HC Deb 20 June 2003 vol 407 cc635-55

(1)The provisions of sections 1 to 23 only apply to the area of a relevant authority if the authority has so resolved.

If a relevant authority resolves to apply those sections to their area—

  1. (a) those sections are to have effect there on and after a date specified in the resolution ("the commencement date"), which must be at least three months after the passing of the resolution, and
  2. the relevant authority must cause a notice to be published, in two consecutive weeks ending at least two months before the commencement date, in a local newspaper circulating in their area.

A notice published under subsection (2)(b) must—

  1. (a) state that the resolution has been passed,
  2. (b) give the commencement date, and
  3. (c) set out the general effect of those sections.'.—[Mr. Chope.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

11.29 am
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No 88, in clause 15, line 6, leave out subsection (2).

No. 89, in line 9, leave out 'under section 18 or 20'.

No. 45, in page 14, line 25, leave out clause 20.

Mr. Chope

So that hon. Members can follow the argument, I should explain that "relevant authority" is defined in clause 1 as the local authority in whose area the land on which the high hedge stands is situated. The new clause would give discretion to local authorities to consider whether they wished to opt in to the regulatory regime set out in detail in the Bill. It is modelled on an important precedent in sections 2 to 9 of the Noise Act 1996, which deal with a nuisance issue.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough Ind Whitby)

I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument closely. Is it not the case that the problems to which noise regulations apply occur principally in urban areas? An advert in a newspaper in an urban area with a particular circulation might not work as well in rural areas such as mine, where high hedges often give rise to problems with near neighbours, sometimes with violent consequences. Such problems form a large part of my work load, and the idea of publishing in a newspaper might not apply so clearly to a rural area.

Mr. Chope

I do not agree. The provision in the 1996 Act applies to all areas. Complaints about noise are much more frequent than complaints about high hedges. Local authorities and their residents are much more concerned about noise. I do not know whether that is reflected in the hon. Gentleman's postbag, but my postbag contains many letters on noise. Much of last Friday's debate on fireworks centred around noise and the antisocial behaviour of people who use fireworks in a way not intended by the manufacturer. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I think that the noise issue affects all local authority areas, as does the nuisance caused by high hedges. What could be more reasonable than having an active local debate, generated through the columns of local newspapers, involving councillors and council tax payers, on whether a local authority should opt into the Bill's provisions?

Bob Russell (Colchester)

What is the hon. Gentleman's view if the offending landowner is the local authority? A local authority might not want to opt in to the provisions if action could be taken against it.

Mr. Chope

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We will have the opportunity to discuss local authorities as judges in their own cause. Without anticipating that amendment, however, I can say that the import of it is to ensure that if a person complains about a hedge situated on land over which the local authority has control, he or she would be able to ask the Local Government Association to request an alternative local authority to adjudicate on the matter so that we would not have the problem of local authorities being judges in their own cause.

It would be reasonable for a local authority, when considering whether to apply the principles and regulatory regime of the Bill to its own circumstances, to take into account its own resources. Christchurch local authority is unable to afford to maintain the trees in its ownership as it would wish. It says that it can no longer afford to carry out the trimming work that is necessary. Last year, it could not even afford to water the plants that local residents had planted as part of the "Britain in Bloom" competition. If local authorities are under such extreme financial pressure, surely they should be given the responsibility, and the accountability that goes with it, to decide whether to opt in to an expensive regulatory regime. I can sum up my enthusiasm for the new clause as being in line with all those aficionados of the new localism, a cause with which I naturally empathise. It is only the most centralising dirigiste enthusiasts who would wish to oppose it.

The new clause is born out of my concern about the new financial burdens that keep being placed on local authorities. My local authority recently said that it will inevitably have to increase council tax again next year because of additional burdens placed on it by the Government. If, instead of forcing local authorities to accept those burdens, we and the Government gave local authorities the discretion over whether to take on such burdens, it would make things much easier for the Government, who could say, "Well, your local authority has decided to take on these burdens and the costs will have to be borne locally." It would also be much easier for local people because they would be able to say, "Well, why can't we just get our local authority to carry out its existing responsibilities with proper regard for what is prudent and sensible?"

Lawrie Quinn

The hon. Gentleman talks eloquently about the concerns of local authorities. What discussion has he had with the LGA and his local authority?

Mr. Chope

I have had discussions with the LGA in the past about the issue of burdens. As a vice-president of the LGA, which I am proud to be, I am also very much aware of the concerns that it has expressed about, I think, this Bill—but if not this Bill, certainly about others—and the additional burdens that are imposed. The Government have accepted that as a result of the burdens principle, they should reimburse local authorities for the additional costs incurred because of new regulatory burdens that are placed on them. The problem, as I said on Second Reading and, I think, in the debate on the money resolution, is that the money that the Government say they will make available to discharge local authorities' financial burden is not distributed to authorities on a pro rata basis proportionate to their actual costs.

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South)

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that there are other financial burdens for local authorities that should be scrapped? For instance, should local authorities cease to adjudicate over tree preservation orders? Surely those are an expense, but that is an important duty. There is certainly a parallel between a local authority adjudicating over a tree preservation order and adjudicating on whether a hedge is, or is not, a nuisance.

Mr. Chope

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. An amendment has been tabled on tree preservation orders, which we will have a chance to discuss later. The Bill as currently drafted—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is on top of the detail—would give a local authority the power to intervene. If there was a complaint, and that complaint was decided in favour of the complainant, it would have the effect of totally overruling and superseding any tree preservation order that was already in existence.

That concern has been expressed to me, because, as the hon. Gentleman says, local authorities are given responsibilities and powers in relation to tree preservation orders. The local authority, of course, is accountable to local people, and it initially decides which trees or groups of trees will be subject to tree preservation orders. As I understand it, the local authority has absolute discretion to change, draw up or otherwise alter a tree preservation order. In introducing the new clause, I am not suggesting that the powers and responsibilities that local authorities have in relation to tree preservation orders should in any way be circumscribed. Indeed, the new clause would enhance both the responsibility and the discretion of local authorities.

