HC Deb 28 March 2003 vol 402 cc613-37

Order for Second Reading read.

12.52 pm
Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It was said earlier today that we were having the second reading of a Second Reading. Many right hon. and hon. Members will feel that they have been around this course a few times before: it is something like the fifth Second Reading of the Bill. I make no apologies for the fact that we have returned to the issue, hopefully for the last time.

Hon. Members will be aware that Baroness Gardner of Parkes has completed all stages in the House of Lords of the High Hedges (No. 1) Bill. I humbly bring before the House the parallel High Hedges (No. 2) Bill, which differs in no way from her Bill. I pay full and sincere tribute to her and her able colleague and cohort Lord Graham of Edmonton, who did an excellent job in the other place and during the Committee stage. I also pay tribute to Baroness Hamwee and Baroness Hanham, who made a number of extremely pertinent comments both on the Floor of the other place and in Committee. I thank Lord Walker of Doncaster, who speaks with the gravitas of someone who is the chairman of the all-party group on gardening and horticulture and who made a number of points of considerable significance. Obviously it would be remiss of me not to mention Lord Bassam and Lord Evans, who spoke for the Government in Committee.

I mentioned that we have been here before. If cypress leylandii sprout at an alarming rate, it seems that Bills to control them have a similar propensity. We have had Bills from a former hon. Member for Mid-Kent and one recently from my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham). Most recently and most memorably, we had a Bill from the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), who presented it with the graceful, gentle and generous style typical of the man. I was delighted and honoured to be able to support him on that day.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull)


Mr. Pound

I will gladly give way to the hon. Gentleman before I embarrass him even more.

Mr. Taylor

I thank the hon. Gentleman first, for giving way, and secondly, for his extremely kind words. It is my intention wholeheartedly to support him in his efforts. Does he agree that the great virtue of his Bill is that it gets away from the quagmire that is the English law of nuisance and away from the law courts into the objective tests of height and light—things that can be measured—using the local authority as the ultimate arbiter? Does he agree that, among the many virtues of his Bill, those points are central?

Mr. Pound

The hon. Gentleman, as in so many things, is absolutely right. There is a certain congruence between two tonsorially challenged suburban Members of Parliament, slightly to the right of their parties, but I am honoured to associate myself with his comments. If we can drag ourselves from this quagmire into the free and open spaces of uncluttered light, so much the better.

I must pay tribute also to a distinguished jurist, known to many Members of the House, Charles Mynors, the author of a must-read volume, "The Law of Trees, Forests and Hedgerows"; a book which, on first reading, might appear to be a tad dry, but which combines wit and erudition in a style normally associated with the hon. Members for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) and for Solihull.

I also thank the officials from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, who have worked intensely to reign in some of my more outré suggestions regarding paramilitary groups wielding chainsaws. They endured a series of meetings in my office, a pit of such filth and depravity that I fell ashamed to ask them in. Yet they survived; they emerged—coughing it has to be said—but I was enlightened.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I am sure that those last remarks will have been heard by the Serjeant at Arms.

Mr. Pound

National no-smoking day is barely 11½ months away and I shall bear those comments very much in mind.

I should like to thank Hedgeline for its sterling work in propagating and promulgating the extent of the problem and the possible solutions. Most of all I want to thank Mrs. Georgina Paul, of Hicks avenue, Greenford. Mrs. Paul and her husband are constituents of mine, and they are ordinary decent suburban people trying to get on with their lives. Mr. Paul is a former paratrooper and they live in a typical home in a typical street in a typical suburb.

I congratulate them because they have faith in our parliamentary system to right wrongs. They believe that what we do here is not some abstract art but an act of change and betterment. They believe that we in this place can help those who have no other recourse and they believe that we can do good here. They believe that we are sent here to do good and that we have the power to do it. Many people are cynical about the value of politics in the 21st century—dare I say it, some hon. Members may flirt with cynicism.

Mr. and Mrs. Paul have a problem. It is not of their making and, oddly enough, it is not a problem of malice. It is not a problem of an evil neighbour shrouding their garden in perpetual darkness by maliciously and malevolently planting these loathsome hybrid trees that first saw the light of day in Wales in 1888 and have denied the light of day to many people ever since. It is more a problem of ignorance on the part of their neighbours. However, Mr. and Mrs. Paul have no recourse at the moment except to the most expensive series of civil actions. That cannot be right. I look to the House today, as Mr. and Mrs. Paul look to me, to make something better—a modest but, I would suggest, one of the finest callings that any of us could aspire to in this House.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

It is not only the constituents of the hon. Gentleman who look to the House today. I, like many hon. Members, have received numerous letters from constituents who look to the House of Commons to sort out this issue once and for all.I wish the hon. Gentleman well with his Bill.

Mr. Pound

I have been pleased to be in correspondence with the hon. Gentleman. At the last count, 203 Members of Parliament had written to me and to my hon. Friend the Minister to raise their concerns on this issue. Every single one of them swore on a stack of Bibles that they would be here today. I have no doubt that they are about the building somewhere.

During the discussions on the two Bills that have been covered already this morning, the question was fairly asked why those Bills had not been introduced by the Government. Criticism of the Government is normally the province of people on the Labour Benches, but I am prepared to listen to that question from other Benches. It is entirely valid. However, because of the preponderance of private Members' Bills on this particular subject, it would be superfluous for the Government to act. What the Government can do, and have done, is to give a fair following wind and to support us. The Government can also acknowledge the importance and significance of the private Member's Bill process. Must everything go through the monolithic full parliamentary process? Is there no room for these small private Members' Bills that mean so much to our constituents and so much to so many of us? Is it not right that a thousand flowers should bloom even if a thousand hedges should be trimmed? I would have no problem with that.

I have an hon. Friend whom I used to know as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty). I now have to refer to him as the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister; and as the First Secretary of State for Housing, Planning and Regeneration; and as the Minister for London; and as the Minister for high hedges. He has been remarkably, fulsomely and exhaustively helpful throughout this process.

Mr. John Taylor

Given that the Minister has all that sonorous authority, I ask the hon. Gentleman whether, as private Members' Bills are a rather fragile and vulnerable way of legislating, it would not have been better if the Government had taken over this measure and dealt with it in Government time, on a Whip, and possibly—as seems to be conventional these days—on a timetable as well?

Mr. Pound

Sadly, whipping is not quite as strong as it once was. However, I would suggest that the Government are, in fact, showing confidence in the strength and ability of even such lowly hon. Members as me. The Government are happy to allow us to bring these matters forward. I think that that shows confidence, and I am proud to disappoint—I mean, to reciprocate.

