HL Deb 03 May 2000 vol 612 cc1091-8

7.52 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Baroness Gardner of Parkes.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Baroness Lockwood) in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Statutory nuisance]:

Baroness Gardner of Parkes moved the amendment: Page 1, line 12, at end insert- (""hedge" means a number of woody plants, whether capable of growing into trees or not, which are so planted as to be intended to be in line and, when mature, to be so integrated together as to form both a screen and a barrier;")

The noble Baroness said: This is a simple and straightforward amendment. It has been placed before the Committee because it became clear in the Second Reading debate on 11th January that we needed to have this definition of a hedge included in the Bill.

The amendment is fairly self-explanatory. I put down a Question for Written Answer on 29th March and received a reply from the Minister on 19th April stating that he had received 3,000 replies to the consultation document. So it is clear that this is a matter of considerable interest to people. I believe that the amendment will improve what I consider to be a right and correct Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

I rise to support the amendment, and also to express some disappointment. Before the House went into Recess, after collaboration with the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, I asked her to add my name to the amendment. As the Clerk at the Table will tell us, that is not appropriate, and I needed to speak directly. I was given the telephone number of the Clerk on duty during the Recess. I telephoned him last Friday and asked him to put my name down. When I came to the House yesterday and found that it had not been added to the amendment, the Clerk in the Printed Paper Office was kind enough to say that perhaps the provision only begins to operate when the House returns, and therefore it should be down today. Unfortunately, it is not down today. I note that I have the attention of the Clerk at the Table. I hope that he may cause inquiries to be made as to why, having spoken to the proper source, my publicised support for the amendment was not made available to the packed Benches listening with avid attention to what is undoubtedly a major legislative matter.

The situation as the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, and I see it is simply this. First, we are grateful for the progress that has been made by what might be called the hedge industry, the hedge agitators, or the group of people—the many thousands—who want to see some improvement made. For many years, primary legislation has been required, and there is enormous pressure on time. The Minister who will reply will recognise, as we do, the enormous burden that is carried by her department on a range of issues. We should be hard put to it to make out a case that this should take precedence over other pressing matters. Nevertheless, those who are affected are often frightened, timid and poor; they cannot face the prospects of a court case possibly costing tens of thousands of pounds. A very good friend of mine, Michael Jones, spent a fortune and eventually won, but the case had to go through the courts.

The purpose of this provision is to take the burden off the individual resident and place it on a third party. The Government fairly and helpfully produced a document entitled high hedges/possible solutions which offers four options for action. The one that the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner or Parkes, I and many others favour is Option 4. I hope that the Minister can tell us a little about where the 3,000 replies fall. I am convinced that the vast majority of them will favour Option 4.

In essence, Option 4 provides that, Legislative provisions could be introduced for a tailor-made system for taking action against hedges which cause problems. There are at present no relevant powers to introduce such measures through secondary legislation. Primary legislation would, therefore, be required. One approach would be to allow people who have problems with high hedges to complain to a third party, probably the local authority. If the authority upheld the complaint, it would specify the remedial action necessary and enforce it". That encapsulates not merely the solution but all of the problems in arriving at the solution. Ultimately, in most planning matters enforcement is the nub. It is all very well having legislative provisions, sections and subsections, but how do we enforce what the law lays down?

There is a range of options and possibilities. I was very pleased at the enormous breadth of the consultation that took place. I hope the Minister will refer to it. The document contains a list of consultees, including the Association of London Government—and I declare an interest as vice-president. There is a body called Birch Homes. I wonder which branch that is! The list also includes Fairview Homes; the Federation of Private Residents' Association; Hedgeline; Leech Homes; the Local Government Association; and Mediation UK—it may have a part to play in this. It goes on to mention the National Farmers Union and the National Housing Federation. I congratulate the Government on the breadth of the consultation. Perhaps the document is itself part of the reason why this matter has come before the Committee. It is understandable that people should spend a good deal of time on this matter because the options are explained and the arguments are teased out so well.

At the end of the day, this amendment seeks to keep alive a Bill which, as the noble Baroness and I recognised at Second Reading, could not proceed without government support. If the Government say tonight that they are not in a position to be more helpful than to tell us that 3,000 responses have been received but not what they say nor what they intend to do in response—it is for the noble Baroness opposite to decide what to do with the Bill but the Government should be under no illusion that there are thousands of people with legitimate concerns to raise.

I have an interest in people who live in park homes. Sometimes the site owners are very bad. Some of the people who live on these sites are old, frail, frightened and poor and require muscle from someone who is willing to use it: the Government. The noble Baroness and I and many others, including the Minister who is to reply, have served on local authorities. The Minister will understand that, if local government is to have a sufficient number of officers to carry out this task, an enormous burden will be placed on it. Unless we deal with the little people and the little issues, the quality of life in this country will be the poorer.