Without the new clause, the financial and administrative burden of the legislation will fall on all local authorities disproportionately. Some of those with the greatest burdens will receive no help at all. The Government said in the regulatory impact assessment or the guidance that any shortfall would be made up out of general grant. The question arising from that, however, is whether that grant will be new money, which is most unlikely. Even if that were the case, will that money be such as to enable a local authority such as East Dorset district council, which does not receive formula funding grant, to be reimbursed for the costs imposed by the Bill? I have raised that issue on several occasions, and the Minister seems to answer that it will not. The people of East Dorset will therefore find themselves funding 100 per cent. of the burden themselves.

How will such money made available by the Government reach a council that is protected by a floor against loss of grant, which would otherwise operate? The answer is that it would not. There are many councils in Dorset that currently receive more grant than they strictly should, and are protected by what is described as a floor against further loss of grant. If there is some notional increase in grant distributed to them as a result of the Government saying, "We will meet the additional costs of local authorities," it will go into the pot but it will not result in a local authority that is already on the floor receiving any more money. I use this argument on the basis that it is prudent in this world that, if once bitten, to be twice shy.

That issue has arisen in the context of concessionary fares. The new burden under which every local authority shall provide free bus passes for half-price off-peak travel for the over-60s had a disproportionate impact in my constituency. Local authority areas in which the bus journeys are longer and therefore more expensive got no special treatment, local authorities with above average numbers of pensioners got no special treatment, local authorities not in receipt of revenue support grant got no special treatment, and local authorities losing grant under the Government's redistribution from south to north again got no special treatment.

Lawrie Quinn

I was beginning to fear that the hon. Gentleman had strayed on to the bus when we should really be sitting on the hedge. Has he studied clause 13(3) and (4), which explain that an authority's expenses would be recoverable? Is he saying that he feels that local authorities would not be able to recover such expenses, as envisaged in the Bill?

Mr. Chope

I am saying that because of what is in the regulatory impact assessment and the draft guidance produced by the Minister. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has had a chance to look at the draft guidance, but what that and the regulatory impact assessment make clear is that any shortfall will be funded out of general revenue support grant. As he knows, as he is probably more expert on this subject than anyone in the Chamber, revenue support grant is distributed according to a formula, so for a council such as East Dorset, which does not receive anything, being told that it will be reimbursed through a grant formula rather than through a specific grant is no consolation.

I have tried to find a means of putting forward an amendment that would give the Government the power and the duty to reimburse the local authority for the actual costs incurred. Last week I tried to table such an amendment to the Fireworks Bill, but it was not found to be in order. It therefore occurred to me that one way of meeting the same problem would be to give local authorities the responsibility and power to opt out of the Bill if they wanted to do so. Under the Bill, as has been accepted in almost every contribution to the debates, some local authorities will receive many more complaints than others, either because they have more hedges or because they have more antisocial and antagonistic residents. Those authorities will not be able to recover all the fee income to meet their costs. In addition, they will have the burden of appeals.

Residents of certain authorities are wrongly deemed to be able to pay because of the value of their houses. An enormous amount of anxiety exists among people, far greater than that about hedges, about how they will be able to pay their increased council tax bills this year. Only today, as some Members may have had a chance to see this morning, one of our great national newspapers, the Daily Express, in a leading article, headed, "Put a cap on unfair tax", states: Council tax, which has risen by more than 20 per cent. in some local authorities, has been dubbed Britain's unfairest tax after it was revealed that it is hitting the poor and middle classes much harder than the rich. There is also an article on page 6 of the same newspaper headed, "Unfairest tax: War on the Middle Classes". My new clause is intended to mitigate the impact of further additions to that unfair tax flowing directly from the regulation in the Bill.

11.45 am
Bob Russell

Did the hon. Gentleman attempt to table this amendment in Committee? In fact, was he a member of the Committee?

Mr. Chope

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the amendment was not debated in Committee, and I do not think that the Committee went on for much more than half an hour. I was appointed a member of the Committee, and when the date for the Committee had been set, I wrote to the promoter of the Bill to say that because of a long-standing speaking engagement, which was fixed last autumn, I was not able to attend on that day. I do not think that he referred to that at the time of the Committee sitting, but I am sure that he accepts that that was the reason why I could not be present.

When I returned from that speaking engagement, I must admit that I was amazed to find that the Committee proceedings were all over. I had expected the Committee to meet on a second occasion to consider the Bill in the detail that had been anticipated when the matter was discussed on Second Reading. That did not, however, materialise.

This issue goes to the heart of the matter, and it is also relevant in the context of a letter that I received from one of my constituents, part of which I shall share with the House. My constituent is a pensioner and she says: We are too old to be able to cut the hedge back and we do not have the money, thanks to your increase in Council Tax, to pay someone to do it for us. So have a thought for your elderly constituents. I would have thought your best bet would be to bring in a law forbidding long builders lorries and rubbish to be parked in front gardens, lowering the tone in what was was once a very nice area to live in but is no more. She then goes on to discuss the Bill. She is concerned that she does not have enough money to have her hedge cut, because of the high council tax. The Bill's consequences, without the inclusion of the new clause, would be that her council tax would go up even more, ironically resulting in people being less able to pay for the pruning of their high hedges than they are at present. I am sure that is not what the Bill's promoter intends.

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden)

I am sympathetic to my hon. Friend's constituents' position, but does that justify those people casting into darkness and depriving of light people whose whole lives have been ruined and blighted by such hedges?