I do not wish to canter across the broad meadow of the reasons why we are introducing this legislation. I cannot believe that any hon. Member, or anyone in the country, does not acknowledge the need to pay some urgent attention to a problem that affects, at the last count in 1999, some 17,000 people—people who are the victims, unwittingly or maliciously, of actions by their neighbours. We have an opportunity to address that problem. I do not want to go through an enormous list of explanations for why we need this Bill. However, I would like to say where we are at the moment. I referred earlier to the Bill of Baroness Gardner of Parkes, which has now completed its Committee stage in the House of Lords. Those who have read the reports of that Committee stage will have seen that the amendments offered were very subtle and to the point, and were either withdrawn by leave or accepted by the Government. We are therefore in the wonderful, fortuitous position of having a Bill—the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) referred to pruning and predation in Committee, but we have seen fertilisation and trimming in Committee—that is now in a far better shape, for hich we should be grateful.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman's characteristically charming and eloquent rendition, and I congratulate him on his Bill, which I will support. As well as recognising that we all have Mr. and Mrs Pauls in our constituencies—we all know the damage that tree roots cause to property and the problem that they cause for insurance companies—does he recognise the hope that all the excellent and hard-working local councillors, who must also deal with the matter but have no tools with which to deal with it, are placing in him, and in our supporting him, to find a solution through his Bill?

Mr. Pound

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution, and I am well aware of his knowledge of the matter and of his activity with his local council. I shall refer later to the National Association of Tree Officers and to the arboricultural officers, although none is as appropriately named as the occupant of the post in the London borough of Harrow—Mr. Bush.

I was referring to the way in which the Bill has been shaped in Committee in the House of Lords, and we are extremely fortunate that it has come to us in this way. Some people have some objections to this Bill. I would like to give the impression—and attempt to the fool the House, although I would almost certainly fail—that everyone supports the Bill. The majority of people support it—there is no question about that—and it is supported by the three Front Benches. Some people, however, have objections. There are objections on pure libertarian grounds. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who sits with his canines glittering in the shadow of the Opposition Back Benches, has a perfectly legitimate case to make on pure libertarian grounds. I hope, too, that I have my case to make, and that my case will resonate more widely and deeply throughout the country. People deserve the right of protection even if we accept that there is a libertarian argument.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

The hon. Gentleman said a moment ago, as if to imply that it was almost a clinching argument, that the Bill had the support of all the Front Benches. Does he concede that some of the worst Bills in history have had the support of all the Front Benches? It is one of the great dangers of this place that, if we rush to legislation based on the volume of the postbag or the consensus of the Front Benches, we may legislative very badly.

Mr. Pound

I would never be so presumptuous as to criticise or comment on the statements made by the right hon. Gentleman, mostly because I would be too terrified to do so. This is no rush to legislation, however; it has been creeping and growing slowly through the sclerotic veins of Parliament for more years than I have been a Member. It is not a cupressus leylandii, sprouting skywards by the minute. It is a far slower-growing vine that needs to come to fruition so that we can all cherish the vintage that it produces.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)

I hesitate to intervene because, as ever, my hon. Friend is making a magnificent speech. Does he agree, however, that the lives of my constituents and many others are blighted by these trees, and their hopes are raised time and again when they think that there will be legislation to do something about it, and dashed when it does not happen? Will he assure me that he will do everything that he can, with his wonderful oratory and other skills, to get the Bill through?

Mr. Pound

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. Were the success of the Bill to depend on my oratorical skills, I would not wish to put money on it. I am well aware, however, from the correspondence that I have shared with her, how desperately important this subject is. I can only hope, despite the fact that the majority of people are in favour of the Bill, that the House will support it.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Pound

I was going to refer to other objections to the Bill, but I will certainly give way to one of its sponsors.

Mr. Dismore

May I associate myself with my hon. Friend's Bill? Having sat through many hours of parliamentary debate on previous occasions, he will be pleased that I shall not make a speech today because we have little time. I reassure him that many of my constituents have written to me in support of the Bill. Only one person wrote in opposition, but they did not understand the Bill and their position has changed since I explained it.

Mr. Pound

That was, by many hours, the shortest contribution that I have heard from my hon. Friend, and it benefited somewhat from its brevity. I appreciate that it is parliamentary convention to stand up and go through a Bill clause by clause, but we have done that four or five times in this House. The other place has had Second Reading, Committee, Report and Third Reading. Time is of the essence today, which is why I am trying to limit my speech.

Some people have objected that the Bill would lay an unfeasible burden on hard-pressed local authorities. Many local authority arboricultural, tree, planning and enforcement officers are already contacted by council tax payers about the subject. They are unable to do

anything about the problem and must spend an enormous amount of time telling people that. I hope that clause 21, which sets out the financial provisions, addresses people's worries that we would lay too large a financial burden or local authorities.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and must tell him that my asthma is much improved since I moved from an office next door to his. May I draw attention to the terminology used in the Bill? The hon. Gentleman has mentioned leylandii three times and the Bill refers to evergreens. Will he clarify, for my constituents and others, that "evergreens" do not include only leylandii or conifers?

Mr. Pound

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point and demonstrates another reason why I miss her so much as a neighbour. I can only apologise for the noxious substances that drifted under her door. She is right that the Bill is not about cypress leylandii because that is only one of the most objectionable aspects of the problem caused by high hedges, however they are constituted. At this moment, a mad scientist—

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley)


Mr. Pound

I shall give way to the distinguished scientist in a moment.

At this moment. a scientist might be producing a genetically modified sunflower that could create problems in a few weeks or years. The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) made an excellent point because the Bill would specifically cover two or more trees, bushes or shrubs with a height of more than 2 m that cause a loss of light, amenity and outlook. As the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst will be delighted to hear, the Bill is not "Son of Dangerous Dogs 2".

Sir Paul Beresford

I am relieved that the hon. Gentleman is not picking on that specific plant. I am not a horticulturalist and I had not encountered the leylandii until I came to this country. I talked to a horticulturalist who is a leylandii specialist and has a 35year-old beautiful golden leylandii hedge that has been 6 ft for 33 years. The problem lies not with the plant, but its owner.

Mr. Pound

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I hope that the Bill addresses that issue specifically. It would not stop people growing anything of any height anywhere provided that it does not cause a problem, annoyance or nuisance to neighbours. The key point is that the Bill does not prohibit the growth of 61/2 ft leylandii or anything else; it simply provides legal redress in cases where there is a problem.

The third category of complainants is slightly esoteric.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pound

I am just coming on to the question of naturists and holly bush hedges, but I will give way.

Richard Younger-Ross

The hon. Gentleman referred to local authority officers who are unable to deal with tall hedges. That takes me back to the libertarian point made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). If the hedge were built of brick, the planning authority could do something about it. People do not have an absolute right to do as they wish in their own gardens; for example, they cannot build high walls. Why should they be able to build a high wall in green?

Will the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) give me an assurance? In Oxfordshire or Northamptonshire there is a village called Hinton-in-the-Hedges. [Interruption.] It is in Northamptonshire. Will the hon. Gentleman make sure that the village is not renamed Hinton-without-the-Hedges when the Bill becomes law?

