HL Deb 24 November 2000 vol 619 cc1093-100

12.42 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to take following their consultation on High hedges: possible solutions.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, we are nearly at the end of the parliamentary Session and it is therefore appropriate to mark the point we have reached in the resolution of the difficulties caused to so many people by high hedges.

I tabled a Private Member's Bill, the Statutory Nuisances (Hedges in Residential Areas) Bill, at the very beginning of this parliamentary Session and, within days, I had a pleasant surprise—the DETR published its consultation paper entitled High Hedges: Possible Solutions. The closing date for consultation was 31st January 2000. My Bill had its First Reading on 11th January this year so that seemed to be good timing.

It took an inordinately long time to count the number of replies. Only months later were the Government able to tell me that over 3,000 replies had been received. The DETR states, to put this in context, our consultations usually generate hundreds rather than thousands of replies". It was a massive public response from individuals and local authorities.

It was hard to wait for an analysis of those responses and all efforts to get an answer before the Summer Recess failed. On 10th August, the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, appeared on television and was widely reported in the press, announcing that 94 per cent of replies supported new laws to control these hedges. He declared that the Government would legislate on that matter. The DETR press release of that date stated that, it has been shown there is overwhelming support for tougher controls. And so we have decided to introduce legislation in England to allow authorities to determine complaints about nuisance garden hedges. The authority would decide whether to require the hedge owner to remedy the problem by, for example, cutting back the hedge".

Press reports were favourable but somewhat sceptical. Perhaps I may quote from a feature article in The Times on 11th August which stated that, it is encouraging that Mr Meacher has accepted the logic of this approach. Much less encouraging is his failure to will the means. Now that sensible proposals are in place, swift action is needed. Yet he has promised legislation only when parliamentary time allows and admitted that it might be left to a Private Member's Bill. It could be many years before nuisance hedges get the chop

On 14th September, I had a meeting in his office with Michael Meacher and I am grateful to him for making the time available to discuss the issue in considerable detail. I was impressed by his genuine interest in the subject and his stated intention of seeing that there is appropriate legislation. The only question which remained unanswered was: when? It is almost harder for people to have the need for a solution acknowledged without seeing the positive progress towards that solution.

That is why I wanted to bring this matter again before your Lordships. We cannot allow high hedges to be forgotten. Since our last discussion of this matter in July, I have received many more letters from those suffering nuisance hedges and each one makes me sympathise more with their plight. The famous case of Michael Jones took 20 years and close to £100,000 to resolve. As the founder of Hedgeline, Michael Jones has done much to help others suffering similar problems.

I have just received a letter from Alan Boulter of Solihull, who won the case brought against his neighbour. Her costs were £11,000 and she was ordered to pay 75 per cent of his costs. All those costs, totalling over £20,000, are being met by the taxpayer, as she was legally aided. That is a poor use of public money and a simple and inexpensive system operated by the local authority would be so much better. Local authorities are accustomed to dealing with planning applications and are regularly assessing the impact of their decisions on different parties. They will be the ideal bodies to deal with the hedge issue.

Some letters tell me that the hedges have been planted with the deliberate intention of reducing the value of the house they border, by causing invasive root damage and loss of light and visual amenity. Some people have lost everything in these cases. In other cases, there has been no evil intent, simply a thoughtlessness or lack of awareness of the impact of trees growing, usually but not always, quickly to great size. Often the planter has long since moved and the trees are just evidence of the lack of any attempt to control them or are too much for the new owner to cope with. While everyone knows leylandii as a menace, they are not the only plantings causing the problem of high hedges. A tree, or row of trees, which might be beautiful in one planting position can be a menace in another.

As your Lordships and indeed the general public are already familiar with the problem, I shall not delay the House on a Friday by going into great detail. I have before me a letter dated 15th November, sent by Chris Mullin to Robert Jackson MP, who had written to him about an Abingdon constituent. A six-page DETR briefing note was attached and I should like to comment on that. Indeed, I wonder why I have never seen a copy of it.

Under the heading "Frequently Asked Questions" is one question: Why are you not acting more quickly? The reply was that, it will not help anyone if we rush into legislation that proves unworkable and so does not meet people's reasonable expectations".

How could he even imagine he was rushing into anything when the House of Commons Research Paper 99/35 dated 25th March 1999 states: The Government has been saying for more than a year that it was considering whether to intervene and if so, in what way". It is now 18 months since that report and they are still considering. I do not think that anyone has been doing too much rushing.

Another question asks why the Government do not support my Bill, a ready-made vehicle on nuisance hedges. The reason given is that it is not a public health issue, and I take issue with the Minister on that. It is acknowledged in the Environmental Protection Act 1990 that noise is a public health issue. In what way is it a public health issue? What effect does noise have? I believe that the answer is that it causes stress, which taken to an extreme could severely damage mental health. I do not believe that noise has a physical effect, and I see the noble Lord, Lord Rea, in his place today and he may be able to comment on that. I do not include sudden blast noise or gunshot, which can physically damage eardrums. I refer to anti-social noise of the type covered by the Environmental Protection Act.

