HL Deb 09 January 2003 vol 642 cc1122-38

12.29 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.

[Lord Skelmersdale in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Complaints to which this Act applies]:

Baroness Gardner of Parkes moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 7, after "of" insert "natural

The noble Baroness said: This is a simple seeming amendment but the issue is not simple. Light is of the greatest importance in the Bill, although we shall debate other issues of great importance to people's lives when we come to further amendments. Medically, light is known to have a major impact on health. Unavoidable loss of daylight during the winter is accepted as a cause of ill-health and a depressed state of mind. How much worse is it for hedge victims to suffer avoidable loss of light? The Bill is intended to deal with that issue.

I do not know whether the amendment I have tabled, using the word "natural", is the right one; natural light may be too restrictive a definition. Before I go into the detail, it is important to dispel some worries and concerns people have put to me. I have received a great deal of correspondence since Second Reading. Because of the press coverage, people still do not understand that the Bill is not intended to reduce every hedge in the country to 2 metres. We must make it clear that the decision as to the height at which the hedge is retained is flexible. Only if the hedge is 2 metres or more can there be any cause for complaint. Two metres will give ground floor to ground floor privacy. It also ties in with planning law, where a wall of more than 2 metres in height would require consent.

Other individuals are worried that treasured trees may be covered by the Bill and that their favourite tree will have to go. The Bill has nothing to do with trees. There are separate laws for trees. We must be certain that we are not dealing with individual trees. There have been legal case precedents with trees and there are other ways of resolving disputes over trees. But the law on hedges has been ineffective. It has taken 20 years to achieve success in the law courts.

Others are concerned that levels presently agreed with their neighbours might be considered no longer appropriate and they might be forced to change them. The Bill makes it clear that there will be opportunities; if levels have been agreed that is a good precedent which should be followed.

The aim is for hedges to be of reasonable, not oppressive height; it should be possible for them to be trimmed regularly; and they should be the sort of hedges that people would choose for a garden of a given size and which they would not consider too bad to impose on a neighbour. Light criteria on their own are not capable of defining such hedges. Light is not the only problem, but there is grave concern that the BRE guidelines for light would be inappropriate for hedges. For example, if you have a 5.25 metre hedge on a south boundary of a 15 metre garden, by mid-February 65 per cent of the garden will still be in full shade; by the end of March 50 per cent will still be in full shade; and at the summer solstice 20 per cent will remain in shade. In other words, 20 per cent of the garden is permanently shaded, but the degree of shade increases at different times of the year.

The Bill is intended to retain light of a degree that will make life good and liveable for the people on the dull side of the hedge—as I have said before, no one ever complains if they are on the sunny side. Under the BRE standards, a north hedge at the end of a 15 metre garden would be allowed up to 14 to 15 metres high. That is no answer for anyone. A hedge at the end of a tiny 9 metre garden could be 5 to 6 metres high. That applies to all aspects other than south, because if you get all the south sun you are on the sunny side and the situation would not apply.

If we followed the BRE guidelines on light, over one-third of people who have complained about hedges would receive no benefit at all, and two thirds would receive so little that it would not be worth their while using the Bill to seek an improvement. It is important that the question of light be determined. I hope that the Government will come forward with a more clear and positive way of determining light, not using BRE standards. I am not asking them to produce a magic answer now—there is time to consider the matter—but I would like the views of other Members of the Committee on light.

Natural light is one thing, but diffused light, sunlight and living light are others. Natural light would mean anything except artificial light. That is why I am not terribly pleased with my amendment, but I wanted to raise this important issue, which I hope will be viewed seriously. I beg to move.

Lord Monson

I generally support the noble Baroness on the Bill, as she knows. I agree with her Amendments Nos. 1 and 2, although possibly Amendment No. 2 as modified by Amendment No. 3 tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Will she clarify her assertion that trees are not included? Clause 2 seems to state that leylandii are trees.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

Single treasured trees are not included. The Bill covers only two or more trees, which must be together. Individual trees, which are mostly the type that have tree preservation orders on them, are not included.