Mr. Pound

I am responsible for many things in life, but the nomenclature of hamlets in Northamptonshire is not, and please God never will be, one of them. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke) speaks for the villages of Northamptonshire, and I am sure that he has heard the hon. Gentleman's point.

Returning to holly bush hedges and naturists—[Laughter.] This is a serious point. Some people have raised the objection that certain groups of naturists rely on high hedges to provide screening. May I tell naturists that nothing in the Bill should be seen as a threat to their way of life? Their bushes are safe. They have nothing to fear except, obviously, stinging nettles.

It is important to stress that the Bill is not intended to prevent people from making good, sensible and adult use of any form of high hedge. In its place, a high hedge is not a problem, but in the wrong place it is a problem for neighbours, and that is the issue that we have to address. I am tempted to bore the House into tedium and, hopefully, submission, but I will resist doing so.

Sir Paul Beresford

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pound

No, I will not take another intervention because I know that others wish to speak.

In the great scale of things, and particularly in these times, this may seem a minor matter. I cannot stress too strongly how much of a misery some decent people's lives are being made by the inability of local and central Government to respond to their legitimate concerns and frustrations. We have here the fourth or fifth opportunity to do something about that. Let us seize that opportunity and support the Bill, which has, I hope, the support of the majority, if not all, of the House. Returning to Mr. and Mrs. Paul in Hicks avenue, Greenford, I say to them, "You had faith in your Parliament. We have repaid that faith."

1.18 pm
Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) on introducing the Bill. We all thoroughly enjoyed his speech, probably as much as he enjoyed delivering it. We noted with interest that he bordered on subjects such as the Sexual Offences Bill, but we were delighted with the way in which he demonstrated his enthusiasm for cutting things down—by cutting down the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore).

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, North in particular on paying tribute not only to many organisations, including Hedgeline, but to many right hon. and hon. Members in the House and the other place for the work that they have done on this issue. I also join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) for the work that he did less than two years ago. The hon. Member for Ealing, North is right to say that the Bill—having been fertilised, as he put it, in another place—comes back to us in a modified and improved form. I congratulate him on introducing it.

The hon. Gentleman described the Deputy Prime Minister's support as remarkable, fulsome and helpful. The hon. Gentleman should be a little wary of saying such things, because I am sure that he will be well aware that on 10 August 2000, the Deputy Prime Minister's then Department, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, issued a press release, which said: We recognise that over-grown garden hedges have caused distress to thousands of people and we take these problems very seriously. Our consultation has confirmed the overwhelming support for tougher controls. And that is why we will work up new laws to give local authorities in England powers to intervene in neighbourhood hedge disputes. Legislation will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time can be found. Government parliamentary time was not found.

The hon. Member for Solihull introduced his Bill, and he was delighted. On its Second Reading on 9 March 2001, he said how grateful he was that the Government had prepared the explanatory notes to go with his Bill and were indicating their support for it. Sadly, that Bill failed at the last minute owing to lack of time caused by the calling of the general election. Given that we again have the Deputy Prime Minister's support, I very much hope that this Bill will be more successful than previous ones have been. This is a vitally important issue that desperately needs to be addressed.

The hon. Member for Ealing, North did not refer to the fact that, if the Bill is not successful, the only remedy for people suffering from the problems created by high hedges that he eloquently outlined is to take civil legal action. All the evidence shows that the cost of such civil action can be somewhere in the region of £25,000 to £40,000 for each case. Anything that we can do to remove such costs from what is the only remedy for people suffering from the problems caused by high hedges is clearly to be welcomed.

Like all hon. Members with similar experiences in their constituencies, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the problem is not just the legal costs that might have to be incurred. People face a range of other problems and they have been known to lead to serious illness—and, indeed, in the worst disputes, to violent assault. It is important that we provide a quick, simple and cheap remedy to resolving such problems.

I presume that the hon. Gentleman has agreed to the explanatory notes even though they were prepared by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. The costing figures in the notes suggest that 10,000 cases in the United Kingdom are outstanding and waiting to be resolved. I suggest that we could at least double that figure, because very many people will simply not have reported their concerns. They know that the only resolution is through an expensive civil action. I suspect that many more people than the 10,000 will be grateful if the hon. Gentleman's Bill is successful, as I hope it will be.

I could provide many examples, and I am sure that other hon. Members will refer to cases in their constituencies. I have been looking back at the speech that I gave on this subject in 2001, in which I referred to a letter from a constituent. Its contents bear repeating because it sums up the totality of the wide range of problems that can be created. My constituent wrote: The trees are now approximately 40 feet high. They overhang the garage roof and garden by about 8 feet. They have drawn moisture from the ground beneath the garage and have caused its wall to subside close to the boundary. They are constantly dropping dead material which clogs the garage gutter, blows around the paths close to the house back door, clogs drains. Much of the back garden which once formed a useful vegetable plot and also gave innocent pleasure is now shaded and cannot be used for growing. The tree closest to the house and kitchen window has grown to about 15 feet. It is taking light from the kitchen and my mother has to arrange for it to be clipped back from her path (obviously, she cannot do this herself). This woman is aged 81. And so it goes it on. Many of us in the House have had to deal with similar problems, and our constituents are grateful for the Bill.

I am delighted that there is a provision in the Bill allowing it to be changed if related problems arise. I, for one, am disappointed that it does not cover difficulties caused by the roots of high hedges, which can cause significant problems for neighbours. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) has raised the interesting question of whether the 2 m height limit is always appropriate, as even a 2 m high hedge could cause a considerable light problem if it were close to a neighbour's window. We may need to address that in Committee.

Richard Younger-Ross

On the problem of root damage, does my hon. Friend agree that occasionally cutting a high hedge down in clay soil may lead to clay heave? In Committee, we will have to address what happens if a hedge is removed and there is subsequent damage to a property or a retaining wall.

Mr. Foster

My hon. Friend is right—there are problems that need to be considered in detail. He will be aware that none of the remedies in the Bill necessarily require the removal of the hedge. Indeed, that is specifically excluded as an action that could be required by the local authority of an owner.

Sir Paul Beresford

I repeat that I am no expert on leylandii, but I understand that if a fairly tall leylandii is cut down to 2 m, the hedge is effectively killed—not removing it, but doing the next best thing.

Mr. Foster

The hon. Gentleman is right, and that is one reason why I referred to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow. The Bill has a number of details and implications that it would be right and sensible to address in Committee. Today, however,we are ensuring that the Bill goes into Committee so that such issues can be discussed. I hope that in Committee we will have additional research to help us with some of the issues raised by the Bill. Emerging research, for example, demonstrates that because high hedges reduce light, they can have an impact on the passive solar heating of buildings, requiring some people to leave their heating on longer. Some estimates suggest that that costs the nation about £1 million, and perhaps more. Such a saving could go towards meeting the proposed cost of implementing the Bill.