Mr. Chope

The two issues are not incompatible. My hon. Friend has followed the burden of my argument, which is that—as with the noise legislation—a local authority could decide, in response to pressure from my hon. Friend as a constituency Member or from other people, to incorporate within its standing orders the provisions of the regulatory regime to be set up under the Bill. That would then be the policy of the council. Alternatively, it could choose not to do that because of the costs that would be involved and the fact that it would have to increase the council tax. That might be counter-productive, as in the example that I have described.

We know that this is not just an academic issue. I am sorry, but I do not recall whether my hon. Friend was involved in the proceedings on the Noise Act 1996 but, when it was considered in the House, the issue was how many local authorities would take up the option that it presented. In the end, not many did, because they realised that it would be quite expensive. If my hon. Friend believes, like me and our party, in localism and local responsibility, he will surely accept that we should be big enough in the House to give each local authority responsibility for deciding whether it wants to opt in in relation to this issue.

The draft guidance to local authorities has been mentioned, and it was issued last week. It is made up of 220 paragraphs. Paragraph 2 states: The Act does not specify which department within the council should carry out this function … such as planning or environmental health … It is for each council to decide which part of their organisation should be responsible for administering high hedge complaints. Why not let councils decide whether they wish to take this burden on? As I have already said, the issue was flagged up in earlier debates on the Bill and my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) also raised it at column 88 on 7 April when he spoke from the Opposition Front Bench on the money resolution.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle)

I confess that I am puzzled. The hon. Gentleman has explained why he was unable to attend the Standing Committee, and I understand that. However, I do not understand why the Committee did not have the benefit of these 100 or so amendments. If this is such an important issue, will he explain why these points were not made in Committee?

Mr. Chope

I am not sure that I understand the hon. Lady's argument. I flagged up these issues on Second Reading, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge and several other hon. Members, including one from the Liberal Democrat Benches. We referred to the Bill's rough edges. My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), whose constituency covers part of the Guildford local authority area, covered these points on Second Reading. The Bill's promoter assured us that these issues would be addressed in Committee. They were not: the Committee sat at 2.30 pm on 7 May and by 3.9 pm had finished considering all the clauses without anything being said about funding. These issues were not discussed because no one on the Committee chose to discuss them. If the hon. Lady is suggesting that I should have broken a speaking engagement to which I had agreed in the autumn of last year, so that I could attend the first of what I expected to be several Committee sittings at a time and place about which I had not been consulted, I think she is being rather unreasonable.

Mrs. Calton

I think I made it quite clear that I was not questioning the reason that the hon. Gentleman gave for not being able to attend the Committee. I merely said that 100 or so amendments have been tabled and that I do not understand why none of them were tabled before the Committee stage—if not by the hon. Gentleman then by members of his party.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Such speculation is wholly outwith the scope of new clause 3. I urge the hon. Gentleman to stay within the bounds of the new clause.

Mr. Chope

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, may I just put on the record that 34 of the amendments have been tabled by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) who is a sponsor of the Bill? He has accepted that he is sponsoring a Bill that is imperfect in 34 respects by the time that it reaches Report. Why did he not do something about that in Committee or at an earlier stage when he must have been involved in the drafting? That is a rhetorical question, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I hope that the hon. Lady will intervene on the hon. Gentleman when he, no doubt, joins this important debate.

In the debate on the money resolution, my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said: What is certain is that there will be a cost to local authorities. As the Licensing Bill shows us, if local authorities are to be given new duties and responsibilities, they must have funding to ensure that they can discharge them properly. Will the Minister tell the House how the net costs to local authorities will be met, so as to ensure that the money actually reaches the authorities that are doing the work and dealing with the disputes? He then referred to what I had said on Second Reading. He was very much on to the point. In the same debate, he added:

The critical issues are whether the Government will provide adequate funding to local authorities and how the Government are going to distribute that funding between local authorities—in other words, whether the permissive power that the Bill's money clauses give the Secretary of State to expend moneys, where it creates additional burdens, will be translated into the real distribution of hard, as opposed to notional, cash sums to the local authorities. He went on to say: A number of issues remain unresolved. We look forward to debating and, I hope, resolving many of them in Committee."—[Official Report, 7 April 2003; Vol. 403, c. 90.] Unfortunately, that did not happen.

12 noon

The concerns were not confined to those being expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. Concerns were also flagged up by the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), the previous Minister responsible for this subject, who said: I am also worried that not enough regard is being paid to the amount of money that will have to be made available for local authorities to make a case for funds when they have many cases with which to deal. I represent an urban authority that does not have many cases, and they can be dealt with under the procedure. However, the cost to a local authority in a rural community could be enormous. I hope that my hon. Friend"— he was referring to the promoter of the Bill—

"will consider including in one of the new standard spending assessments the ability for local authorities that have a definite case to bid for funds. Money has been tweaked in the SSA to help local authorities to bid for extra money to deal with the problem of large areas of floodplains that have been built on so that they can do the work before disaster occurs."—[Official Report,7 April 2003; Vol. 403, c. 91.]
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

I support the overall aims of the Bill, and the terror that this problem can bring to people's lives has been explained in the previous debate. My hon. Friend is making a point that is causing me concern, however. As a former local government Minister, he will have had many representations about the support that local authorities are given. This year, Derbyshire Dales district council was given only an extra £32,000, when every other council in Derbyshire was given more than £500,000 in extra rate support grant. I am very concerned about that, and I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure the House on this matter.

Mr. Chope

My hon. Friend makes a point with which almost every hon. Member is familiar. He has made it repeatedly, yet the Government have never come back with a satisfactory response as to why they are discriminating against that council in this way. Like my hon. Friend, I support some of the principles of the Bill. That is why I supported it on Second Reading. As the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) knows, I expressed reservations at that time, but I took at face value his expression of a desire to improve the Bill and his willingness to listen to representations and to act upon them. I had hoped that when the Bill came back on Report, it would have been a better Bill. In particular, I had hoped that the issue of how the additional costs were to be funded by hard-pressed local authorities would have been dealt with satisfactorily by the Minister. I know that we now have a new Minister responsible for these issues, and I hope that she will be able to get her substantial intellect around the problem and deliver a solution for us.

