HC Deb 29 February 2000 vol 345 cc167-8

4.7 pm

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South)

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 should like to thank Hedgeline, which has campaigned hard for a change in the law regarding nuisance hedges; the Styvechale ratepayers association and many other residents associations in Coventry; the constituents who have written to me in support of the Bill; and all the members of the public up and down the country who have given me their support. 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.

I am pleased that the Government published the Green Paper called "High Hedges: Possible Solutions". It is reassuring to know that the Government are listening to the concerns of thousands of people from all over the country. I would like to see a solution to the problem as soon as possible, either through Government legislation or through the Bill that I am putting before the House today.

There is no proposal in the Bill to ban leylandii or any other tree or hedge. The Bill provides for conciliation between neighbours by environmental protection officers. Failing agreement, environmental protection officers will be able to make binding and enforceable decisions about the height of trees or hedgerows.

We should not dismiss nuisance hedges as a trivial issue. It is a real problem causing suffering to thousands of people. I have received a number of letters from constituents complaining about it. The social and emotional problems described in those letters persuaded me to try to do something. 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 that is being caused.

The advent of the leyland cypress has made hedge problems far more widespread. It is a new tree, an unlikely hybrid between two distantly related North American cypress species. It was first bred towards the end of the 19th century. Its phenomenal growth rate is alarming because it is not known how high the tress can eventually grow. For example, a tree in Kent is more than 150 ft high and still growing. If a tree is not a nuisance, it should not be cut down. However, we need to take action now to prevent the situation from getting far worse.

These hedges can threaten roofs, guttering, drains and, in more serious cases, even a building's structure. They can deprive unwilling sufferers of light in their homes, and can prevent them from using their gardens in the way that they would choose.

As it stands, the law is biased almost entirely towards protecting those who want to grow leylandii and other high hedges. It offers no protection to people affected by an intrusive hedge. People can grow rows of fast-growing conifers to any height and as close to other people's properties as they like. Neighbours can cut branches and overhanging fences, but the continual expense and demands on time fall on the person who derives no benefit from the trees.

Trees lacking maintenance can be grown by an individual so that the burden of continual and sometimes hazardous work falls on the offended neighbour—a person who does not want a high hedge and who is prevented by law from reducing its height. The task of cutting back a high leylandii hedge to the perimeters of one's property can be daunting, especially for the elderly. The trees can grow by between 3 and 4 ft a year. Some of the many offending hedges have now reached considerable heights. As the hedges increase in size, they can be a cause of extreme anxiety.

Civil law has proved inadequate at dealing with hedge disputes between neighbours. Such actions 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 a person's home.

The present legal situation forces the victim to plead with his or her neighbours to take action and, basically, to rely on the good will of others. The victim has no legal recourse to demand that an offending hedge be shortened or removed; the owner of the tree has the legal upper hand.

The Environmental Protection Act 1990 outlines a variety of nuisances, ranging from noise pollution to the treatment of animals. I urge the Government to look closely at such matters. My Bill would cause tall hedgerows to be included as environmental nuisances. In doing so, it would give legal recognition to the grave impact on people's lives often caused by nuisance hedges.

At the moment, environmental protection officers are reluctant to act. Their legal position is unclear, but the Bill will clarify it. It will allow environmental health officers to make a judgment. It will resolve disputes much more cheaply, easily and quickly, and without half the distress and cost now incurred.

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 must 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 a person's right to enjoy his property as he chooses, because it is just as much a person's right to be free from the invasive practices of another. We must take action now.

I commend the Bill to the House.

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, Mr. David Taylor, Mrs. Christine Butler, Mr. Richard Allan, Dr. Evan Hams, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle and Mr. Ian Pearson.