Many hon. Members wish to speak in our debate, so I shall conclude. The Bill is important—I have said the same of similar Bills that have come before the House. The Bill is a new, improved version of an earlier Bill, and Liberal Democrats wish it Godspeed.

1.28 pm
Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

I shall be brief. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) on introducing this important Bill in the House. It may be seen by some as slight and perhaps flippant, but it is far from it. It is not just, as has been said, Mr. and Mrs. Paul or, I suspect, the 203 Members of Parliament who have corresponded with my hon. Friend who have an interest in this matter. It affects many constituencies and many people across the country—t certainly affects my constituency. I am still dealing with correspondence going back to my arrival in the House at the end of the 1992 Parliament. The issue is very serious indeed, and is not, as has been said, just about cupressus leylandii, although that is the principal villain of the piece, growing 4 ft a year to a height of 100 ft. All high hedges are a problem. Not only do they cause bitter, long-running disputes between neighbours, damaging people's health and happiness, but they damage people's enjoyment of their gardens—one of the principal pleasures of our lives in the United Kingdom. A high hedge damages a garden by taking water, which is needed by other plants, away from the soil. It kills off other plants, damages the quality of the soil and forms an overarching mass that cuts out the light inside houses as well as in gardens. It is a serious problem and takes a great deal of pleasure out of people's everyday existence.

A high hedge can reduce house prices for people who are entirely innocent. The roots of the hedge get under other people's properties and gardens and can damage them. Building societies, which have experience of the problem, make it difficult to get a mortgage on a house alongside a high hedge. When selling a house, people have to state in the seller's declaration whether they have had a dispute with a neighbour. Such disputes merit a mention, because they are often long running and bitter. If a dispute is mentioned on the seller's declaration form, as often as not the sale will not go through, or the price of the property will be reduced. The poor soul who owns the house has no influence on that.

Laws limiting height and position apply to garden fences and walls, but not to hedges. There are laws bearing on all such structures, and hedges and trees are the only exceptions. We need to address that. Useful though it is, the guidance that has so far been provided by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, "Over the Garden Hedge", has not to my knowledge led to the resolution of any particular dispute. The disputes that were going on when I entered Parliament are by and large still going on.

It is important that we do not just provide tea and sympathy. We must provide a legislative framework—a procedure that must be cheap to administer and easy to enter into, without the costs and difficulties involved in civil action. It is important that we have an appropriate mechanism for mediation before action becomes necessary, hopefully bringing about an amicable resolution of the dispute. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North on an extremely important Bill, which has my support, and I hope the support of the whole House.

1.32 pm
Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley)

With no disrespect to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am rather disappointed that your colleague Sir Michael Lord is not in the Chair. In his previous guise, he was an ex pert on this matter and could straighten out any horticultural mistakes made by hon. Members in their speeches.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) on introducing his Bill. It is an important Bill, and I was pleased when it was announced. Half a dozen or so people have written to me or telephoned to tell me about their problems in relation to high hedges—not all of them leylandii; in some cases, we are talking about yew and other types of plant. Almost all the disputes are genuine and cause deep concern. I have one resident in Dorking who lives in an area that is rather like a canyon, because there are leylandii on both sides. The owners on either side will not do anything about it, and it is a pernicious and unpleasant problem.

Hedges and drains are the biggest problems in a rural and semi-rural area, and the disputes can be enormous. In most of them we have managed to negotiate a resolution by getting neighbours to talk to each other. I pay great credit to Surrey Mediation, which has done extremely well. I have grim memories of doing such work myself—having got the neighbours standing 200 yd apart at their front entrance or to one side of it, I walked up and down the road between them until I finally got agreement, making notes and getting both parties to sign them before we got something done. It worked. Why they had not done it themselves, I do not know.

I was delighted at the prospect of the Bill. I even got a copy of it, but I put it on my desk and did not read it. Then a gentleman came to one of my regular surgeries and his name rang a bell—an alarm bell. He came in to talk about hedges. I was vaguely prepared because he had hinted that his problem concerned leylandii hedges and I was aware that they could pose a problem. I mentioned the 6 ft-high one, and that I had seen another that was between 17 ft and 18 ft tall and 6 ft wide, well away from everybody, and the neighbours on all sides thought that it was fantastic and the owner of the hedge trimmed it once or twice a year and kept it well within control. There was no difficulty and that is what one would expect from any sensible, reasonable citizen, even in a fairly rural area.

I then had that gentleman in; or he came in to have me, so to speak. He wandered around the mulberry bush and finally came to the Bill, and he produced a photograph taken from his property, down his back yard, of a hedge about 20 ft long and 10 ft high—it was a broad property—on both sides and at the back, bordering on his three neighbours, and two beautiful trees. He had raised the issue with the local authority and the tree man who will be looking after hedges if the Bill is enacted went to see him, and he too thought that the trees were beautiful so he listed them, which I thought was right. I pointed out to the gentleman that there was no indication of shade, to which he said that he must have taken the photograph at the wrong time of day. I asked him if he was enjoying this and he said, "Oh yes, I am enjoying this, and when the Bill goes through I am going to have all my neighbours." The penny suddenly dropped.

The full regulatory impact assessment states that the objective is To make hedge disputes a thing of the past by creating a mechanism that allows an impartial third party (local authorities), as a last resort, to determine these complaints. That is a lovely aspiration but—

Mr. Pound

There is a specific recognition in the Bill that the local authority has the power to strike out frivolous and vexatious complaints. Secondly, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the definition of a hedge, which is not one or two trees, but a continuous wall of evergreen deciduous growth, be it what it may. So the hon. Gentleman's constituent may be frustrated in his endeavours to annoy his neighbours.

Sir Paul Beresford

I thank the hon. Gentleman, but I think he was referring to evergreen, not deciduous, growth, and I shall come to that.

Mr. Pound

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

Sir Paul Beresford

The point is that the gentleman recognised that the trees would stay, but he was going for the little bit of hedge, and if he had a little success there, I have no doubt that he would go to his neighbours on the other side. To illustrate the situation, one of the gentleman's neighbours is a lovely man who has made a lot of money and lives in a delightful house and each year he puts up Christmas lights. They do not particularly appeal to me, but the local people like them. They go past and smile, blink and wink, and the plastic Father Christmas is quite a stunning sight. But this year, they were not there, so I inquired why, and he said that his neighbour, the man who had come to my surgery, had complained, and that he spends his life complaining.

I sent the Bill to my two local authorities, Guildford and Mole Valley, and they passed it to the office that would be dealing with the matter, if and when it became law. They said that before they had looked at the Bill they were very much in favour of it but that, having looked at it they were desperately concerned because they feared being involved in the resulting ongoing disputes; that if there was a dispute they would be the jam in the sandwich. The officer would go down with his measuring tape and measure both sides and talk to both neighbours. Both neighbours would plead their cause, one to leave the hedge alone and the other to cut it down, then the matter would go to a committee and there would be lobbying on both sides. The committee may ask for more negotiations, and it is nice to see provision for that in the Bill. so there would be more negotiations and more threats, and some of those, if not most of them would come back to the committee and there would be more lobbying. The Liberal councillors on one side of the hedge will support its being cut down and those on the other side will support its being left alone, and then in committee they will abstain.