During the debate on the money resolution, I put forward what I described as a constructive suggestion, saying: I hope that the Minister can respond constructively to those concerns so that the mood on the Standing Committee will be positive. He said that he does not necessarily believe in consensus, but if the Bill is to have the support of local authorities, the Government have to spell out clearly the basis on which the reimbursement of costs will be made. The Minister then said: Many of the issues that hon. Members have raised are worthy of further exploration in Committee. Based on the evidence, we believe that the statements in the regulatory impact assessment on costs to local authorities and appeal authorities, and the assumptions in the assessment on the cost of subsequent appeals, are correct. He went on: Any shortfall in our calculations will be covered by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister under the new burdens principle and through a system that has yet to be determined but which will embrace both elements of the financial regime for local authorities.

I take the point about the difference in the impact on rural and urban authorities, or on urban and suburban authorities. That difference will have to be reflected in any assumptions that are made in the financial regime."—[Official Report, 7 April 2003; Vol. 403, c. 93–95.] On the basis of that statement by the Minister, I had hoped—and, indeed, expected—that the Bill would by now have been amended to reflect those concerns. As we know, however, that did not happen in Committee.

So we are left with the fall-back position in paragraph 25 of the full regulatory impact assessment, which states: Local authorities will be able to charge complainants a fee for determining these complaints, the level of which will be set in regulations. If this does not reflect the full economic cost to authorities of administering the system, resources will be transferred into the revenue support grant settlement to cover the shortfall. As I have already made clear, that is not good enough. That is a good reason why local authorities should be given the power to opt out if they so wish.

Amendments Nos. 88 and 89 cover the parliamentary scrutiny regime that should apply to regulations prescribing local authority fees and other regulatory powers under the Bill. Amendment No. 88 would leave out clause 15(2) and amendment No. 89 would amend line 9 of that clause, removing the words under section 18 or 20". Effectively, that would require that the regulations be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. I think and hope that the House accepts the fact that there is a strong case for that, particularly in the light of the concerns expressed by me and others on the funding of the Bill.

The regulations would extend not only to the powers under clause 4 but to the appeals procedure. Clause 8(2) sets out an extensive range of regulations that may be made by the appeal authority, which is either the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales.

Those two amendments are nothing like as important as amendment No. 45, which would leave out clause 20. I regard it as highly significant, and I hope that the promoter accepts it, as that would allay many concerns. What would clause 20 do? Paragraph 34 of the explanatory notes says: Clause 20 gives the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales power to extend the scope of complaints covered by the Bill (under clause 1) and to alter the definition of "high hedge' (in clause 2) through regulations. This is necessary in case experience shows that the Bill does not cover particular problems with high hedges. I ask the House to note the emphasis on extending the Bill's ambit by regulations that cannot be amended. That, effectively, is what we are being asked to sign up to under clause 20.

The definition of "high hedge" could be changed by clause 20 to cover deciduous as well as evergreen trees and single trees of any type. It could also extend the scope of complaints under clause 1 in respect of the range of those who can complain and the matters about which they can make a complaint. Is it any wonder that the clause has set the alarm bells ringing?

My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, speaking from the Front Bench in the money resolution debate, said that clause 20 could have a significant impact on the cost of the Bill". He added: I am alarmed that the kernel of the Bill—the definition of a high hedge—could be changed subsequently by secondary legislation. I share his concerns, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who sits on our Front Bench, shares them as well.

In response to those concerns, the Minister said: I will not be tempted down the route of a debate on clause 20 on definition and scope. Those issues can and should be investigated further in Committee."—[Official Report, 7 April 2003; Vol. 403, c. 87–95.] Having regard to the history of the matter, it will not surprise you to know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that they were not. All that happened is that in the 39-minute Committee proceedings, the hon. Member for Ealing, North admitted that clause 20 would allow us, for instance, to include deciduous or individual trees at a later date."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 7 May 2003; c. 5.] The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) made clear his impatience, as he wants the Bill to extend to single trees.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman in mid-flow, but may I make an addendum to that remark? Any such amendment would have to be subject to affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament. It could not just happen at the flick of a switch or the snap of a finger.

Mr. Chope

I accept that point, but is it good enough that legislation can be introduced to define a hedge as any single tree, or any deciduous plant or tree, through a resolution that may be passed after a 90-minute debate in the House and which cannot be amended? That is totally unacceptable. Such a change would transform the Bill's aspect and the mischief that it is designed to address. I cannot understand why the hon. Member for Ealing, North is insisting on keeping clause 20 in the Bill. I had hoped that he would respond to the concerns expressed about that wide-ranging definition.

I do not need to go into further detail about every type of tree that could be the subject of a change to the definition. Every morning, as we come into the car park in New Palace Yard, we see an excellent pleached lime hedge, which is more than 6 ft high. Under the powers in clause 20, an order could be made requiring that hedge to be chopped down to 6 ft.

Bob Russell

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there would first have to be a complainant? A neighbour would have to complain about the hedge or a single tree. If such an order were approved by the local authority, an aggrieved person would have an appeal mechanism. The position is not quite as clear cut as he suggests.

