HL Deb 25 July 1991 vol 531 cc83-5WA
Lord Gainford

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What measures they propose to safeguard hedgerows.

Baroness Blatch

In our White Paper,This Common Inheritance, the Government proposed new meaures to give local planning authorities powers to safeguard key hedgerows. Subsequently, we issued a consultation paper—as part of our wider review of tree preservation policies and legislation—which gave further details of our proposals.

As my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment explained in another place at the Report Stage of the Planning and Compensation Bill, responses to the consultation were extensive and raised a range of basic issues. We explored these further in a series of meetings which he held with a number of interested parties during the spring, and have been giving careful attention to the various comments made.

We have concluded that some of the criticisms made of our initial proposals have force: in particular that more comprehensive and systematic arrangements for protecting hedgerows are required; that the mechanics of the proposed new system should be refined; that payments for management should be targeted on hedgerows most likely to benefit, rather than be limited to those under threat of removal, and should reflect a wider range of management options; and that the burden of such payments should not fall on local authorities.

We are therefore proposing measures which will address these criticisms, and now intend to go forward on a somewhat different basis from that set out in our consultation paper.

The revised proposals would consist of two elements: a hedgerow notification scheme and separately administered and funded hedgerow management grants.

The notification scheme would be administered by local planning authorities. It would require those who wish to remove hedgerows—or to reduce them in size beyond dimensions which would be laid down in regulations—to notify their local authority of their intention to do so. If the authority did not respond to the proposal within 28 days of such notification, the owner or occupier would be able to proceed. However, if the authority took the view that the hedgerow was of value for the landscape, wildlife or historical reasons it would register it as such and inform the owner of occupier accordingly. Where a hedge was registered, the owner or occupier would be required to retain the hedgerow concerned—and only to undertake such work on it as was consistent with its long-term retention and the maintenance of its amenity value. That would include, for example, trimming as part of normal agricultural operations.

There would be a right of appeal to the Secretary of State for the Environment against the decision of the local authority concerned to register a hedgerow. It would be open to the appellant to request that the Secretary of State for the Environment should set aside the registration on the grounds that retention of the hedgerow would pose a significant threat to the viability of the farm business.

In the absence of a successful appeal, registration of a hedgerow would confer protection for a period of 10 years. Exemptions would apply for certain contingencies, such as disease, and for minor works such as moving a gateway, and it would be open to the local authority to revoke registration at any time it considered this appropriate.

Removal of a hedgerow without notifying the local authority, removal of a hedgerow following registration, or unauthorised reduction in the size of a hedgerow would all constitute an offence.

The proposed new arrangements therefore offer a comprehensive—but straightforward—means of safeguarding our hedgerow heritage, and we hope will be widely welcomed.

At the same time we recognise that some farmers may need assistance if they are to maintain or bring our hedgerow stock back into positive management. We are therefore proposing separate arrangements—administered by the Government or their agencies—to offer grants for that purpose aimed at encouraging landowners and farmers to reintroduce environmentally beneficial management, after taking account of existing grants.

Eligible operations would include laying, coppicing and—where appropriate—biennial trimming, but not the costs of annual maintenance where this was carried out as part of normal farming operations. In some cases the most environmentally beneficial course of action may be to leave a hedgerow in an unmanaged state for the immediate future.

Separating arrangements for protecting hedgerows from aid for management will ensure that resources are used to best effect and are directed to those hedgerows which will gain most from positive management of this type, having regard to the character of the hedgerow concerned, local custom and practice and the most appropriate cycle of management.

Administering the proposed system of protection separately from aid for management will therefore provide an essential element of flexibility in efforts to conserve this important feature of the countryside.

We intend to make a fuller statement in due course, giving further details of the operation of both schemes. In the meantime, we shall be glad to receive comments from interested parties on our revised proposals, to assist in the process of refining and finalising them. To that end, both Ministers and officials at the Department of the Environment will be pleased to take part in further discussions as appropriate.

So far as Wales is concerned, the Welsh Office proposes to ask the Countryside Council for Wales to explore the possibility of including a hedgerow management grants system as part of their proposals for the countryside stewardship scheme.

These revised proposals fulfil our White Paper commitment, and mark a significant step in the task of conserving the amenity of our rural areas. Some aspects—in particular the proposed notification procedures—will require primary legislation, and it is our intention to seek to introduce this when parliamentary time permits.