I look forward with a great deal of interest to hearing what my noble friend has to say. I fully support the amendment, which has been properly tabled and whose genesis can be found in the report itself. In paragraph 5.25, one sees: A definition of a hedge which has been used in a civil legal judgement is 'a number of woody plants, whether capable of growing into trees or not, which are so planted as to be intended to be in line and which, when mature, to be so integrated together as to form both a screen and a barrier'". That is precisely the wording of the amendment. If that definition is good enough for the courts it should be good enough for the Committee. I fully support the amendment.

8 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw

This amendment and the Bill as a whole have the support of these Benches. We hope that the Government will find time to support the legislation. We regard the planting of particular kinds of trees not only as environmentally undesirable but as an instrument to be used aggressively to bully vulnerable neighbours. We support the amendment.

Lord Hardy of Wath

I echo the definition that is offered in the amendment to which my noble friend referred. Some time ago I recall looking at a wide variety of former enclosure Acts. In those Acts the word "fence" was frequently used as a description of a hedge. The description offered in this amendment is far more appropriate than "fence", which would not necessarily be regarded as a hedgerow in the 21st century. I trust that noble Lords will be sympathetic to the amendment and ensure that the Bill completes its Committee stage rapidly.

Baroness Byford

I support my noble friend's amendment which provides a good, commonsense description of a hedge. Sufficient has already been said in the Chamber. We on these Benches await with interest the response of the Minister.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, for giving us a further opportunity to discuss the problems caused by some residential hedgerows and specifically to consider the question of what is a hedge. The noble Baroness's amendment to this Bill seeks to define what constitutes a hedge and thus what type of boundary feature might be subject to inspection by environmental health officers to determine whether they are a statutory nuisance. The definition proposed by the noble Baroness supported fully, if not in name, by my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton, is taken from the legal judgment in the case involving Michael Jones, the founder of Hedgeline. That definition was also mentioned in our consultation paper to which reference has been made. The paper recognised the need for any new legislation to specify the types of hedges to be covered and to ensure that any system of control focused on problem hedges. It also suggested that the definition used in Michael Jones's case might be a good starting point but sought views on possible alternatives.

While, therefore, the noble Baroness's amendment represents one possible way to define a hedge, we want to reflect further on the matter in the light of the results of the consultation. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, and my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton have pressed me in advance of today's Committee stage to say something about progress with our consultation on possible solutions to nuisance hedge problems. As the Committee will recall, the Government sought views on four options, which included voluntary and legislative action. We are currently analysing some 3,000 responses. We made clear from the beginning that we did not have a preferred solution but looked to respondents to help us to decide whether more should be done to relieve this source of long-running and distressing neighbourhood disputes. We shall take account of the best way forward and hope to make a statement by the summer setting out our decisions and the reasons for them.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, and my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton have asked about the nature of the responses. I do not believe that it would be helpful at this stage to seek to go into details. The Committee will be as impressed as the Government by the number and range of the responses, including nearly 200 from local authorities, which represents about a 40 per cent response rate. The noble Baroness and my noble friend are worried that we are not moving quickly enough. We understand that people feel they can wait no longer for an answer to their problems. However, these are sensitive issues and it is important that we consider them carefully.

We have heard much today, and on previous occasions, about hedge victims and the bullying and problems that can occur, which have been witnessed by me and other members of the Government. But a hedge has two sides. The responses to the consultation show that some owners believe that they have a right to deal with, for example, the intrusion of noise or being overlooked from neighbouring properties and they do not see why the law should interfere. As ever, we recognise the need for a balance to be struck. If we rush in without thinking it through properly the law may become unenforceable, which will help no one. It is important that we arrive at the right answer.

The noble Baroness offers her Bill as a possible vehicle to implement any government proposals for legislative action on nuisance hedges. It represents, however, only one of the possible options to deal with hedge problems. The consultation paper included other legislative solutions as well as some that did not involve passing new laws. Noble Lords will understand, therefore, that I would be pre-judging our consideration of the consultation responses if I were to commit us today to supporting or amending the noble Baroness's Bill.

I understand people's desire for early action to bring them relief from the ills associated with these hedges. The noble Baroness and my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton believe that the Bill offers a simple solution to nuisance hedge problems, building as it does on the established system for dealing with statutory nuisances. However, as I explained to noble Lords at Second Reading, the Government have concerns about whether using the statutory nuisance regime to control hedging is the best answer. The main point to bear in mind is that currently statutory nuisance laws regulate activities that are prejudicial to health. The courts have shown that they expect more stringent tests to be satisfied for any matter to be a statutory nuisance. Therefore a person would need to establish that there was a direct causal link between the alleged nuisance and an illness.