At the end of the day, however, the committee will decide. Knowing some people in my constituency who have encountered the problem, I think it likely that there will be an appeal. Often, in respect of the people whom I am trying to help, the existence of the hedge is the symptom of a neighbour dispute—in other words, it represents the fact that one neighbour is being vindictive to without reason. The position can then be turned the other way around and the neighbour without the hedge will triumph. The argument will then continue.

One of the reasons why I would have been intrigued if Sir Michael had been in the Chair—I mean no disrespect to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—is that he is an expert on the matter and I happen to know personally that he dealt with such a problem in his previous professional life and was very successful. A lady who does not live in my constituency was being vindictively picked on by a very unpleasant neighbour. He had allowed his leylandii—I think that they were leylandii, but they could have been macrocarpa—to grow to 30 ft or 40 ft in height. By various means, the court decided—it did not do so at great expense—that they should come down. The last I heard is that the gentleman is now planting two rows of trees. The trees are separate, but they overlap, so that, when you stand well back, they appear to be a hedge, but when you come close, it is clear that there are two rows of trees. I understand that he is considering planting a copse if the Bill is enacted.

The argument will continue. The local authority will see that there are two separate rows of trees, which do not constitute a hedge, but the phrasing of the legislation might make it possible to get around that. However, if the gentleman turns the area into a copse, the argument will continue. Of course, that problem clearly does not apply in an urban area.

When the committee makes a decision—I should like a few answers about this—the matter will go to appeal, which will take six months, in addition to the initial one or two months. After those six months, an inspector will come and look at the site. The local authority will pay for that. Knowing what most of these people are like, I think that there will usually be an appeal. The matter will then go back to committee. Of course, the legislation allows the council to change its mind. On most occasions, it is a good idea that it should be able to change its mind, but what bothers me is that that will entail an awful lot of to-ing and fro-ing, although there might be some justice at the end.

Mr. Pound

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for correcting me in my confusion between deciduous and evergreen trees.

Objectivity is a key component of the Bill, which is written specifically to ensure that a series of objective criteria can be used as a template involving the Building Research Establishment and various other groups. The sort of problems that the hon. Gentleman describes of malice in Mole Valley could apply equally to any aspect of the built environment, such as conservatories or anything else. I respectfully suggest, however, that that is not a reason for doing away with planning law. I hope that he will come to see that the objective criteria in the Bill will address precisely the issues that he is raising.

Sir Paul Beresford

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I hope that he is right. However, I am trying to put down some markers which I hope we can think about in Committee.

The rural situation is completely different. The officer at Guildford council who will be responsible for these matters expressed deep concern. She pointed out that, outside the suburban area of Guildford—and in much of my constituency—a hedge has to be 4 m or more high to be tall. A 2 m hedge is a bit of shrubbery at the end of the garden, so a 2 m provision is absolutely unreasonable. I hope that the Bill will allow local authorities to consider specific circumstances and recognise that while 2 m might be an appropriate measurement in dealing with the Deputy Prime Minister's hedges in Hull, it might not be appropriate in the surrounds and rural areas of Guildford and Mole Valley, as well as in some other areas.

I cautiously support the Bill and hope against hope that the problem can be resolved, the measure will grant flexibility and the promised money is distributed a little more fairly than under the current system. The hon. Member for Ealing., North knows about the current position because he has a constituency in the south and has watched money flow from it into the urban areas of the north, although I am sure that his council kept the council tax below that of Liverpool, Manchester and Hull.

We must acknowledge that passing the Bill in its current form will create as many problems, disputes and difficulties for local authorities as exist already without local authority involvement. Many officers and members of local authorities who believe that the Bill is a good measure that will work should read it carefully and think ahead. If they are in rural constituencies or those where the density of properties is low, they will suffer enormous, expensive disputes between the same neighbours and probably many more. If the hon. Member for Ealing, North has any doubts about that, I am more than happy to refer the gentleman who visited me in my surgery to him. The hon. Gentleman declines; that is probably appropriate.

1.46 pm
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

I shall speak briefly. I declare an interest because I have recently spent a not inconsiderable sum on removing many leylandii, which I inherited from the previous owner, from my garden. I shall plant a few replacements, which I have every intention of keeping to the same height as the adjoining beech hedge. However, I recognise their rapid growth and spread.

The Bill is a sad reflection of people's inability in modern society to reach a settlement that works for both sets of neighbours. It is a great shame that so many people allow the hedges to grow without considering the impact on those whose homes adjoin theirs. Like other hon. Members, many constituents have visited or written to me to express their great anxiety about the impact of adjoining hedges. I hope that the House will play a role in finding a mechanism for resolving the problem.

I commend the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) on promoting the Bill. If it is properly tackled in Committee and subsequently enacted, it could make a great difference to my constituents and all those around the country who have suffered from loss of light and the impact of high hedges.

I want to draw attention to three points that could be considered in Committee. First, the Committee should understand and discuss the implications of local authorities' resolution of a high hedges problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) made the valid point that it is not possible to cut down leylandii that are 30 or 40 ft to 6 ft. The result will be a row of stumps. The measure will therefore mean the removal of barriers between houses. That could generate disputes about what will replace the barrier and who pays for it. The Committee should give some thought to the disputes that could ensue from the removal of a hedge.

Secondly, I know from my experience that cutting down and replacing leylandii can be expensive. There is a danger that a local authority decision a bout a substantial hedge that has grown over several years could mean significant cost to a homeowner. The Committee might like to consider that because in some cases, the party who is required to take down the hedge will be a pensioner and may not be able to afford the cost. The Committee should at least consider how local authorities should handle such cases so as to ensure that a solution can be found.

My final point relates to height. I echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley that the selection of a height of 2 m is not necessarily going to be appropriate to every environment. For example, the old, historic yew hedges around the country might be 9 or 10 ft tall, but they are entirely appropriate to their environment. I, too, would like to see some discretion given to local authorities to modify the height that they use as a benchmark in relation to this measure, depending on the particular circumstances of the neighbourhood that they cover.

I hope that those three points can be taken into Committee and given some consideration. I commend the hon. Gentleman for the Bill. It deserves the support of the House, and I hope that, when it emerges in its final form, some of its rough edges will have been ironed out so that it really can work and make a difference to the people who need it.

1.50 pm
Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

I would like to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound). I have recently become his neighbour, so far as offices are concerned. Like everyone else here, I have received an enormous number of letters on this issue. I would like to place on record that hedges are a very important part of our urban and suburban landscape, but—and it is a big "but"—the downside is that they can create absolute misery for neighbours if they are unsuitable for a particular location, or if they are not properly maintained. A conflict occurs if what is seen as reasonable from one side of the hedge is seen as extremely unreasonable from the other. It really depends which side of the hedge you are on.