Mr. Chope

I agree that that procedure would be available. Inherent in what the hon. Gentleman says is that every person who has a single tree in his garden in an urban, semi-urban or even rural environment could be subject to an order if his neighbour changed and disliked that tree because it was blocking his view, causing loss of light or was overhanging his own garden. Some people prefer a desert landscape or a concrete jungle: this is a subjective matter. The hassle involved for the landowner or occupier and for the local authority in fielding and responding to complaints and dealing with the appeals that flow from them is a prodigious burden.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

Had we planted a hedge at the beginning of the hon. Gentleman's speech, we would probably not now be able to see him from this side of the Chamber. There is a third Bill on the Order Paper today that concerns his constituents and those of other hon. Members. It is the Pensions (Winding-up) Bill, and we want to know where the Government stand on it. Will he bear that in mind in contributing to the debate on this Bill?

Mr. Chope

The right hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point. Like me, he will know that this Bill could have been put first on the Order Paper for 4 July. Given its complexity and contentiousness, why did the promoter not put it on the Order Paper for 4 July? The right hon. Gentleman may share my suspicions and scepticism, but I suspect that the hon. Member for Ealing, North was told to put it on second today, because it was thought that that would preclude or minimise the House's opportunity to discuss the important issues that are raised in the Pensions (Winding-up) Bill, which is promoted by the right hon. Gentleman. He knows as well as I do that, as a matter of procedure, if a Bill has been through Committee its promoter has the right to insert it in front of one that is already on the Order Paper.

Intially, I could not understand why the promoter of this Bill would choose to put it second for Report stage rather than first, as he could have done on 4 July. It then occurred to me that there was some monkey business, which is now becoming apparent. We were given warning of that by the large number of amendments tabled by a sponsor of this Bill, the hon. Member for Hendon.

I do not know whether we will reach the Pensions (Winding-up) Bill. I hope that the substantive issues it contains will he debated. I regret the fact that the previous Bill on pensions was—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I think that we should try to keep the monkeys out of this and return to the new clause.

Mr. Chope

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The point has been made, and it is a very important one too.

12.15 pm

In conclusion, if clause 20 is not removed, the Bill could have a more dramatic impact on the English landscape than the combined effects of the great storm, Dutch elm disease and the Luftwaffe's bombing. No tree, bush or shrub—whether single or in a group, or in a city, town, suburb or the countryside—will be safe from being cut down to size—2 m—on the complaint of any individual attracted to a desert or concrete landscape. It would be a veritable end to Britain's green and pleasant land, produced by regulations that could not be amended. That is why I hope that the promoter will accept the new clause.

Mr. Pound

I deeply regret the coda to the contribution made by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). As one who has been proud to serve in Her Majesty's armed forces, I think that any association, by any hon. Member, with the depredations of a foreign power is unacceptable, and I am sure that, on reflection, he will think and realise that his comments were slightly hyperbolic and to be regretted. However, I wish to put that aside and to refer specifically to this small group of amendments.

I have been assured by hon. Members on both sides of the House that, just as the nation wants this legislation, just as the 10,000 victims want this legislation, just as the 4,000 members of Hedgeline want this legislation and just as the 1,000 people who have written to me—I have the letters here—want this legislation, the House supports it. I have to say, to use an expression of which the shadow Leader of the House would recognise the provenance, it seems as though some people are supporting the Bill as the rope supports the hanging man.

I prefer to be charitable and to view the new clause and amendments as an honest and conscientious attempt to make a better Bill. This is fifth occasion that the Bill has come before the House, so this is probably the most scrutinised legislation in parliamentary history. I could speak for long, but out of respect for my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), I will try to be as brief and concise as possible, even though it goes against my every instinct.

New clause 3 is an opt-out clause, under which the Bill would apply only to those areas that local authorities chose. If the issue that we are addressing today were a local problem in one or two areas, that would be entirely appropriate—no one would have any problem with it—but this is a national problem. The Bill would not even apply to Northern Ireland, yet I have had scores of letters from people there who want this legislation.

I have received letters, cards, e-mails—I have a box of them with me—and visits, even from people in Highcliffe in the constituency of the hon. Member for Christchurch. I have received any number of letters. We cannot simply say that this is a matter of permissive legislation that local authorities may or may not adopt. I remind the House that the extensive consultation with the Local Government Association has at no stage thrown up any wish from local authorities to have an opt-out option.

The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), whose name appears on some of the amendments today, introduced the Noise Act 1996, but it did not work and had to be amended by antisocial behaviour legislation. The deletion of the requirement to adopt the 1996 promissory aspect has had to be addressed because it simply did not work. The point that I am making is that councils throughout the land are dealing with this issue at the moment with one hand tied behind their backs. They need to have the power; it is not a pick-and-mix option.

No part of what the hon. Member for Christchurch grandiosely described as this green and pleasant land is not suffering from the problem. We cannot simply pepper the power around the nation. I would strongly resist any move to adopt new clause 3, and I am sorry to have to say that, because the Bill has been discussed at so many levels that we have pared it down so that it is at its most workable and least confused.

As the hon. Member for Christchurch said, amendment No. 45 would remove the power in clause 20 to extend the scope of complaints. I repeat the point that I made in an intervention. Clause 20 is absolutely crucial in order for a quick response to be made. It is in the interests of moving out of the straitjacket of legislation, accepting that we may have to consider other things in future. Subject to the affirmative resolution of both Houses, the provision could be extended. Things change. We cannot legislate for ever, much as we wish we could. Surely it is in keeping with the generosity of spirit and the emotions of new localism that the hon. Gentleman spoke about to allow some scope for change, if it is needed. I assure the House that we would not have someone writing the measure on the back of an envelope and saying, "The Act has now changed." The regulations would be discussed at length in both Houses. That is a recognition of the sensitivities concerned.

The issue of finance has been addressed before and will be addressed again, but briefly the revenue support grant settlement as delineated in the money resolution debated in the House on 7 April clearly identifies new money to meet the costs. I repeat that local authorities are at this moment having to devote officer time to resolving a problem, when they do not have the legislation to deal with it finally, or the funding and resources to pay for those officers. Those officers are having to address a problem that they can do nothing about.