Baroness Hamwee

I support the amendment. It had not occurred to me until the noble Baroness tabled it that any light other than natural light might be the subject of the Bill and the proposed protection. As she said, sunlight falls within the category of natural light. Considerable angles are needed for properties to receive the benefit of sunlight at certain times of the year. It is normal not to have sunlight as much of the time as natural light. To restrict the provision further than natural light would not be appropriate, but the Bill should not extend to allowing artificial light to be accessed by cutting down trees. Natural light is the natural definition and understanding of the Bill's aims.

Baroness Trumpington

I have a question for my noble friend Lady Gardner. If you build a tennis court and need a background for it, in my experience you grow the quickest and tallest hedge. Will such a hedge be subject to the provisions of the Bill?

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

As always, my noble friend asks an interesting question. It depends on where the tennis court is situated. If it is next door to the window of someone's home—whether it is the ground floor or first floor—and the resident cannot see anything because the hedge is fast growing as my noble friend suggests, then yes, it would be covered. The point is the loss of light or amenity it would create for the person living in the adjoining house. If the tennis court is on the shady side, then the house on the sunny side would not be affected. If the situation were reversed and the hedge interfered with sunlight reaching the home then it would be subject to the Bill's provisions. We will come on to debate the issue of whether the word "barrier" is appropriate, but the provision would apply if the plants formed a hedge or a "barrier", as the Bill currently provides.

My noble friend highlights another issue by pointing out that people will put in the fastest-growing type of hedge. That is the practice where things have gone so wrong. I have received letters from various people who planted leylandii hedges which were small and harmless 20 or 25 years ago but which are now 80 feet high and a menace. No one is willing to undertake the cost of dealing with those hedges.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, for the stimulating debate on this issue. It is an important part of the debate that we need to have. I think that she is trying to ensure that the loss of sunlight is properly taken into account in determining a complaint. She also referred to the Building Research Establishment guidelines, which are very valuable in this context. I was extremely impressed by her understanding of how those guidelines might impact on individual cases. I think that the use of "dull" and "sunny" is helpful in that context.

The next group of amendments will widen the debate in relation to grounds of complaint, and I shall comment further on Clause 1 then. For now, I simply say that we accept that the loss of sunlight is different from the loss of daylight. Both, however, could be determined as issues surrounding the issue of natural light. On reflection, therefore, I am not sure that Amendment No. 1 hits the mark, and I think that the noble Baroness herself has some doubts about, it. Nevertheless, we accept that this is the core of the issue and we have some sympathy with the point that she is making. All I can say now is that we shall consider her comments and see whether there is some way in which the terminology can be improved. We may be able to discuss the point further.

Therefore, although I cannot accept the amendment, we shall certainly reflect further on what has been said.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

I thank the Minister for his comments. As I said, I shall not press the amendment now. However, I think that between now and Report— which is scheduled for 28th February—there is room for discussion of many of the issues that we shall be considering today.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes moved Amendment No. 2: Page 1, line 7, after "light" insert "; 2 (ii) loss of amenity, whether in the dwelling or in any garden or yard associated with the dwelling; or (iii) damage to any property, including damage to plants or soil

The noble Baroness said: I have aired these issues for many years, and experience has shown the need for a definition that goes much wider than "light". I think that it should include the loss of amenity, loss of property value and loss of comfort. Someone sent me a very interesting short poem that outlines much of the problem. I shall read a part of it but not the part at the end dealing with the legislators. It states:

I think that that covers the issues, of which we are all so aware, and all of which were raised on Second Reading. I do not need to go into them in detail now.

The fact is that people are intimidated when trying to reach a resolution with their neighbours. They can become depressed and financially endangered by the damage done by overgrown hedges. As I have said in your Lordships' House before, I have been sent photographs of 25 metre hedges between two semi-detached houses. Although that may be difficult to believe, we have reached the point at which no one is controlling the situation. That is another reason for this Bill. I think that the amendment is self-explanatory. I beg to move.

12.45 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 2, Amendment No. 3: Line 2, at beginning insert "unreasonable

The noble Baroness said: I have tabled this amendment because I believe that the loss of amenity can range from the very minor to the dramatic, or the other way round, and that the remedy could be disproportionate to the loss of amenity unless it is qualified, as I propose, as an "unreasonable loss of amenity". I think that it would also be appropriate to make this provision parallel to the "obstruction of light" provision mentioned elsewhere in the clause, which would also be qualified as an "unreasonable" obstruction of light.