I was first alerted to such problems as a councillor following up a resident's complaint. I visited a large house that had been converted into flats. An elderly couple lived on the ground floor, with their main living room windows very close to a side boundary. Neither of the elderly people was in good health, and they rarely went outside. They looked out on to a high, dense hedge and were so deprived of daylight that they required electric light all day long. That was not very sustainable, and it obviously had a severe impact on the quality of the remaining years of their lives. A fence over 2 m high in exactly the same position would have required planning permission. It might have received it, but the fact is that the permission would have been required. We have to take this on board, because we are not necessarily precluding hedges over 2 m here, although some hon. Members seem to be implying that we are. It is absolutely logical that, if a fence requires planning permission, there should at least be an opportunity for an objection to be lodged against a hedge in a similar position.

As a former chairman of planners, I recall dealing with many planning applications, and I found that there was often no agreement between the planning officers and the objectors as to what constituted loss of light. I imagine that there will not always be agreement between planning officers and complainants about high hedges as to whether reasonable enjoyment of property is being adversely affected. The final outcomes will not, therefore, meet everyone's aspirations, but at least there will be a framework in place on which judgments can be based, and there will be the clear potential for action to be taken in many cases. So, the outcomes might not be perfect, but we shall be improving the quality of life for a lot of people.

The guidance that we have already, and a polite approach—which is always possible—clearly do not solve all the problems. I would like to quote from a letter from one of my constituents: Our own experience is that a polite, reasonable and conciliatory approach over a long time to an individual has been a waste of time. The person has no concern in the slightest about the misery she has caused us by planting a fast growing conifer hedge outside the back windows of our house. Thus, the hedge completely obscures our access to natural light in that part of our home. We have also heard today about the difficulty of maintaining someone else's hedge, and about people risking injury through no fault of their own by climbing up to do so. Others might have problems selling houses or with losing views, which, again, is distressing for those who have lived in a house for a long time.

The worst problem in my constituency involves a private school with a high hedge that grows rapidly. The owners contend that it protects neighbours' property from balls and other intrusions from the school, but the reality is that at least six people have an unhappy life due to the intrusion of the trees on their gardens.

I welcome the fact that local authorities would be able to reject a complaint if they felt that insufficient effort had been made to resolve the matter amicably, or indeed if the complaint was frivolous or vexatious. That should open the way to mediation, and it is good to have that in the first place. However, I have concerns that hedges might be out of control due to inability to cope with maintenance, perhaps due to age. Although I want local authorities to handle such cases firmly, sensitivity must obviously be shown.

Due to my council background and as my constituency covers a council area in the south, I am exceedingly concerned about the pressure on local authority resources—it would be necessary to give local authorities more money than they got in from the fees.

Sir Paul Beresford

I note the hon. Lady's thoughtful point about the fact that some people are unable to maintain their hedges because of their age or financial position. What would happen if the local authority decided that the hedge should come down to 2 m, but the finances of the lady or old gentleman who owned it would not stretch to taking it down to that level and maintaining it? Who would pay and what would be the arrangements?

Mrs. Brooke

My reason for alluding to such cases is that those matters must be discussed in Committee. That is the right place to consider such detailed concerns.

To return to my point on local authority resources, funding the appeal process would be expensive and there would be a lot of appeals until the backlog of cases had been dealt with, so I urge the Minister to consider the matter. The Bill is about quality of life. One neighbour's perfectly reasonable desire for privacy may result in misery for occupants of adjoining properties, so we need a mediation process backed by statute to resolve such conflicts.

1.57 pm
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

It is a pleasure to follow my Dorset neighbour, the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke), although I am disappointed that she did not pick up on the regulatory impact assessment, which answers the question of who will pay. The answer is that the local authorities will pay.

Mr. Forth

And the taxpayer.

Mr. Chope

And the taxpayer will pay. The regulatory impact assessment says that it would be possible for local authorities to raise some revenue from imposing charges for access to the regulatory regime and that the rest of the money would be distributed through the revenue support grant system if there was a shortfall. As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole knows, that would not be much use in Dorset, because our local authorities are on the floor, and the people likewise.

Mrs. Brooke

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Chope

In a moment. If the Government say that they would add money to the revenue support grant, that does not mean any real additional money due to the impact of the floors and ceilings regime that they have introduced. East Dorset district council, part of whose area is in my constituency, does not receive any revenue support grant, so if the Government say that the burden of the measure would be met by money distributed from the centre through that grant, they are doing nothing at all to help my hard-pressed council tax payers and constituents. I shall now give way to the hon. Lady, if she wants to get in.

Mrs. Brooke

No thanks.

Mr. Chope

Okay. I am sorry that I have embarrassed the hon. Lady about that.

Sir Paul Beresford

To follow up my hon. Friend's point, we are dealing not with structures that are built, but with plants that grow. The Bill's promoter explained that with the dramatic example of his favourite plant, the leylandii. The payment problem would be annual, if not twice-yearly, if a hedge had to be kept in shape and trimmed.

Mr. Chope

My hon. Friend is right.

I was disappointed by the speech of the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) because although he was tremendously charming—he could have charmed the birds from the trees or from the leylandii—he was a little flippant. These are serious issues and if the Bill is brought forward in the form it is in at the moment many of our constituents will have much cause for complaint.

It is not just me expressing concerns about the Bill. A letter to me from a constituent states:

Ref: Conifers and tall hedges. When a tall hedge has been established for many years is it threatened with a serious reduction in size just because a neighbour doesn't like it, even if it has been at that height before the present neighbour moved in? What happens if the hedge borders several properties and not everyone wants the hedge cut down? Is this legislation to apply to hedges that are not right on the boundary line? If a new dwelling is built next to a hedge can the new occupants insist on the hedge being cut down? These are just a few of the questions that this proposal raises. Many people feel that their gardens are under threat with the look and privacy of their gardens being subjected to bureaucracy at its worst, not to mention the loss of habitat for birds etc. Media attention in the last few years has led to a form of 'conifer rage' where neighbours who have lived quite contentedly next to tall hedges for years have suddenly become quite aggressive to the hedge owners. It appears to me that the legislation as outlined in Gardeners World is not just full of pitfalls and blown out of all proportion, but is totally unworkable and likely to cause thousands of hedge owners much concern. I therefore hope that for concerned clients, family, and friends you will do all in your power to oppose this legislation. That letter shows the concern that there is among a large group of people. It is in the nature of the British people that they do not wake up to changes to the law until they have been imposed. If they find that changes to the law are adverse, they take it out on their Members of Parliament. I am doing everything in my power to alert my constituents to this legislation.

