Clause 4 - Procedure for dealing with complaints

High Hedges (No. 2) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:45 pm ar 7 Mai 2003.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Llafur, Ealing North

I am luxuriating in the experience of having a Parliamentary Private Secretary for the first time in my life. I know why they are so valued.

The clause sets out the procedure for dealing with complaints, which must be made to the local authority

whose area contains the land on which the hedge is situated. Complaints must also be accompanied by any fees that the authority sets. The level of such a fee must not exceed the amount to be specified in regulations made under subsection (7).

Under subsection (2), the local authority may reject the complaint if it considers

''that the complainant has not taken all reasonable steps to resolve''

the matter without involving the authority or if it considers

''that the complaint is frivolous or vexatious''.

I draw attention to that matter because it was raised on Second Reading and answered magnificently by the Minister. Some Members have been concerned that the Bill might contain tools that the frivolous and vexatious could utilise. That is a legitimate concern, and I understand it, but I consider that it has been addressed in the Bill's wording. The exclusion given in subsection (2) was drafted specifically to deal with that concern. Given the absence of hon. Members who raised the matter on Second Reading, I rather hope that they have been satisfied.

Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Llafur, Stalybridge and Hyde

Is my hon. Friend aware that there was a similar power in, I think, the Greater Manchester Act 1981, which was abolished when the various Acts that related to the powers for town councils were rolled into the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982? As I understand the matter, the powers to do with overshadowing trees were omitted—perhaps by accident, although no one quite knows why. That power was successful in Manchester and did not lead to any of the complications that hon. Members were worried about on Second Reading. Therefore, far from being a dangerous innovation, the Bill returns us to a state of grace that happened to exist in Manchester in the early 1980s.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Llafur, Ealing North

It is almost a unique experience for me to listen to one whose worship of football tends to concentrate on the Highbury area praising Manchester, but I give credit to my hon. Friend's comments.

I am sure that the legislation concerning Manchester to which my hon. Friend refers is well known to all hon. Members here gathered, although it was specified in local authority byelaws. That legislation did not establish a common framework across the United Kingdom. Unitary urban authorities could enforce such legislation and a number did. My hon. Friend's substantive point—that the absence of frivolous and vexatious complaints is a tribute not only to the good sense of the burghers of Manchester but to the way in which the Bill was structured—is well taken.

As I said, the clause sets out the procedure for dealing with complaints; the complaint goes to the local authority—the district, borough or unitary council, and their equivalents in Wales. The local authority may charge a fee if it wishes, but the Bill provides for the Government to set a maximum level of fee as well as enabling the local authority to refund fees in appropriate cases.

I turn to the subject of mediation. I am sure that all hon. Members would accept that the best way of settling such disputes is for people to talk to one another and to agree a solution. Sadly, the rest of the world may not be as reasonable, and mediation is occasionally not an option. However, the Bill encourages such dialogue by giving the local authority powers not to proceed with complaints if it believes that a complainant has not taken all reasonable steps to resolve the matter without involving the authority.

As I said earlier, the local authority can refuse to deal with a complaint if it considers it to be frivolous or vexatious. The only requirement is that if the authority decides not to proceed with a complaint, it should notify the complainant as soon as possible. If the local authority proceeds with the complaint, it must decide two matters, which are set out in subsection (3). It must first decide whether, because of its height, the hedge is adversely affecting the complainant's reasonable enjoyment of his property. Throughout the proceedings, when I say ''his'' I also mean ''her''.

If the local authority finds that the height of the hedge is causing problems, it must then consider what action, if any, should be taken to remedy the situation and to prevent it from recurring. In reaching those decisions, the authority should take into account all relevant factors and assess each case on its particular merits. I understand that the Government intend to publish guidance on the Bill for local authorities, and I am sure that the Minister will deal with that.

The Government are keen to ensure that local authorities operate the legislation fairly and consistently. National guidance will be important in helping to achieve a measure of consistency. Such guidance will deal with the full range of issues that local authorities could be asked to take into account. It would probably expand on the advice in the popular and widely read leaflet ''Over the Garden Hedge''. That contains information on issues such as safe maintenance, privacy, loss of sunlight, obstruction of daylight and the blocking of views.

In many cases, it will come down to a question of balance between preserving privacy and safeguarding the amenity of neighbours. Those are the sort of judgments that local authorities are used to making—for instance in determining planning applications.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Colchester

On that last point, which part of a local authority would be held responsible for dealing with such matters? The hon. Gentleman has just referred to the planning laws, and he spoke earlier of public health matters. Will the council be dealing with the problem as an environmental matter or a planning matter? Does he have a view on which it ought to be?

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Llafur, Ealing North

I would not be so presumptuous as to say what a local council should do, particular so ancient a one as the hon. Gentleman's. In reality, it is a matter of planning and enforcement. For the majority of local authorities in England and Wales, enforcement is part of the planning process. It is therefore reasonable for that to be the locus. However, most local authorities have an arboricultural section,

which would clearly be involved, and environmental health officers, too, may come within the ambit.

We are not here to specify; the Bill provides a structure, and it is up to the local authority to decide how to enforce it, whether through its environmental health officers, its arboriculturalists or its planning and enforcement department. It matters little; what does matter is that something should happen.

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

Should the Bill be successful, the Government will issue guidance on the process as it impinges on local government. However, my hon. Friend is right that it is entirely a matter for the council.

As my hon. Friend said, we shall also be making clear regulations on the level of fees. The process needs to be seen in the context of the link with clauses 1, 2 and 20. One of the problems with previous Bills on the subject, which were blocked for some reason or other, was, as we found in our debates on clauses 1 and 2, the difficulty of defining either the compliant or the high hedges.

After a review and due consultation on the nature of the definition and of the complaint, clause 20 deliberately allows for those areas to be revisited in the context of the complaints process outlined in subsection (3). Once it has been put into practice, we shall have a body of experience on how it works. Most eventualities are covered, and in a flexible manner. That is one of the Bill's strengths, which is why the Government support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.