I am sympathetic to the point of principle here. The loss of a very near and tall group of trees, for example, is different from the loss of light. Depending on the orientation of the properties, the trees may not cause the loss of much light, but they could make the situation uncomfortable if the complainant's garden is short and the neighbouring trees are close to the boundary. As Committee members with experience of local government will know from discussions on planning applications, it is not always easy to support an argument that an application should be refused because of the effect on a neighbour's amenity. Nevertheless, I think that it would be appropriate for the Bill's provisions to mirror as closely as possible the factors that apply in consideration of planning applications.

I have a question for the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, on Amendment No. 2. The amendment refers to, damage to any property, including damage to plants or soil".

Are not other remedies available to deal with such damage? If so, is it appropriate to extend the remedies provided by this Bill to such damage? Might not other remedies achieve some of the Bill's objectives?

I hope that noble Baroness is sympathetic to my amendment to Amendment No. 2. I beg to move.

Lord Monson

As I indicated when speaking to Amendment No. 1, I support Amendment No. 2, but as modified by Amendment No. 3. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I am also slightly concerned about paragraph (iii) of the amendment, but for rather different reasons. It is perfectly reasonable not to qualify the word "damage" as applied to property, because property damage is serious. However, I do not think that one could really justify imposing the heavy hand of the law where slight damage to plants or soil is concerned. So perhaps the noble Baroness might contemplate at the next stage inserting the word "serious" before the second "damage" in the paragraph, so that it reads "including serious damage to plants or soil".

Lord Methuen

I support both amendments. There is reference to "loss of amenity". I should like to see loss of view included. One may well have bought one's house because of its superb view of the neighbourhood. That view can be destroyed completely by high hedges. That is an important consideration.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

Taking that last point first, unfortunately I do not think that anyone has an entitlement to a view. I supported the conversion of a barn with a two-metre wall opposite my small home in Oxfordshire. I was upset to find that a three-metre wall was built which shut out my view altogether. When I drew the matter to the council's attention, retrospective planning permission was given. I would not have supported the conversion in the first instance: I would have made an issue about the two metre wall. One presumed that if the greater height were not included in the planning application the wall would be only two metres high. Through that sad experience I learned that one does not have an entitlement to a view. If I am wrong, I should, of course, be happy to include "view" in the amendment. However, I am not sure that such a right comes within planning matters.

I should be prepared to accept "unreasonable" loss of amenity. It is a reasonable provision. However, what happens to the amendment to the amendment if I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 2? Perhaps the Deputy Chairman of Committees or the Clerk at the Table will know. No one seems to know that technicality. If the noble Baroness does not press her amendment to my amendment, I shall not then press Amendment No. 2. I am willing to bring forward an amendment to include "serious" damage to plants and soil. Perhaps we should review the wording of the amendment. I accept the noble Baroness's amendment to my amendment.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

Dealing with the technical issue of the amendments, the answer is that the amendment would fall.

I seek to be helpful. We have listened carefully to the views expressed in the debate. The general rule for the Bill is to keep matters as simple as possible. In so doing, it achieves most of its objectives. If we try to deal with every eventuality we may run into difficulties. There is a risk that the scope of complaints caught within it would be widened to such an extent that the legislation would become unwieldy and unworkable.

As Government, we wish principally to focus on the hedge problem. Let us not forget that we have the facility to add to grounds of complaint through regulations. I know that that does not always go down well in your Lordships' House. However, it is no bad way for us to proceed in this kind of legislation.

On property damage and the other detail in the amendment, as the noble Baroness said at Second Reading, there are well established procedures for dealing with such complaints through the courts. Intervention by the local authority under this legislation should always be seen as a last resort where no other effective remedy might exist. In addition, the complaints are not so much to do with the height of the hedge—that is the principal concern of the Bill—as about issues of liability and compensation. As well as being outside the scope of the Bill, we argue that such matters are probably best left to the courts to determine. I am not convinced that by complicating matters we shall improve the quality of the operation of the legislation. The new system envisaged through the Bill is about right.