Ultimately, the measure will be self-funding—there will be a charge. We know that. In accordance with the money resolution, additional money will be made available if needed. That is not a problem. Like every hon. Member, I weep for Derbyshire and the revenue support grant settlement for the district council in the constituency of the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin)—but that is not the point. That is a subject for another debate.

Today, we are not loading new duties on local government without giving them the means, mechanism and finance to perform them. In fact, we will be saving local authorities money, because can there be anything more frustrating than having to devote hours and hours of officer time to a problem that has no solution?

I reluctantly request that the hon. Member for Christchurch reconsiders his amendments. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will speak to amendments Nos. 88 and 89. With great respect, I ask the hon. Gentleman to reconsider new clause 3, as I do not think that it is in the spirit of the Bill. Equally, I do not think that amendment No. 45 is necessary.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

I respect what the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) is trying to do and he will be relieved to hear that my remarks will be fairly brief, but I want to make one simple point. We may have similar views on many matters but we represent very different constituencies. I am prepared to accept—I am not going to second-guess him—that high hedges are a major problem in the London borough of Ealing, but he should know that I represent a constituency that is 600 square miles. That is about the same size as Greater London. There are about 72 parliamentary constituencies in Greater London. I have one of the smaller electorates in the country. I probably have, let us say, 30,000 council tax payers spread over 600 square miles.

I accept that, in urban areas—it can be sorted out by the local authorities, which know best—there are some extremely careless, unpleasant or perhaps poor people who allow Leylandii to grow around small suburban or urban gardens, which cuts out the light of their neighbours and causes them enormous distress. I personally believe that we need some enabling legislation to help local authorities to deal with that. In total, there may be a large number of disputes—perhaps 10,000 around the country—but compared with the total number of properties in the country that is relatively small.

I am still happy, if we want to make progress today in terms of compromise and accepting amendments, to have a Bill that addressed that problem and allowed local authorities, if they so wished, to deal with the very small number of people who allow Leylandii to grow to 30, 40 or 50 ft, which is absurd.

Let me describe why this provision is important, and why local authorities are best equipped to decide whether they want to get involved in this process. As I have said, my constituency is very different from certain others. I took care to go to the Lincolnshire show, which was held yesterday and was attended by 30,000 mainly rural people. I did a bit of vox pop and asked some local councillors and people whom I happened to meet about the Bill. When I described some of the clauses and what it tries to achieve, everybody whom I talked to was horrified.

There are thousands of miles of hedges in my constituency. The hon. Member for Ealing, North may find this difficult to understand, but in the lane outside my house—along which perhaps one car or tractor an hour passes—there are hedges not just 2 m high, but 3 m or even 4 m high. They have been left there by the farmer for environmental reasons. I realise that the hon. Gentleman wants to restrict the provision to evergreen shrubs, but I can assure him that because of the amount of planting going on and the growth of hedges, we are talking about a completely different environment in the country. It is a great pity, therefore, that we could not reach a compromise on this issue, whereby local authorities have some ability to decide what to do to solve the problem. After all, they know best what is going on in their area.

As I said, my constituency is very different; it is completely rural, with hundreds of miles of hedges. I would venture to suggest that this is much less of a problem in a district such as West Lindsey, in Lincolnshire, than in the London borough of Ealing, even in the villages and suburban areas. In 20 years as a Member of this House, I have had to deal with just one bad problem—when I visited a suburban location in which somebody had grown a hedge. I can recollect receiving no more than one or two letters on this subject in that time.

Mr. Tony Clarke

Does the hon. Gentleman—I speak as somebody who has the largest constituency in mainland Britain, which includes some 92,000 constituents, rural and urban—accept that this is a problem in both an urban and a rural setting? My constituency has three local authorities—a borough council, a district council and a county council—and many parish councils. I have received letters from all parts of that constituency. People recognise that visits to the garden centre are not necessarily decided on the basis of one's postcode. People buy these offensive plants irrespective of where they live, and the plants cause nuisance to their neighbours, irrespective of where they live. Life cannot be easily divided up into rural and urban; this problem affects people throughout the land, irrespective of the nature of the constituency in which they live.

Mr. Leigh

That is a perfectly fair point. I do not want to take an absolutist point of view. Someone who lives near me in the middle of completely rural location has grown huge evergreen cedars—I do not know why—all around his house. That upsets nobody because all that surrounds his house is fields. Of course, such trees could cause a problem in rural areas in certain circumstances. That is why it is best for local authorities, which know the areas concerned best, to make a considered judgment as to whether there is a problem. I accept that many local authorities cover a mixed area, rural and suburban; it is for them to take that decision.

Bob Russell

Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that if no neighbour is complaining about the high trees around the house of the constituent to whom he has just referred, there is no problem? The Bill does not in any way attack the hedgerows of our wonderful countryside; in fact, many of us would like more hedgerows. The hon. Gentleman should address the point: we are talking about inappropriate trees and hedges in inappropriate locations.

Mr. Leigh

As I said, I am not taking an absolutist view—I am simply trying to explain the differences. [Interruption.] I note that the hon. Member for Ealing, North, the Bill's promoter, has returned; unfortunately, through no fault of his own he had to leave the Chamber for a moment. I said a few moments ago that I am genuinely trying to seek a compromise. I accept that safeguards are already built into the Bill, but they do not go far enough. I would refer the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) to a local authority such as my own. It is starved of resources—whichever party is in power—and is trying to make provision for more and more services laid on it by the Government. It has to deliver those services over an area of 600 square miles with only 30,000 council tax payers. Now we are talking about placing yet another duty on such authorities.

