By Justin Parkinson
Political reporter, BBC News
Politicians love announcing new initiatives. In this series we pluck a pledge from the archives. And see what happened next...
Disputes about high hedges have led to violence - and even death
To some they are a pest. To others they are objects of beauty.
Nothing divides people, both physically and emotionally, like fast-growing hedges.
Leylandii, in particular, can reach 100ft in height, blocking out light, restricting views and even damaging nearby gardens.
Neighbourly disputes over high hedges appeared frequently in the media a few years ago. Sometimes there were tales of violence - in a few cases of people being killed.
So, in 2003, the government promised to give those aggrieved by aggressive greenery a chance to act.
It said the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill would be amended to deal with the problem.
'Weapon of choice'
Yvette Cooper, a minister in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister at the time, said: "High hedges can make people's lives a complete misery and can be just as distressing as anti-social behaviour like graffiti."
The Anti-Social Behaviour Act of 2003 allowed councils to intervene in disputes, imposing fines of up to £1,000.
But changing the law was laborious.
Labour MP Stephen Pound, who was instrumental in getting the legislation through Parliament, told the BBC: "The problem was that British planning law is great when you are building something. It's hopeless when dealing with what you call the 'organic environment'.
"If you want to erect a 30ft concrete statue of a tree in your garden, you need planning permission. If you want to grow a hedge of that size, blocking people's light out, you don't need any.
"So, for many people who hated their neighbours, leylandii became a weapon of choice, as much as a gun or a knife. Feelings ran high on the issue.
"The whole business of passing anything on high hedges into law was very difficult and painstaking.
"It even took us 18 months to get to a definition of what constitutes a high hedge. We had experts working out lines of sight from the sun. We also had chemists working out how much alkali leylandii suck out of the ground, turning neighbours' gardens acidic and killing plants."
Mr Pound, MP for Ealing North, and his allies faced an unexpected vested - or un-vested - interest along the way.
He said: "The naturists didn't want leylandii to go - and who can blame them?"
Despite their naked fury, the law on high hedges came into effect in 2005. So what changed?
The law now stipulates that councils should only be approached when neighbours have "tried and exhausted" every other means of resolving the dispute - from chatting through the garden hedge to seeking help from citizens' advice.
It also states that hedges have to be above two metres in height before neighbours can make a complaint.
And, to the annoyance of complainants, most local authorities charge a fee for looking into grievances.
It might be said that the government's guidelines have the flavour of Chamberlain rather than Churchill.
The say: "The local authority cannot require the hedge to be removed. The legislation does not guarantee access to uninterrupted light."
It is also advised that a "local authority does not automatically take action, unless a justifiable complaint is made".
The guidelines add: "If you complain to your local authority, it does not follow automatically that they will order your neighbour to reduce the height of their hedge. They have to weigh up all the issues and consider each case on its merits."
With many owners proud of their hedges and the need to keep both sides happy in neighbourly disputes, councils have - by necessity - become last-chance mediators rather than crusaders.
When the bill was passed, the pressure group Hedgeline said: "Although the new law will allow hedge victims to submit official complaints to local authorities, the non-refundable fees charged by some councils will be a major obstacle."
So, has it worked?
As individual councils handle the matter, the government has no record of how many leylandii and others have been chopped back as a result of the 2003 act.
But, anecdotally, there appears to have been some movement.
Nancy, a pensioner and a longstanding Hedgeline member, told the BBC: "It has definitely been an improvement on how it was.
"But, if we complain, we have to pay. For some councils the fee is as much as £450, which is an awful lot of money. In some areas it's free. It's really a postcode lottery.
"Sometimes leylandii can grow up to a metre a year. A lot of the people who complain to us are, like me, in the 65-plus age group. When you are retired you spend a lot more time in your home than when you are working, so leylandii have a major effect on lives."
Nancy said: "When my neighbour's hedge came down, it was cut through the middle. We sat and watched. It was marvellous, like a giant curtain parting, letting the light flood through once again.
"It's had a wonderful effect on our garden and our home."