Subject to those comments, we shall reflect carefully on the issues raised in the amendment. In a sense, the amendment to the amendment is a lawyers' amendment, introducing "reasonableness" into the debate. It is not an unfair or wrong notion to introduce but it may further complicate matters.

While we accept in principle that some extension of the grounds of complaint may be advisable, we do not want to go too far beyond the issues of obstruction of light. We shall give consideration to those extra grounds of complaint. It is to be hoped that on Report we can bring forward a more suitable amendment and in the interim have further discussion on the wording.

I hope that that satisfies the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, and will persuade her and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, to withdraw their amendments.

Baroness Hamwee

I shall not take up your Lordships' time by arguing whether my amendment is a lawyers' amendment or simply a commonsense amendment. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I do not think that it will make any difference whether or not I withdraw my amendment since the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, is about to withdraw her amendment. However, in order to save 30 seconds, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 3, as an amendment to Amendment No. 2, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

I listened to the Minister but I am not satisfied with not including damage to property. The Minister is mistaken—between now and Report the noble Lord can check the accuracy of what I say—in saying that the height of the trees bears no relation to the damage to the property. I understand from my botany studies many years ago and my constant gardening reading now that, with the rare exception of the Australian gum tree—it is very small rooted; that is why they fall down unexpectedly so disastrously killing people— most trees have a root span relevant to their height. If the tree is tall the roots are wide. I have received documented cases from people whose drains have been broken by underground roots. I read a poem about a building cracking. The roots can be as damaging as the height of the hedge. Reduction of the height of the hedge can help with regard to extra growth of roots. It is an issue we should consider.

I welcome the Minister's statement that the Government would be willing to widen the provision. The aim of the legislation is for people to have the right to enjoy their own homes. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Methuen moved Amendment No. 4: Page 1, line 7, after "hedge" insert "or plantation of trees

The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 4, 7 and 15 seek to add plantations to high hedges. My reasons for this are not to prevent the proper exploitation of commercial or other nurseries but to prevent the negligent or wilful misuse of them. I have given the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, and the Minister some photographs of a Christmas tree nursery adjacent to where I live where the owner has failed to harvest many of the trees. They are now of such a size as to make them unmarketable, being some 25 feet or more high. The occupants of the adjacent house, depicted in the photographs to which I refer, are now overwhelmed by the trees which are about 20 feet away from the front door of their house. They suffer an obstruction of light and loss of amenity quite as severe as if it had been caused by a high hedge. When they bought this house about five or six years ago, they had views of lakes and reservoirs which are adjacent to the property. Those are now totally obscured.

My neighbours, the occupants of the house—here I must declare an interest as, although I am not currently affected by the trees, if they continue to grow, I shall be—have endeavoured to get the owner of the trees to cut or trim them without success. That is a particular case. I am sure, however, that it is not unique and that there are many other householders in a similar predicament.

My amendments seek to rectify that situation and enable the householder to obtain an amelioration of the circumstances in a similar manner to that which applies if the problems have been caused by a high hedge, as defined in the Bill. It is not the intention to cause the wholesale destruction of the nursery.

Amendment No. 7 defines plantations and Amendment No. 15 describes the amelioration procedure required. I should point out that if these amendments are agreed to, there would be similar consequential amendments elsewhere in the Bill which, for the Committee's convenience, I have not tabled. I beg to move.

1 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

I hope that my Amendment No. 9 will help to deal with this problem. If that is the case, the amendment we are discussing is unnecessary. However, I appreciate that whatever is blocking someone's light should be able to be tackled. To that extent, I understand and support the noble Lord's view.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

This amendment needs to be considered alongside the related Amendment No. 7 to Clause 2. Amendment No 7 seeks to define "plantation" as, a group of cultivated trees …grown for domestic or commercial purposes whose height exceeds two metres". Unlike the situation with high trees, there would be no requirement for them to form a barrier or to comprise only evergreens. Overall, the effect of the amendments would be rather more draconian than the noble Lord may envisage. They would bring all planted trees, other than single specimens, within the scope of the complaints system. The Bill is predominantly designed to deal with high hedges.

