HC Deb 20 October 1999 vol 336 cc441-3 3.31 pm
Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South)


Madam Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber please do so quickly? They are passing in front of the hon. Member who is on his feet. [Interruption.] Order. Will hon. Members please not pass in front of the hon. Member who is on his feet? About 12 hon. Members have done so.

Mr. Cunningham

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Environmental Protection Act 1990 by extending powers to environmental health officers to intervene in neighbourly disputes involving hedgerows in residential areas; and for connected purposes. I thank Hedgeline, which has campaigned hard for a change in the law regarding nuisance hedges. The Styvechale Rate Payer Association in Coventry and constituents have written to me in support of the Bill. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) for their tireless work on the issue. Their efforts demonstrate the cross-party support for the Bill.

From the outset let me say that there is no proposal in the Bill to ban leylandii or any other tree or hedge. It provides for conciliation between neighbours by environmental protection officers. If that does not work, officers will be able to make a decision about the height of trees or hedgerows which will be binding and enforceable.

We should not dismiss nuisance hedges as a trivial issue—they cause suffering to thousands of people. Over the years in which I have served as a Member of Parliament I have received a number of letters from constituents complaining about the issue. The social and emotional problems described in those letters persuaded me to try to do something about the problem. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House have received similar letters in their postbags and are all too aware of the distress caused by disputes involving nuisance hedges.

Problems with overgrown hedges are not new, but the advent of the leyland cypress has made those problems far more widespread. This is a new tree, which is an unlikely hybrid between two distantly related North American cypress species. It was first bred towards the end of the previous century and its phenomenal growth rate is alarming because it is not known how high the trees can eventually grow. For example, there is a tree in Kent that is over 150 ft high and still growing well. That is unusual, and no one is suggesting that the tree be cut down if it is not causing a nuisance to anyone. However, we need to take action now to prevent the situation getting far worse in the future.

An offending tree can threaten roofs, guttering, drains and, in more serious cases, even a building's structure. Furthermore, not only can they deprive unwilling sufferers of light in their homes, but they can prevent them from using their garden in the way that they choose. The law as it stands is biased almost entirely towards protecting those who want to grow leylandii and other high hedges. The law offers no protection to the people affected by an intruding hedge. People can grow rows of fast growing conifers to any height, and as close to other people's properties as they like. They can even grow trees that lean over someone's roof without having any responsibility in law to maintain them.

Neighbours can, however, cut branches that overhang fences, but frequently, the continual expense and demands on time fall on the person who derives no benefits from the trees. Fast growing hedges, often untopped and lacking maintenance, can be grown by an individual, so that the burden of continual, sometimes hazardous work falls on the offended neighbour—a neighbour who does not want a high hedge and who is prevented from reducing its height by law.

The task of cutting back a high leylandii hedge to the perimeters of one property can be daunting, especially to the elderly. These trees can grow between 3 ft and 4 ft a year, and some of the many offending hedges now stand at considerable heights. As these hedges increase in size, they can play an ever more dominant role in the victim's thoughts. They can cause extreme anxiety.

Civil law has proved inadequate at dealing with hedge disputes among neighbours. Such action can drag on for years, bringing further stress to a victim's life. The legal costs can be enormous. The sums involved can threaten life savings and sometimes even one's own home.

The present legal situation forces the victim to plead with his or her neighbours to take action—in a sense, he or she is forced to rely on the good will of others. The individual has no legal recourse to demand that an offending hedge be shortened or removed.

The situation can often develop into a neighbourhood squabble, and it can escalate into something worse, with the added injustice of one party suffering as a result of weak legislation and the other secure in the knowledge that the law will protect them.

The Environmental Protection Act 1990 outlines a variety of nuisances, ranging from noise pollution to the treatment of animals. My Bill would seek to include tall hedgerows as an environmental nuisance. In doing so, it would give legal recognition to the grave impact on people's lives often caused by nuisance hedges. At present, environmental health officers are reluctant to act. Unless a court has ruled in favour of action, the legal position for officers is unclear.

The Bill that I place before the House will clarify that position, allowing environmental health officers to make a judgment. That will, in turn, resolve disputes much more easily and quickly, and without half the distress and cost now caused.

We must strike the right balance between rights and responsibilities. No one wants to dictate the plants or furnishings that a person enjoys in his garden, but the right to make such choices should be accompanied by a responsibility not to intrude into other people's peaceful lives.

I hope that the House will agree that the measures in my Bill do not unnecessarily erode an individual's right to enjoy his property as he chooses, because it is equally an individual's right to be free from the tyranny of the invasive practices of another. We must take action now. I beg the House to support the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jim Cunningham, Mr. Alan Hurst, Mr. Tom Clarke, Dr. Lynne Jones, Mr. Simon Burns, Mr. Andrew Rowe and Mrs. Christine Butler.