The effect of noise above a certain level is to cause stress. My argument is that stress can result from the problem of high hedges, which can cause serious physical illness. I have received letters informing me of sad cases of severe heart problems, asthma and breathing problems all caused by the problem of high hedges. However, the most common damage is due to stress or stress-related illness.

Another question in the brief refers to the cost to local authorities. The answer is vague. I feel strongly that central government support for this system is not desirable. The answer to the question seems to imply that it might be covered in the rate support grant, or whatever is the current terminology equivalent. I do not find that satisfactory. Local authorities should have the right to charge directly for services in this matter, just as they do in planning matters.

My Bill has continued through some of its stages. Your Lordships have given support from all sides of the House, for which I record my thanks. Time has run out for my Bill, but the issue remains of great importance. I urge the Government to legislate in the Session of Parliament beginning on 6th December. People who are hedge victims want action before any more damage is done to their property and their lives.

12.52 p.m

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, although my name does not appear on the List of Speakers, I rise to make a brief intervention in the gap. My noble friend. Lady Gardner of Parkes, has always been keen for action to be taken on the problem of high hedges. She states that she has support from all sides of the House, and I am sure she has. However, I should like the Government to know that not everyone is of that view.

It would be a great pity to have more government legislation on matters appertaining to individuals' private homes and livelihoods. We already have hedgerow officers, who tell us what hedges we may or may not remove. We have tree preservation orders. We are told that we must not wear the skin of a mink on our backs although we can wear the skin of a sheep. We are told that we must not dig up primroses and we are to be told that Jack Russells must not chase rabbits. If we are now to have orders stating what height of hedge we may have, I believe that is going too far. My noble friend has shown many examples, and I know feels strongly about this matter, I wanted the Government to know that not everyone follows her in that respect.

12.53 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, from these Benches, we thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, for so vigorously pursuing her campaign. We also thank Hedgeline which campaigns and supports the victims—I believe they are victims—of stress and nuisance.

We believe that the delay has been long enough. I shall not rehearse the points ably made by my noble friend Lady Thomas when this issue was last debated in the House. However, the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, is correct that an extremely high hedge, very often at the edge of a small garden, or sometimes not even a garden, abutting somebody's window, is indeed a nuisance.

In some ways it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, because it is so easy to disagree with him. Any nuisance, be it an extremely loud noise or a smell which is impossible to live with, should be rightly dealt with so that people can live their lives according to the standards we all expect. I am sure that none of us would wish to take a frivolous view of the sort of stress described by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes.

In preparation for this short debate I looked at Hedgeline's website. I have been aware of similar examples both in my own neighbourhood and in the press. However, reading through the website, I found an horrendous catalogue of real distress. Some people have had to spend their entire savings, and others without savings have had to bankrupt themselves, to try to deal with the problem.

We must support the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner in asking her questions. What plans do the Government have to introduce their own legislation? I do not expect the Minister to announce what will be in the Queen's Speech. However, she might be able to tell us whether the Government are minded to deal with the matter themselves or whether she feels that a Private Member's Bill—suitably amended if the Bill introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, is not correct—would be appropriate.

Two local government Bills have passed through this House. Local authorities already have the mechanisms to deal with nuisance. If we had included what is, in effect, a small additional power, the matter could have been dealt with much more quickly. After all, we inserted into the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill a large section on AONBs. However, I understand that the time to include a provision in the local government Bills has passed. Another Session must not pass without this extremely serious matter being regarded worthy of parliamentary time.

12.56 p.m.

Lord Luke

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes is to be congratulated on initiating this debate. Her persistence and drive in this matter deserve the greatest possible success. It is a strange fact that in spite of the mediation and the best efforts of all concerned, so many of these cases result in acrimonious non-agreement.

I have a large leylandii hedge which separates portions of my garden. It needs frequent attention but does its shielding work perfectly, so I readily appreciate this problem. My noble friend Lord Ferrers brought a different aspect to this debate, on the basis that we have too many regulations. I sympathise with him on that point. However, as long as legislation provides for the possibility of action only in the last resort by local authorities for specific cases, we should support it.

It has been said by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, and also the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that the Government seem to be dragging their feet on this matter. We have had the consultations and the results are plain. The Government have stated that they will bring forward legislation. As my noble friend, Lady Gardner stated, at the press conference given by Mr Meacher, he was extremely encouraging. I am glad to hear that she had a meeting with him. However, nothing has happened.

I agree with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that we cannot expect the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, to say whether such legislation might conceivably be in the Queen's Speech. If she does not do that, I hope that she will give us some idea of the time-frame within which the Government hope to be able to introduce provisions which will do the trick.