I make the simple point that the amendments lose sight of the positive benefits that trees can bring, including those that we might plant in our own gardens. After all, the right tree planted in the right place can make a significant improvement to the quality of the local environment. For that reason, the Government actively promote tree planting in both town and countryside. These amendments, if agreed, would discourage people from planting suitable trees and add to pressures to remove existing ones.

I read the correspondence and looked at the photographs that the noble Lord provided, and I certainly appreciate that some difficulties and problems may arise. One hopes that in that specific case the difficulties can be amicably resolved. The noble Lord may want to raise some of the issues with his local authority to ascertain whether it has some powers or influence that it can bring to bear to try to reach some suitable compromise or accommodation. In general terms, bad cases, such as the one that the noble Lord mentioned, do not necessarily lead to good law being made. I always canvass care in discussing examples of that nature when considering a measure that is designed to be of general benefit.

I certainly appreciate that neighbouring groups of trees can inflict the same misery as an overgrown hedge but I do not think that the problems associated with overgrown trees are in quite the same league as those associated with high hedges adjacent to predominantly urban or suburban homes. Although complaints about tall trees are received from time to time, I do not believe that the noble Lord's amendments necessarily constitute the right solution. There is a wider danger that in seeking to bring plantations within the scope of the Bill it may well lose the widespread support that it has, not just across political parties but also among those interested organisations, particularly local authorities, that would have to administer the system.

I fear that the noble Lord's amendments risk losing that consensus. I have no doubt that local authorities would be rather concerned about the additional burdens that could be placed upon them if they had to deal with all tree-related complaints in the way envisaged in the amendments. Horticultural, landscape and other tree-related industries, including timber growers, may be concerned about the impact of the amendments on their business. I hope that the noble Lord will understand our reasons for not being able to support the amendments, however public spirited he may have been in tabling them. I trust that he will feel able to withdraw them.

Lord Methuen

I thank the Minister for his comments. I am not sure that my neighbours will totally agree with all his remarks but I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [High hedges]:

Lord Methuen moved Amendment No. 5: Page 2, line 11, leave out "evergreens" and insert "evergreen or deciduous trees

The noble Lord said: The Bill currently defines a high hedge as one composed of evergreens, being primarily aimed at leylandii. Amendment No. 5 seeks to include deciduous hedges in the Bill. Deciduous hedges can grow to heights significantly greater than two metres and may be composed of beech or thorn trees among other species. There is a celebrated beech hedge at Meikleour, near Blairgowrie, that was planted in 1746 and is now 600 yards long and 110 feet high. Furthermore, copper beech retains its leaves until the new growth in the spring. However, I am not suggesting that the hedge at Meikleour is a problem. My amendment seeks to include in the Bill hedges formed of deciduous trees as well as evergreens. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

The noble Lord's amendment is admirably clear. It seeks to extend the definition of high hedges to include deciduous as well as evergreen trees. As I said in response to the noble Lord's earlier amendment, if the Bill is to be workable it is better to keep it simple and to focus it on the main problem of high hedges. I believe that there is common agreement that, notwithstanding the example that the noble Lord mentioned, evergreen hedges are the main cause for complaint.

The amendment could also bring traditional countryside hedgerows, which cause problems to a domestic property, within the scope of the Bill. Many of us have campaigned over many long years—particularly those of us involved with local government—to encourage the return of hedgerows in the countryside. The amendment could have an adverse effect in that regard. These hedgerows tend to comprise predominantly deciduous trees and shrubs. There was some concern at Second Reading that we should avoid this and the potential conflict with our policies to promote and protect these important features of our countryside.

Having said that, there is provision to amend the definition of a high hedge through regulation rather than primary legislation. This enables us to return to the matter if experience shows that this is necessary and that there is a problem with deciduous as well as evergreen trees. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

I listened to the Minister's interesting comments. However, I believe that the amendment is more important than I had appreciated. I have received a number of letters from people who are affected by just the problem we are discussing. One correspondent wrote of his neighbour's leylandii hedge that is now 20 feet high but incorporates a young lime tree. He makes the point that all the rest of the hedge could be cut but the lime tree would be exempt. He asked his neighbour to cut down the hedge, but the neighbour had only a small amount cut off. They still have no light through their first floor windows, although the sills of the windows in that room were specifically put 4 feet 10 inches from the ground to prevent any overlooking of the neighbours. The hedge is not needed for privacy or to prevent overlooking, but it is there and it contains deciduous trees.