12.30 pm

Frankly, 2 m is far too low. In my constituency, it is nothing. It is just a tiny shrub of a hedge. Even in the suburban areas where the gardens are much bigger, hedges regularly grow way above 2 m. If the Bill's sponsor were prepared to accept my amendment, which would increase the height to 4 m; if local authorities could have some input; if we could restrict the measures to conifers, I would happily pass the Bill. The hon. Member for Ealing, North is the Bill's sponsor and he can do what he likes, but if he is unprepared to compromise, I tell him that the Bill will cause problems for relatively cash-strapped rural authorities such as my own. People will make use of the Bill when it becomes law and extra burdens will be placed on my local authority. What will happen then?

We are told in the regulatory impact assessment that local authorities will incur costs for determining complaints and enforcing remedial action. It says that responses to consultation suggested that officers' time would cost an average £35 to £40 per hour, and that it would take around eight hours to investigate a complaint and decide whether to require the owner to carry out remedial works. I am prepared to accept that that may cause no problem in a London borough such as Ealing. Such authorities are much larger and much richer in their rate support base. I have no doubt that the London borough of Ealing could take it all in its stride.

By contrast, when I checked last week, I found that over the whole 600 square miles of West Lindsey, the authority was so strapped for cash that at one stage it did not have even one planning enforcement officer—not one for all of 600 square miles. Let us forget about hedges for a moment. People could be building extensions without permission, flouting existing planning law, yet not a single officer was employed by the local authority to deal with the problem. The regulatory impact assessment says that it will cost only about £35 or £40 an hour, but in some wards in my constituency, the average wage is as low as £10,000 to £12,000 a year. It is a highly rural area with people living on low wages, with a cash-strapped local authority unable to employ—for a time at least—a single planning enforcement officer, and now even more duties are going to be laid on the local authority.

Let me tell the hon. Member for Ealing, North that this is not a wrecking or unreasonable amendment: it is all about town and country. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the problem of restricting the Bill to certain areas in the country. I accept that in an area such as my own, there may be isolated cases of gardens being much bigger than in London, even in suburban areas, but why not let the local authority decide?

It is estimated that the average cost will be about £280 to £320 per case. That is nothing for London boroughs, but a much greater burden on authorities such as West Lindsey. The regulatory impact assessment states that the consultation respondents agreed that there was backlog of existing problem cases to be dealt with in the short term and that no one could improve on the estimate that 10,000 such cases would remain to be determined. Fair enough. That just shows that we need some sort of legislation.

I support that view. There could be 10,000 cases of the worst kind in the country as a whole. There are about 400 local authorities in the country. Plucking a figure out of the sky, there could be 10, 20 or 30 bad cases in my local district. The local authority might be able to cope with it: I do not know, but we should let it decide. Do we not all believe in local democracy? I do not understand why, if the hon. Member for Ealing, North believes that there is a problem in Lincolnshire, he cannot allow Lincolnshire local authorities the chance to determine what they want to do about it.

The regulatory impact assessment also states that local authorities will also be involved in appeals against their decisions, submitting statements and commenting on representations from the parties. I do not know how many people are employed in a London borough such as Ealing—many hundreds, I suspect. How many are employed in a small district authority? Perhaps 100 in total, but they have to determine all the huge paraphernalia of existing Government laws, regulations and so forth. The regulatory impact assessment says that staff will largely draw on existing material and that they will spend no more than three to four hours on each case. Based on an estimated appeal rate of 2,000 cases every three years, that suggests total costs ranging from £210,000 to £320,000. It also says that local authorities will be able to charge complainants a fee for determining these complaints. That is fair enough, and such burdens can be easily borne by urban and London borough authorities, but it is a different story for rural local authorities.

If a hedge owner does not comply with a local authority's orders, we are told in the regulatory impact assessment that the authority will be able to enforce remedial action by prosecuting the hedge owner. Again, that will be no problem in London boroughs, but I do not know how we will cope with it in West Lindsey, which recently did not have a single enforcement officer. It also says that any unpaid expenses arising from the local authority using its default powers to carry out the work it specified in the remedial notice will be registered as a local land charge.

I have made my point, and I hope that the hon. Member for Ealing, North will be able to accept it in a spirit of compromise. I dearly wish that we could amend the Bill today so that we can attack those awful people who allow their trees to grow to such a height and who do not care about others. However, I know one person in a neighbouring constituency who has a problem with leylandii at the bottom of his garden, but he cannot afford to cut them down. He is not a nasty person and he does not want to cut off anybody's light, but he simply cannot afford to cut the trees down. That is often a problem in rural or semi-rural areas. People are not being unreasonable: they cannot afford to take remedial action. The local authority could take a balanced view and decide to opt in or opt out. I hope that in a spirit of compromise the Bill's promoter will feel able to accept the new clause. or at least some of the other amendments that we will consider today.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

The Opposition recognise that high hedges can be a significant problem. We already know that some 10,000 complaints have been made and need to be dealt with. Therefore, in principle, we welcome some form of legislation on the subject. As the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) has already said, this is one of the most scrutinised Bills in parliamentary history. Its origins go back to even before my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) introduced his Bill on the issue, on which this Bill is largely based, when the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) introduced a similar Bill.

In principle, we want to see the Bill on the statute book, but we hope for some signs of flexibility from the promoter of the Bill. Nobody would want the Bill to be so all-encompassing as to catch individual trees. If the Bill remains as drafted, it would be relatively easy to introduce a statutory instrument under it, but that is an inflexible procedure. Statutory instruments are debated for one and a half hours, after which they are either accepted or not, and they cannot be amended. I would therefore be very wary of accepting a Bill that could lead to catching an individual tree, especially a deciduous tree. That would be unfortunate.

I hope that the Bill makes progress this morning. I hope that the promoter will be flexible, especially on the amendments about evergreens, to which I have appended my name. We will certainly need good will on both sides of the House—I note that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who is a sponsor of the Bill, has tabled many amendments—if the Bill is to make progress in the next couple of hours.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper)

As a new arrival at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, I welcome the opportunity to support the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), and to take the opportunity to address some of the important points raised in the debate.

