My Lords, High Hedges Complaints: Prevention and Cure provides advice on administering complaints about high hedges under Part 8 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. It is not statutory guidance and, as such, the Government cannot require local authorities to follow it. To assist local authorities to act in accordance with the legislation, we encourage them to follow the good practice that the guidance contains.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, but why do the remedial notices required under the Act to progress resolution of these hedge problems seem to cause so much difficulty for both the complainants and the councils?
My Lords, we have no evidence that the Act is not working as it should. The evidence of a declining number of complaints and appeals suggests that, as we hoped, more people are finding ways in which to resolve their complaints informally. However, I know that Hedgeline has some concerns about some very complex cases and we think that there are aspects of the process that could be clarified. Therefore, I intend to write to local authorities to encourage their compliance with the guidance and to highlight the important steps in the process to clarify matters in relation to the Local Government Ombudsman, for example.
My Lords, I cannot tell the noble Lord how many remedial notices there have been; we do not collect that information as it is too detailed. However, I can tell him that there were 619 appeals up to 23 January this year, of which 479 have been determined, 57 per cent have been dismissed, 19 per cent have been allowed in full and 24 per cent allowed in part. There is a balance of the appeals going to the hedge owner and to the aggrieved neighbour.
My Lords, when this part of the Act was conceived, the noble Baroness will know that we were thinking in particular of Leylandii because they pose a particular problem. As she says, they grow at phenomenal rates—at a metre a year—which is why a remedial notice can allow for regrowth. You can cut the hedge down beyond the required limit to allow for that excessive growth and allow, in the remedial notice, for coming back to cut it down again or to require the hedge owner to cut it again to keep the height down.
My Lords, why is it that, having decided that a high hedge can be a nuisance under some circumstances, complainants have to pay between £400 and £500 to have their concerns looked at but that people who complain about other issues, such as noise, simply have the problem dealt with?
My Lords, the thing is that it is not an offence to grow a high hedge. It is an offence to fail to comply with a remedial notice that requires you to cut it down. As a neighbour, you are asking the local authority for a service. There was a lot of debate during the consultation period about who should pay and it was thought that it was fairer for the complainant to do so. Fees vary—they can be £650 but usually are about £300. We have not found that the fee makes any difference to the number of complaints.
My Lords, is not the success of this measure the fact that many people nationally now know not to abuse the law and simply do not grow their hedges so high? Is it not true that this issue has been the subject of many complaints to Members of Parliament in the other House?
Yes, my Lords, that is absolutely right. One of the Act’s ambitions was precisely that: to encourage people to settle their disputes—perhaps not amicably but as best they could—over the hedge, literally; and that is what has happened. Very few people go to the fuss and bother of taking the issue to local authorities.
My Lords, is there not in fact a major loophole in the Act, in that a council can issue a remedial notice but can, quite legally, ignore what takes place after that? Is there any way of reviewing this situation now rather than waiting until 2010?
My Lords, we intended that the legislation would achieve a balance between the rights of each party concerned. We also decided against statutory guidance because that simply would not have allowed flexibility. There is no requirement on the local authority to intervene when works have not been carried out but there is a range of things that it can do. Had we allowed for intervention at every stage, we would have ended up with very disproportionate and heavy-handed legislation. In fact, there are very few instances in which a remedial notice has not been enforced by a local authority.
My Lords, as local authorities are responsible for collecting illegally dumped rubbish on the side of the highway, does the remedial notice also contain a section that stipulates that the owner of the hedge must ensure that the hedge clippings that result from a requirement are disposed of legally?
My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is great dissatisfaction about the Local Government Ombudsman’s role in this? He seems to think that this is purely an optional matter for councils, that it is unimportant if they make wrong decisions so long as they follow correct procedures and that that does not come under his jurisdiction. Is it not important also to clarify that?
Yes, my Lords, I think that it is. Rights of appeal follow from the decision but the ombudsman cannot interfere in that because there is due process. He can pick up on instances where the administrative process has been at fault. Sometimes there is confusion about where those things overlap. I propose to talk to local government offices to see whether we can get greater clarity, and I shall take that into account when I write to local authorities.