It is impossible to know how many other benighted households have been relieved of "midday darkness" by the 2003 act.
But Mr Pound said: "It's a damn sight better than it was. There have been no more deaths over hedge disputes since the law came in.
"It was a modest piece of hard-won, sensible legislation that's improved the lives of many.
"Some local authorities could get their act together be a little more proactive and maybe the legislation will need a bit of nuancing.
"But it's been an educational process that's cut down on hedge disputes and made life a little better."
The government is to gather some central statistics on councils' actions against high hedge owners and plans to review the legislation next year.
Only then will we know if it has achieved the seemingly impossible - popular cut backs.
Thanks for your comments. Here is a selection of them:
You cannot build a wall without planning permission. No one should be allowed to permit a hedge to grow higher than 2 metres where there is an adjoining boundary wihtout the written agreement of your neighbour. You can have a high hedge at the front of your property but not alongside it or at the rear, unledsd your neighbour agrees.
Why have Labour made the law so complex and ineffective?
Andrew Johnson, London
Leylandii make an excellent hedge and provide valuable winter protection for wildlife.The problem arises when they are planted to form a hedge, but then allowed to grow into trees.Keep them trimmed to a manageable height to avoid hedge rage.
Nick Davey, Honiton Devon
With hedges, comes responsibility. We had a Leylandii hedge for many years but cropped it to a height of 7 feet. Our neighbour was amenable since it afforded all of us privacy in the garden. When we took it down the roots were so shallow, I just needed to push the trees over. Conversely we had more problems with our neighbours single self-sown sycamore which required about four feet lopping off it every summer since it left much of our garden in darkeness. Everyone needs to show consideration (What a radical idea!)
Tony Cooley, walsall
I am 67 years of age and have my neighbour's leylandii tress growing at the rear of my property. the trees are more than four metres high and overhang my fence. Whose responsibility is it for maintaining the growth of leylandii trees that overhang into neighbouring properties the tree owner or the neighbour
michael hodgskins, wisbech cambridgeshire
When we moved here we inherited a leylandii hedge that must be more than 60 foot high now. It acts as a wind break for us and our neighbours, blocks noise from the nearby dual carriageway and hides the neighbouring shopping centre. We are lucky enough to have a very large garden, as do our neighbours, and no one suffers from loss of natural light as the hedge runs along a north south axis and it's shadow never hits anyones wondow. We have discussed it with all of them. The biggest issue is what to do when the trees get to the end of their natural life as we will all suffer from increased envirinmental impact.
You know, if this story were not on the BBC website I would have mistaken it for being from The Onion (a parody news service in the U.S.). I never knew that hedges were such a big issue in Britain. Most neighborhoods here are covered by homeowners associations and covenances. Others are regulated by city or county code, though the cities and counties generally do not have any regulations regarding plantings on one's property. A friend lives in a neighborhood that abuts another with strong covenances on landscaping. He states you can visibly spot where one ends and the other begins: his neighborhood has plenty of nice landscaping; the heavily regulated one has almost none other than what was originally planted by the builder and its too much hassle for homeowners to go through their homeowners association just to get permission to put in flowers or shrubs.
Lee, Alexandria, Virginia
Providing an adequate definition to accommodate a specific problem unambiguously can be fraught. It could be argued that immature trees might comprise a hedge, and by default large ones as well!
The structure of the existing planning laws seem fundamentally at fault. Large organisations for example can by repeated but expensive appeals get their way. Cheap if you plan to become a Supermarket, but expensive otherwise.
Julian Lindley, Lodsworth, UK
In response to Michael Hoskins question. You may cut any growth from neighbours tree which overhangs your garden, back to the boundary line without reference to your neighbour. You must however offer the trimmings to your neighbour as they are his property. - Best course of action would be to discuss the problem with your neighbour, who may nt even be aware of your concern.
alexander adam hall, Cleveland
My neighbours have trees of 15 metres high. Well if the council don't shift them the winds this winter certainly will. The law is an ass. It has helped but only on a tip toe ''do no harm ''sort of way.