I have looked at the April 2003 edition of another magazine, Garden Answers. It has a good play on words in the headline, "Bill to fix hedge rows". On the same page, another headline says, "Nextdoor nightmare". The article states: Over 50 per cent. of home owners have a gripe about their neighbours, according to a new survey by the Norwich Union. Respondents revealed their main sources of discontent included neighbours who kept an untidy garden". Obviously, there are lots of other reasons why neighbours fall out with each other: barking dogs, cats defecating, smelly bonfires, noisy music, adults swearing at each other, litter in the garden, cockerels, tree roots, leaf fall, noxious weeds and so on. If we do not get this legislation right, it will add another reason: going off to the local authority to complain about the hedge and having it cut down or reduced in size.

It is not sensible for neighbours to fall out with each other and to try to force changes when those could be secured through amicable agreement. The hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) said that he was not aware of any instance where it had been possible to mediate in such a hedge dispute. Only last month, as a result of my efforts at mediation, a conifer hedge was cut down by a neighbour, so that the person who complained to me and to him could be relieved of that oppressive hedge. Having cut down his hedges, the neighbour has asked why the person next door has done nothing about her pine trees. If we become too adversarial, it will be tit for tat. He will go off to complain to the local authority and costs will be incurred.

The hon. Member for Ealing, North said that it would be possible for the local authority to refuse vexatious complaints. That is true but, as the Bill stands, there would still be the right of appeal against such a refusal, with all that that involves. Unlike the situation in the High Court—where if a judge says that someone is a vexatious litigant, he is prevented from making any such complaints again without the leave of the court—there could still be vexatious people who want to take it out on their neighbours. As we have heard, if that dispute were generated at a time when a person was trying to sell a house, it would have to be declared to potential purchasers. The scope for neighbours to fall out with each other will not be restricted much by the Bill.

I was encouraged when the hon. Gentleman said that there would be objective tests. He will recall that when I expressed reservations about the previous Bill on the subject, it was not because I did not think that there should be legislation in this field. I wanted to ensure that the legislation was clear and unambiguous, and involved objective tests. I was keen that we awaited the outcome of the report organised by the Department of the Environment, as it then was, which looked at the best way to bring in some objective tests.

The Building Research Establishment produced a report, the contents of which have been useful in my constituency work in giving people an idea as to whether or not their hedge would result in an unacceptable or unreasonable loss of light for their neighbours. Comparing this Bill with the previous Bill—about which I had reservations—I see that the present Bill is going even wider. Clause 4, about complaints procedures, no longer includes this reference in clause 4(4) of the previous Bill: The authority must, when acting under subsection (3), take into consideration all matters appearing to them to be relevant, including in particular … the extent to which the high hedge in question is capable of affording (or, if reduced in height, would still be capable of affording) privacy to an occupier of the neighbouring land … the extent to which that hedge contributes (or, if reduced in height, would still contribute) to the amenity of the neighbourhood, and … any legal obligation (whether imposed by or under any enactment or otherwise) relating to that hedge. That safeguard has now been removed from the Bill and, likewise, the definition of high hedge has been widened from the definition in the previous Bill of two or more adjacent evergreens to so much of a barrier to light or access as". In the latest draft, we have moved on from an objective assessment of whether there is an unacceptable loss of light as a result of a high hedge to the more subjective issue of whether the hedge itself has an impact upon the next-door neighbour. That is a recipe for disastrous law-making. I am hopeful that, in light of the guarantee given by the hon. Gentleman, objective tests will be introduced in Committee. I do not want to get a reputation as some sort of wrecker. I have always sought to be constructive.

Many comments were made—albeit late, at Report stage—during the passage of the previous Bill. The promoter of that Bill could have argued that that stage was too late to take on board many of the concerns expressed. However, the promoter of this Bill—the hon. Member for Ealing, North—knows that whether his Bill gets a Second Reading today is hanging by a whisker because of the shortage of time. However, if it does get a Second Reading, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that that has happened only because of the indulgence of hon. Members who have severe and serious reservations about it and wish the Bill to be substantially altered in Committee.

Last week, we heard from a different Minister—the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life. I have never quite understood what happened to the Minister for rural quality of life. Anyway, that Minister expressed severe reservations about the Equine Welfare (Ragwort Control) Bill. He said: As drafted, the Bill would place significant new burdens on local authorities". He continued: Local authorities, as one or two hon. Members have acknowledged, have many competing bids for funding—for example, there is the need to provide social care and more money for education. He then added: the Government cannot add to the financial burden falling on those bodies by giving them additional responsibilities."—[Official Report, 21 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 1247.] I am sure that the Minister today will take this opportunity to explain how the Government's attitude to this Bill is consistent with what the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life said last week. If the Bill gets a Second Reading, I hope that, in Committee, the Government will address a real concern that I and my constituents have—that the costs of this Bill will be very significant. Under the rules for the distribution of grant, constituents will end up paying for it.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) said that he thinks that the estimate of the total costs is an underestimate and that there may be as many as 17,000 cases as opposed to 10,000 cases.

I commend to the House the full regulatory impact assessment. It estimates that the cost of a council officer's time to investigate such complaints is, on average, £35 to £40 an hour, and that each complaint may take as long as eight hours to investigate. The assessment goes on to say that there might be 10,000 cases and an estimated 2,000 appeals over three years. That would lead to substantial costs. However, the assessment does not think that costs to the court service will be significant, because it is not thought that the criminal sanctions in the Bill will be used. That leads to an obvious question: why have criminal sanctions in the Bill? Why criminalise neighbours as the Bill proposes to do, when we do not criminalise them for other antisocial things that they do to each other? We should put the emphasis on mediation.

The hon. Member for Ealing, North referred—tongue in cheek, perhaps—to naturists. What he said would be fine if it were not to be considered alongside the impact of clause 70 of the Sexual Offences Bill. Up to now, if a naturist sat in his garden and the neighbours wanted to look at him or her, that has not been a criminal offence. However, under clause 70 of the Sexual Offences Bill, a person could be committing an offence just by lying nude in his or her garden. Many naturists choose to have highish hedges around their gardens to protect themselves. This Bill could require those hedges to be cut down, and the neighbours could then get the ultimate reward of being able to ask the police to prosecute the person in the garden for sunbathing in the nude. The neighbours would now able to see the naturist because they had required the hedge to be cut down. That is an issue that needs to be addressed, and perhaps anyone who had a high hedge could have as a defence the protection of their naturism.

I do not think that the libertarian arguments are overwhelming, but they must be taken into account. It is the House's responsibility to ensure that the Bill does not merely appease and appeal to a single-issue pressure group. If it is to change the law, it should do so objectively in a way that can be supported by all members of society.

2.15 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) on reintroducing—I suppose that is the correct term—the Bill, and on speaking in its favour in such an entertaining but serious manner. I thought the balance of his remarks was absolutely correct, because this is a very important issue. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), who has been in the Chamber for a large part of today, for introducing the Bill in 2001. He did so because of the great concern that existed, and still exists.