I had another letter from a man about a planning application for the farmland property adjoining his, which was not granted. Someone put in a line of alders, which were very small when they were planted but are now more than 25 feet high and take away all the light to the house. The farm road on the other side is hardly used, but the trees are having a very damaging effect.

We must be clear that we are referring only to domestically occupied areas. That covers the point that the Minister made about hedgerows. I had a helpful letter from the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Temple Guiting, the Minister who spoke at Second Reading. He covers the point about domestic property, saying: You also queried the term 'domestic property'. Under clause 3 of the Bill, this is defined as a dwelling or associated yard or garden. And dwelling means any building or part of a building occupied, or intended to be occupied, as a separate dwelling. This would exclude barns or other outbuildings that might be used for storage or purposes other than as living accommodation. It would, however, cover those cases where an affected home was temporarily unoccupied possibly because of difficulties in selling it, or in getting new tenants, because of the presence of the high neighbouring hedge". The Minister clearly defines the properties that would be covered by the Bill. Rural hedgerows that are not right on top of a domestically occupied property would not be affected at all by the Bill, and that point covers it.

This is an important point. I believe that Amendment No. 9 would cover it, too. If a hedge had the effect of preventing light or amenity for the property next door, that amendment would cover it. We should consider the matter in that way. It is a question of where to amend the Bill; we might not need the word "deciduous" if we deleted "evergreen". We might simply deal with a hedge as a hedge, whether it is evergreen or deciduous. That is another way in which to consider the matter. There are various ways in which we could deal with this, either by adding "deciduous" or taking out "evergreen". The matter requires a lot of thought. Meanwhile, I hope that the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his amendment so that we can give the matter full consideration.

Lord Methuen

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, for their comments. It is certainly not my intention to destroy rural hedgerows; I am as keen on them as everybody else. However, if we simply barred leylandii, someone of evil intent could plant a beech hedge and let it grow. The point is to rethink the wording so that it includes that and avoids the situation in which leylandii could simply be replaced by beech. I shall return to the matter on Report with the co-operation of other Members of the House. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

1.15 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 6: Page 2, line 12, leave out paragraph (a).

The noble Baroness said: Coupled with this amendment is Amendment No. 8; they both address the same issue. I realised when rereading the Bill after Second Reading that it is not clear what is meant by "a barrier" in this context. I have tabled the amendments in the hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, can explain that in terms that I can follow, although other Members of the Committee may not need the explanation.

At first glance, one would expect a barrier to have something to do with restricting physical access. I doubt that that can be the case, because we are not necessarily talking about trees on a boundary. If the Bill refers to restricting a barrier to light, the point is covered by the very essence of the Bill, which is about trees that restrict light in an unreasonable fashion. The noble Baroness's amendment, Amendment No. 9, suggests that we are talking about a barrier of the nature of a fence or wall, because she uses the term, fence, wall or other barrier".

I am a little baffled about what is added by describing the trees in question as constituting a barrier, and whether there is some characteristic in them that I have not understood that would bring them within the scope of the Bill. I hope that I am not proving too tedious to other Members of the Committee in raising this, but I also hope that the noble Baroness can explain what she intends by the term. I beg to move.

Lord Monson

This could be a useful amendment, which might make Amendment No, 9 redundant. I declare an interest as a trustee of a charitable trust that owns and manages a row of alms houses. Many years ago, the owner of an adjacent property planted a row of leylandii to screen himself from the inhabitants of the alms houses. Because he failed at any stage to prune the trees, they have now grown to a height of 45 to 50 feet, totally cutting off the afternoon and, indeed, much of the morning light from the alms houses and causing them to become clamp and cold.