On new clause 3, I say to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) that I do not see why one area of the country would be immune from the problem of high hedges. I recognise his points about differences in certain areas, but every kind of authority will contain people with neighbours who have hedges. Hedges as glorious as those he described would not restrict people's reasonable enjoyment of their property and gardens, and would not be covered by the Bill.

On funding, the Government will bear the cost of additional burdens not covered by fees through the general grant.

Mr. Leigh

The Under-Secretary is trying to be reasonable, and I am trying to give her a flavour of what could happen in rural villages. As I have said, 2 m, or 6 ft, around a house in a rural village is nothing. There may be hundreds of miles of hedges of over 6 ft around houses in such villages. The local authority will have no choice as to whether it is dragged into the process, because difficult people will start to complain about their neighbours' hedges. Frankly, we should not be addressing that; we should be addressing people who are growing leylandii of up to 60 ft in urban locations. We should have a narrow Bill to deal with that.

Yvette Cooper

The hon. Gentleman is aware that the nature of the problem depends on the environment and the circumstances. It is not simply a question of the height of the hedge, but about whether it is a barrier to light or access and whether it affects the reasonable enjoyment of the property. I agree that it would be inappropriate to have a completely open-ended measure, but the Bill has appropriate safeguards.

I can tell the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) that the money will be paid through the general grant; all county, district, metropolitan and unitary authorities receive the general grant. Changes have been made to the revenue support grant that may address and make outdated some of his concerns.

Mr. Chope

I realise that this is a new brief for the Under-Secretary, but is she saying that the actual expenditure incurred by any local authority in pursuance of the Bill would be met by the Government on an indemnity basis, or would there be a general distribution of grant, as with concessionary fares?

Yvette Cooper

We would need to follow the established procedures for assessing the financial burdens imposed on local authorities by new initiatives, as we do in a number of different areas.

Amendments Nos. 88 and 89 would turn regulations on maximum fees and appeals procedures from the negative to the affirmative procedure. I assure the House that the negative procedure is standard for such measures, whether they are planning or tree preservation appeals, and the procedure provides safeguards.

On amendment No. 45, which would delete clause 20, I understand the legitimate concern to ensure that there is proper parliamentary scrutiny of changes. I can assure hon. Members that the Government have no intention of using the clause at this stage and we do not see evidence that there will be a need to extend the Bill.

It is appropriate to respond to the concerns that have been raised about the possibility of loopholes emerging in future, given how long it has taken to get the Bill this far. The Bill contains safeguards; it must deal with high hedges, and with complainants whose reasonable enjoyment of their property is being undermined. Its measures are proportionate, and it is important that they should be so.

I must ask hon. Members to recognise the strength of feeling on this matter and the number of people whose lives and enjoyment of their property are seriously blighted by these problems. I ask hon. Members to allow the Bill to proceed and to let us, as politicians, try to solve the problems genuinely brought to us by constituents. I ask them to recognise the safeguards and the assurances that I have given, and I ask that the new clause be withdrawn.

12.45 pm
Mr. Chope

This has been a good debate, but I am disappointed that the Minister cannot assure us that the actual costs incurred by local authorities in meeting the burdens imposed by the Bill will be met by Government grant. In the absence of that, why not give local authorities discretion on whether to sign up to the Bill's procedures? She has not explained why it is all right for the Government to allow local authorities discretion on whether to operate the Noise Act 1996, which arguably relates to a problem affecting many more people than high hedge nuisance does. As recently as 20 May, another Minister said, in a debate on clause 47 of the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill: Many local authorities have found that they do not want to provide such a service. We could argue all day about whether they were right to decide that … As I said, we are freeing up local authorities from the requirement to provide the service described."—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 20 May 2003; c. 379.] In other words, they are being given discretion to provide the service if they wish to. If that applies to noise legislation, why cannot it apply to high hedge legislation?

I wholly endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) said about trying to make progress and achieve compromise and flexibility. Both he and I were present last Friday when the House saw what can happen when there is flexibility and compromise. They are, indeed, what the whole mediation system written into the Bill is all about. We are trying to get the owners of high hedges and their neighbours to come to terms and resolve these matters amicably. I should have hoped that we could apply the same principle to the proceedings of the House.

If the Government have no intention of applying clause 20 to single trees, why cannot it be excluded? That would be no big deal, surely. If the Government can extend discretion to local authorities on noise legislation, why cannot they do so for this Bill? Again, it would be no big deal. Why should such issues block progress on the Bill'? I repeat the appeal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough for reason, compromise and flexibility. With those, we could make much faster progress.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 1, Noes 34.

Division No. 242] [12:48 pm
Wilkinson, John Tellers for the Ayes:
Mr. Christopher Chope and
Mr. Edward Leigh
Ainger, Nick Fitzpatrick, Jim
Banks, Tony Gardiner, Barry
Barnes, Harry Gerrard, Neil
Brooke, Mrs Annette L. Harris, Dr. Evan (Oxford W & Abingdon)
Byers, rh Stephen
Calton, Mrs Patsy Hendry, Charles
Clarke, rh Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Holmes, Paul
Cohen, Harry Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Cooper, Yvette Lazarowicz, Mark
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Linton, Martin
McNulty, Tony Vis, Dr. Rudi
Maples, John Ward, Claire
Osborne, Sandra (Ayr) Wicks, Malcolm
Quinn, Lawrie Wright, Anthony D. (Gt Yarmouth)
Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Soley, Clive
Stanley, rh Sir John Tellers for the Noes:
Sutcliffe, Gerry Mr. Andrew Dismore and
Taylor, John (Solihull) Mr. Stephen Pound

Question accordingly negatived.

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