In general, the Conservative party recognises the problems associated with high hedges. As has been said, they block out the light and the sun, they can harm soil conditions and damage drains, and fast-growing leylandii trees in certain areas can be a particular problem. Those problems, and the resulting disputes between neighbours, destroy previously good relations, harming the quality of life of people who have been caught up in them. The problem seems to have been the lack of a remedy, which has caused difficulties to drag on. I understand that the hon. Gentleman's Bill is intended to enable local authorities to take remedial action where necessary—that is the point; it is important to ensure that action is taken only where necessary. As he rightly said, the Bill does not ban high hedges or tall leylandii trees—I have tall leylandii trees in my garden, and I do not think that those will be banned because I have no neighbours. I do not think that the legislation would be a problem to me; if it became a problem, I would take the matter up again with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Apart from the concern highlighted in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) that a naturist defence might lead to a sudden exponential increase in the number of professed naturists in this country buying their high hedges on that basis, has my hon. Friend considered whether the profession of naturist would be self-verifying or open to external inspection?

Mr. Robertson

I have neither my hon. Friend's intellect nor eloquence. It therefore might be better if I say that, in certain cases, whether people object to high hedges will depend very much on the people who were displaying themselves. In view of the lack of time, I will duck his intervention.

Sir Paul Beresford

On a more serious note, I see that my hon. Friend's constituency is Tewkesbury. My knowledge of this country's geography may be somewhat limited in comparison with that of Members who are not immigrants, but I suspect that most of his constituency is rural. Would he agree, therefore, that a high proportion of the hedges in his area would be considerably more than 2 m above the ground, and that the definition in the Bill, which is that a high hedge rises to a height of more than 2 m above the ground, should not really apply to his constituency, and certainly should not apply to mine?

Mr. Robertson

My hon. Friend has made many good and serious points, but probably three quarters of Tewkesbury lies in built-up areas, and I have had many letters from a great many people on this subject.I recognise the point that he makes, however.

The nightmare of high hedges has gone on for some years. I regret that there has not been Government action to tackle it. They have made noises: the Minister for the Environment has mentioned it, as has the Under-Secretary. Apart from publishing the "Over the Garden Hedge" leaflet in 2002, however, we have not seen a great deal of Government action in that regard. I wonder whether the Government intend to take over the Bill, because the Minister said that we should not reach a point at which councils or the courts need to intervene. Will he clarify their position in his winding-up speech?

Several hon. Members, especially Conservative Members, expressed concerns about aspects of the Bill. I shall not repeat them all owing to the shortage of time, but I shall highlight one or two. We recognise the worries of people who live next door to high hedges. However, they can protect people's privacy, as we heard. People write to hon. Members saying that they want their windows or gardens to be protected and kept private, and high hedges and trees might be the only way to do that. We should bear in mind people who live near roads. I live near a motorway that can be noisy in certain atmospheric conditions and the trees in my garden protect me from that.

We want to avoid creating excessive bureaucracy for local authorities because they will have to consider complaints, issue remedial notices and ensure that people comply with them. Will they receive proper financial support to enable them to do that? The hon. Member for Ealing, North referred to clause 21, which relates to financial provisions, but it would not guarantee that the Government would provide the money necessary to enable local authorities to take on yet another duty.

We recognise the problems, disputes and misery that are often caused by high hedges, and people who suffer must be able to access a legal remedy. I hope that the important caveats that my hon. Friends and I have mentioned will be addressed during later stages of the Bill and with that proviso, I hope that it receives its Second Reading.

2.22 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Tony McNulty)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) not only on promoting the Bill, but on his work in the past. I commend all that has been said about Baroness Gardner of Parkes, Lord Graham of Edmonton, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) and the former Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent, who started the process some time ago. I shall not go through the list of hon. Members who spoke in support of the Bill, although that would all be terribly nice, because it is more appropriate to deal with the serious, well-measured and informed points made by those who have problems with it.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) was right to say that the focus of the Bill is height and light and that the quagmire of the law, owing to its complexity on the notion of what is a nuisance, has been unsatisfactory. Hon. Members may know that I do not cling to the notion of consensus being virtuous in itself, although it might be on the odd occasion. I happily endorse the fair point made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) about unanimity among the three Front Benches because that does not always result in good law or legislation that would be looked at with pride down the ages.

I agree with a point made by the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford). Although this rather imitates the position of the National Rifle Association—with no malice intended toward America—it is not the plant that is at fault, but the owner. That is entirely right. The Bill is not about the eradication of leylandii or other similar hedgerows and trees. It is not as though they are triffids, growing regardless of what the most well-intentioned owner does to them. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) is right to say that civil legal action is a rather tortuous route by which to resolve these issues.

The hon. Members for Mole Valley, for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) made some fair points about the Bill's rough edges. However, the hon. Member for Christchurch slightly misinterpreted the Bill; there is no appeal process under clause 4(2). If the council determines that the person bringing the complaint has not exhausted all other avenues, the complainant has no right of appeal, and if the council decides that the complaint is vexatious or frivolous, there is no appeal, so people cannot get into a loop of making appeal after appeal.

The hon. Member for Christchurch is right to suggest that the problem is conifer rage or hedge rage, as he described it, although I do not know whether it is caused by attempts to pass legislation such as this. Indeed, if the hon. Gentleman serves on the Standing Committee, I may have some dispute with him about the cause of these problems. I disagree with his correspondent who suggests that the Bill will create serious pitfalls and is unworkable.

I understand from my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North that the Bill is not offered up as a panacea. If it were, it would not contain the trip switch identified by the hon. Member for Bath, which allows that there may be scope to revisit the nature of complaints and the definition of high hedges. That is important, because if, as a result of the pitfalls and drawbacks suggested by Opposition Members, the Bill is not successful, there is scope to reconsider those matters rather than taking up the valuable time of the House.

I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Mole Valley was being a bit presumptuous in assuming what form the appeal body will take. As he will know, the regulatory impact assessment and the explanatory notes say that appeals may be considered by the planning inspectorate, but the make-up of the appeal body is deliberately not explained. The Bill prescribes the appeal process, but not the appeal body. That is a matter for the council.

The Bill is meant to be flexible, and I do not think that it is a significant shift away from the objectivity of the Building Research Establishment guidelines that featured in the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Solihull. We are not about to see hedge wars raging throughout suburbia in south-east England, but these are serious matters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North is slightly wrong on one point: about 260 MPs have written to me on this matter since last April or May. I am glad to see many of them in the Chamber.

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell made a serious point in asking whether the Bill is just about boundaries. It is not—nuisance can transcend boundaries. He also talked about the implementation of remedial action, which should be more fully explored in Committee. Other hon. Members made serious points about whether the stated height of 2 m and over is sufficient, and those should be tackled in Committee. However, underlying everything that Members have said is the belief that the Bill should receive a Second Reading, and I commend it to the House.

2.29 pm
Mr. Pound

With the leave of the House, I thank all those who have contributed to this useful debate, and I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills.)