The irony is that the trees have totally failed in their original purpose to act as a barrier, because all the lower branches have simply dropped off, as does happen. The owner has planted a new hedge below two metres, parallel with the existing one. The original trees do not act as a barrier but they are still highly undesirable and antisocial. Amending the Bill through either Amendment No. 6, as moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, or Amendment No. 9, which stands in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, is vital to remedy the situation that I have described.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

It is clear that the definition would be changed by expunging references to "barrier", but it seems to us that including the idea that a hedge forms a harrier serves some useful purposes. First, it would focus attention on the dense screens that evergreens tend to create, which is the cause of complaint. Secondly, it would help to filter out complaints that have little chance of success before they reach the local authority.

The concept of what constitutes a barrier is generally understood. It is a term in common usage. People should be able to determine for themselves whether the legislation is likely to apply to the particular potentially offending hedge that is worrying them and whether they can properly take forward their complaint to the local authority. Although I indicated in discussion of amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, that the term "barrier" is open to interpretation, that will be mainly at the margins. Most cases will probably be fairly clear cut.

Taking out the reference to the term would also lose us some benefits. We believe that there would be some serious disadvantage if the definition were pared down, in accordance with the amendment, to two or more adjacent evergreens that are more than two metres high. Members of the public and local authorities might have difficulties in interpreting "adjacent". I can see the lawyers having some fun with that terminology. How close do the evergreens need to be in order to be judged to be adjacent? We certainly lose any idea that the evergreens are integrated together to form a single unit— the concept employed by the courts in the classic neighbourhood hedge dispute, Stanton v Jones. These amendments would move us away from the typical hedge towards encompassing individual trees, and therein lies the difficulty. Given our desire for simplicity on the issue, I would not advise at this stage that we make a major leap forward as the amendment suggests. I hope that the noble Baroness will not press her amendment.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

I was interested in the noble Baroness's amendment. I had not given the matter much thought, because I had picked up the Bill—it was John Taylor's Bill in the other House—and that was the wording in it. Therefore, I had not applied my mind to the significance of the word "barrier".

I listened to the Minister, and when he said that "barrier" was generally understood he was absolutely right. However, I received a fascinating letter that makes a number of points that we have to consider. The letter states: Clause 1(1)(b) makes clear reference to the mischief at which the Bill is aimed. That is 'the unreasonable obstruction of light caused by a high hedge'". The writer of the letter supports the Bill, and goes on to say: I also respectfully suggest that the added requirement of there being a barrier is likely to cause confusion and reduce the effectiveness of the legislation. I ask rhetorically against what is a barrier to be?". My correspondent also raises the most important point of all, which is that there is no definition of "barrier". Although we might believe that it is clearly understood, we apparently need to define what a barrier is, if the word is to remain in the Bill. For Amendment No. 9, it would certainly need to remain unless we found some attractive alternative. The Minister made clear all the problems that could arise if we did away with "barrier". Anyone could say, "Are these two trees close enough together?". We could get into quite a minefield. However, if we agree some satisfactory definition of "barrier" between now and Report, Amendment No. 9 might be appropriate.

The letter states: Further, when evergreens are allowed to grow to a sufficient height for them to cause material diminution in light, they may cease to be a barrier for people at the lower levels". That is exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Monson, pointed out. We would have to cover not only what is a barrier, but what was a barrier. Someone might say, "Well, it is no longer a barrier because it has grown up," and sure enough there might be many spaces. One often sees that evergreens tend to lose lower branches, and all the growth is high, where it takes away light but is no longer a barrier.

We have to define "barrier" in such a way that we are sure that it would cover even such trees that had grown past the point where they actually formed a barrier. I hope that the noble Baroness is willing to give us the benefit of her advice when we all consult on the issue of a barrier. Meanwhile, I hope that she will withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

I very much take the point made by the correspondent quoted by the noble Baroness, which was that we should concentrate on the adverse effects caused, rather than being diverted into definitions that may go against the application of provisions on them.

I must be one of a small minority who still does not understand the term "barrier". The discussion about a group of trees ceasing to be a barrier because of losing the lower branches confirms that we are talking about a physical barrier. However, if that physical barrier is on the other side of a wall, within the property of the owner of the trees, what does it matter whether that is a barrier, frankly? It is not a barrier to that property owner, because he can walk round the barrier of the group of trees and the fence. The more I think about it, the more confused I get.