In the case of problem hedges, the matter is far from straightforward and the outcome in any particular case uncertain. Therefore we have to consider whether the statutory nuisance route is unlikely to provide the clear-cut remedy that the noble Baroness and my noble friend seek to address in raising the plight of nuisance hedges.

I repeat: we understand people's desire for early action but the best way we can serve them is by making certain that we come up with workable solutions. We should have more to say on the matter in the summer.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

Before the noble Baroness sits down—I may have missed this point—we are told that consideration is being given to the 3,000 responses. After three months she is unable to give us positive news. Can she tell us when she expects the outcome from the analysis of replies to be available? From her long experience, the Minister will understand that this private measure needs to clear its stages in the House of Lords and in another place—and we know what can happen in the month of July to Bills which do not have government approval.

As I said, what the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, does at the next stage is entirely within her gift. However, the Minister may be able to help us. We do not intend to allow the issue to go away. The Bill may not be the solution, but we should like to engage with the Government on the best way forward.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

I am sorry not to be able to be more helpful to my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton than to repeat that we understand the urgency of the situation. We hope to be able to make an announcement in the summer about the evaluation and the Government's preferred option with regard to the different choices.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

Of this year?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

The summer of this year. Before I seek to sit down, the only thing that I can say with any certainty—and I cite one of my noble friends on another occasion—is that summer follows spring and precedes autumn; and I cannot be drawn further on the time.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

I thank noble Lords who have taken part in the debate on the amendment, which has clarified the present position. It is a long time since the consultation ended on 31st January. It is natural that people are impatient.

I have received many letters, but perhaps I may refer to two which I have received in the past couple of days. One sought to deal with the issue through an anti-social behaviour order. The person stated: I have tried without success to get the police to act on an antisocial behaviour order and I enclose a copy of the Prime Minister's speech at the Labour Party Conference stating that it is within the police powers to act; also a recent letter from the Home Office stating a similar line, all to no avail". The Home Office letter is a detailed page in small print. The writer highlights the relevant part of the Prime Minister's speech stating that, from April antisocial neighbours can be taken to court and punished. I say to the police, use those powers, and I say to the public, help the police to make them work". The writer is upset that having tried in every way he can to use the antisocial legislation, he has had no success.

The other letter goes on at great length for a couple of pages, but one paragraph is headed "Government policy" and states that the question at the core of this issue is whether a small number of bullies should be allowed to cause grievance and nuisance to neighbours and reduce the value of neighbours' homes. It asks whether, alternatively, the Government will stand up to the many against the bullying few as they promised to do when elected in 1997.

I have referred to those letters because they were the most extreme in their declarations. But other letters have reflected the great frustration and unhappiness being caused. The Minister says that there are two sides to a hedge. There certainly are: the sunny, bright, light side; and the dark, shady side. I agree with the noble Baroness when she says that the answer must be right and enforceable. I should like to say how greatly I appreciate the helpfulness of the noble Baroness and of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, when approached with questions on this issue. I appreciate that the Government want the solution to be thorough and right. But it cannot be right that the only person who has succeeded at present is Michael Jones. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, mentioned the cost; but he did not say that the case had taken 20 years. I have received many letters saying that people cannot believe that any issue could take 20 years.

I agree that the consultation document is somewhat complex. The writers of some letters have enclosed copies of their responses to the department. I have some sympathy with the department on the time it will take to analyse those responses. Some indicate that they like option four, but also like a little bit out of option one, and perhaps a taste of option two. On reading the letter, one hardly knows which option the writer supports. If more people have written with a clear-cut answer, it will be easier to analyse the responses. Otherwise the analysis will be extremely difficult.

The noble Baroness referred to the regulation of activities prejudicial to health. There are clear-cut cases. We have received correspondence from women whose husbands have died from the worry caused by such cases. So it is not the case that one cannot establish that the situation is prejudicial to health. However, the Minister referred to the courts' expectations. I do not think that the majority of cases would come to court. In the vast majority of cases, a word from the council—and I emphasise that the council would come only if requested to do so, and it should be able to charge for its services; it would be wrong otherwise—would draw an individual's attention to his hedge. While sometimes the nuisance is deliberate and the bullying element comes into the matter, it is at other times simply a lack of care and thoughtlessness. People do not notice the hedge because it does not affect their light. They are on its sunny side.

I hope that the Committee will accept the amendment. I commend it.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed to.

Remaining clause agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported with an amendment.