I hope that if such legislation is introduced, it will be limited to local authority involvement and, as I said before, that that would be as a last resort. There is not much more I can add to what has been extremely well put by my noble friend for the second or even the third time. There was a Bill introduced by my honourable friend Mr Andrew Rowe in another place, which did not succeed. That shows that there is certainly concern throughout the Palace of Westminster about these problems.

It took the Government two years to issue the consultation document in the first place. The results of that consultation were published earlier this year. In August we were encouraged to hope that something was coming. I hope that the Minister will give us some strong indications that action will now be taken.

1 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, for once more stimulating debate on the problems caused by high garden hedges. The noble Baroness and my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton—who I know wanted to be present for this short debate but had a previous engagement elsewhere—have both been persistent in making sure not only that the Government do not lose sight of this issue, but also that the House is kept informed of the latest developments.

From all that has been said prior to today and today, it is clear that noble Lords are aware of the problems. Neighbourhood quarrels about overgrown garden hedges hit the headlines with unrelenting regularity. What we see in the newspapers and on our television screens are often the more extreme cases where the suffering is severe.

Perhaps I can say to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, that someone with a large garden of their own next door to a neighbour with a large garden, who has a hedge a long distance from the living area, is in a very different situation from an elderly couple living perhaps in a bungalow which receives little daylight who, even in midsummer, have to keep the electric lights burning at all times and where efforts at reasonable resolution of the problem have failed. I understand that he does not want hedge inspectors visiting his garden in order to advise him on what he ought to be doing.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, or anyone else.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, if the noble Earl were in the position of the couple in the hypothetical case I just gave, he might welcome even me visiting him to help him resolve the problem.

The lives of thousands of people are being made a misery by these problems. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, that Hedgeline has done much to highlight the problems. The Government take the problems seriously at the highest level. That is why we published a consultation paper in England and Wales seeking views on possible solutions.

The options considered, as the noble Baroness knows, included voluntary and statutory action. The response was overwhelming. We received over 3,000 replies. To put that into context: the department's consultations usually generate hundreds rather than thousands of replies. As might be expected, there was a lot of public interest in the matter; 91 per cent of the responses came from members of the public. Local authorities took the time and the opportunity to consult widely in their own localities before responding, and there were striking similarities between the views expressed by local councils and the public.

The vast majority of respondents believed that new laws were the answer to nuisance garden hedge problems. That included 95 per cent of the individual members of the public and 77 per cent of local authorities. As to what form those laws should take, a new complaints system run by local authorities was the clear favourite. That was option four in the consultation paper and was supported by 73 per cent of the public and 67 per cent of local authorities. However, local authorities were more likely to want other measures, such as mediation, to be introduced not instead of, but alongside that legislation.

The consultation showed that there is support for a tougher line to be taken on controls. We take neighbourhood problems seriously so we announced, in the summer, that we would prepare legislation to give local authorities in England powers to determine complaints about problem garden hedges. The National Assembly for Wales also decided that the new legislation should apply to Wales. We are keen to get the legislation in place quickly, but wanted to flesh out and ensure that the new rules would and could be enforced.

Today we are asked by the noble Lord, Lord Luke, and the noble Baroness, Lady Parkes, to give a commitment that the Bill will be included in the Government's legislative programme for the next Session. The noble Lord, Lord Luke, recognised that I cannot anticipate what might or might not be included in the Queen's Speech next month. However, I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, that people are looking for legislation and a resolution of their problems sooner rather than later, and we will do our best to meet that need.

The question was raised as to why we could not use existing legislation. But that legislation is based on Victorian laws. We believe that we need an up-to-date solution to the problem of modern living, not least because of the importance in this case of mediation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, also raised, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, why her own Bill could not be used. The proposal in that Bill would add boundary hedges to the statutory nuisances in Section 79 of the Environmental Protection Act. We considered that possibility but do not believe it is appropriate to use that legislation in order to resolve this problem in the most effective way.

As ever, we have had an informative debate about problem high hedges. I am grateful for the welcome given today to our commitment to legislate on this issue. We are seized of the urgency and the need to bring that legislation forward in terms of taking action as a result of the consultation. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, asked why we could not add resolution of this problem to some of the other legislation. At certain stages late in the night I felt that the noble Baroness shared with me and other noble Lords the feeling that that Bill already contained enough material on which to consult. There have also been odd occasions when Her Majesty's Opposition spokesman in the House of Lords commented on the rather large legislative programme going through Parliament before the next Queen's Speech.

Notwithstanding that point, we are seized of the importance of taking action on this matter and I look forward to doing so.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down I should like to place on record the kindness and consideration that the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, gave to this matter throughout every stage.

House adjourned at ten minutes past one o'clock.