I was attracted to the term "a single unit", which the Minister used. That describes the notion of a number of trees comprising a single whole. Therefore, "group" or "unit" seems a less confusing way to go. I shall not pursue the point now. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 not moved.]

Baroness Gardner of Parkes moved Amendment No. 9: Page 2, line 18, at end insert— (c) a group of evergreens is to be regarded as forming a barrier, irrespective of the existence of a fence, wall or other barrier, if the siting of the group of evergreens is such as to lead to the adverse effects mentioned in section 1(1).

The noble Baroness said: The reason for the amendment is quite important. The classic case took 20 years through the civil courts before the trees were reduced and was rather defeated by the fact that the person who then had to cut the hedge replanted, some metres in from their boundary, a hedge that could grow even taller than the original and do worse damage. It took many more years to get a second court decision in favour of that.

The amendment would also solve the problem of the noble Lord, Lord Methuen, about trees growing too close to his property. What would be important would be not where the hedge was exactly—whether on the boundary line, inside it or set back—but its effect on the light. That is the criterion to which I draw attention in the amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Monson

Now that Amendments Nos. 6 and 8 have been dealt with, it is all the more vital that we pay serious attention to Amendment No. 9. It is extremely necessary, if not necessarily in its present form. As I said earlier and as the noble Baroness confirmed, once the lower branches of leylandii have dropped off they cease to form a barrier, but still block off the light entirely at heights above head level. All that an unscrupulous owner has to do is erect a single-strand barbed wire fence and say, "That is my barrier. What are you complaining about?". The amendment goes a long way to addressing that problem.

Lord Methuen

I agree. The amendment goes a long way to meeting the points about my plantations. I would certainly like to give it further consideration. The particular plantation that I am thinking of is on a falling slope. The lower trees would not cause any problem, but the ones at the top would be included in the definition, so I support the amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

I am sorry to inject a slightly less positive note but, without in any way arguing with the substance of the point, is not the amendment circular? It states that, a group of evergreens is …a barrier", if it leads, to the adverse effects mentioned in section 1". That just takes us round in circles. When we reconsider the whole issue, I hope that we can consider whether that is quite the way to go about it.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

The important thing about the Bill is that it considers the impact of the high hedge. That must be—dare one say it—the root of the issue. That is the point, rather than where the high hedge is situated. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, is concerned that the Bill should apply not just to boundary hedges. That is an entirely appropriate concern, and I can give her some reassurance.

While on the issue of terminology, I accept that the term "barrier" is open to interpretation. However, it has an advantage because the local authority will have some discretion in interpretation when determining whether the Bill applies to a particular high hedge and where it is located. There will be guidance on what is a barrier. It will obviously have to reflect to some degree its location and mass. The decision in general will necessarily involve consideration of the extent to which the hedge in question acts as a barrier and its effect; its obstacle to light, access, visibility and so on.

The Bill as currently drafted already makes the link between the hedge as a barrier and the adverse effects in Clause 1. It says nothing about boundary hedges. Clause 1 of the Bill merely requires that the hedge should be situated on "neighbouring land". It does not state where. That is effectively shorthand to describe wherever the hedge is located. So the hedge does not have to be on a boundary or even next door to one's property. It could even be—I suppose one could argue—several gardens down the road. But so long as it obstructs light to one's property and impacts upon one's quiet enjoyment of the same, one will be able to make that complaint to the local authority. That is the beauty of the simplicity of the legislation. It also draws on the advantages that the term "barrier" is open to interpretation.

Therefore, in the classic case where one's neighbour attempts to grow another hedge well within his boundary the question of its impact will be covered by the legislation. I hope that offers the assurance that the noble Baroness seeks and that for those reasons she will feel able to withdraw Amendment No. 9.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

I thank the Minister for that reply. That is the best news today. If we can establish that it is the impact of the hedge rather than its exact siting, that is considerable progress. I shall not press the amendment today because I think it is very important that we get our wording right. However, today's Hansard will be beneficial to those affected. For that reason, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Lord Davies of Oldham

I think this may be a convenient moment for the Committee to adjourn until after Starred Questions. Accordingly, I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure.

[The Sitting was suspended from 1.33 until 3 p.m.]