Chrissy, Pembroke Pembrokeshire
Over-sized leylandii are of course a problem, but the actual problem here is the trend over the past 60 years to reduce the sizes of gardens attached to new homes. Should we be surprised that people want very high trees to screen their garden and give privacy when all they have is a few metres of open space directly overlooked by their neighbours. Unfortunately I can't propose a solution to this as we need a high density of housing in urban areas to protect our beautiful countryside...I'm just please that I have a long garden (and yes, with leylandii!).
Tom Molloy, Leicester, UK
Un-kempt hedges can still be a nightmare - leylandii are incredibly fast growing and even if you can reach an agreement to have the hedge cut the problem can recur within a year or two. My parents, who live in a bungalow, fought for many years to have their neighbour take a 20 ft plus tall leylandii hedge down to a reasonable height (6-8 ft) as they were living in shade - the neighbour was worried that he would be overlooked from their upstairs windows. Yes, that's right, the hedge was so high the neighbour wasn't even aware that the property on the other side was a mere bungalow. The hedge was cut to 6 foot, but is now over 10 ft, and requests for it to be re-cut seem to be falling on deaf ears. I agree with Tony Cooley from Walsall - Consideration needs to be shown. It is a simple idea really!
Ella, London, England
As a former High Hedge Officer (somehow my previous authority thought a Planning Officer would be good in this role), I can say that the Act, although complicated and a very long-winded process is beneficial.
I had three complaints all of which required action and all of which were successful. Officers are not allowed to require the removal of a hedge and we are not allowed to ask for the hedge to be lowered to a height that could cause death to the hedging plants.
Although there is a cost involved usually with this work, I believe it usually quite low for the amount of work involved. Any hedge complaint I had would take numerous hours away from my role as a planning officer, I would have to arrange site visits (plural) to ascertain what level the hedge should be cut down to, become a mitigator, involve ecology/tree officers, etc. It is not as straight forward as many would believe.
Overall I think the Act has been a useful and helpful tool to many homeowner.
Re: Michael Hodgkins' query about whose responsibility it is to trim trees which overhang neighbouring properties.
My understanding of the law is that, if a neighbour's tree overhangs your property, you cannot force them to prune it, but you are entitled to prune the overhang yourself, provided that you offer to return the cuttings to your neighbour, as the tree is legally theirs.
Typical, this government legislates on everything from light bulbs to hedge height. I accept in some cases high hedges might cause issue, but surely this kind of thing can be dealt with at a far lower level than government.
Try digging a trench along your boundary and chopping any roots that you find in your soil.
You can cut off any vegetation overhanging your property BUT you must then return it to your neighbour (chuck it over the fence).
The council said that we could put up a fence around our property so long as it was at least 4 meters from the road; as our land is on a corner and has roads on two sides that would mean having a tiny postage stamp inside the fence and dogs fouling our grass on the other side. We opted for a Leylandii hedge. We keep it trimmed, at least twice a year, and nobody has complained of it's two-metre height. It gave us the secluded garden we wanted and probably a damn sight cheaper than a conventional fence would have cost.
Andy PUK, My Back yard
When we moved here we inherited a leylandii hedge that must be more than 60 foot high now. It acts as a wind break for us and our neighbours, blocks noise from the nearby dual carriageway and hides the neighbouring shopping centre.
We are lucky enough to have a very large garden, as do our neighbours, and no one suffers from loss of natural light as the hedge runs along a north south axis and it's shadow never hits anyone's window. We have discussed it with all of them. The biggest issue is what to do when the trees get to the end of their natural life as we will all suffer from increased environmental impact.
Providing an adequate definition to accomodate a specific problem unambiguously can be fraught. It could be argued that immature trees might comprise a hedge, and by default large ones aswell!
The structure of the existing planning laws seem fundamentally at fault. Large organistations for example can by repeated but expensive appeals get their way. Cheap if you plan to become a Supermarket, but expensive otherwise.
Julian Lindley, Lodsworth, UK
Some years ago, when my parents wanted to cut down a leylandii hedge to build a wall instead, they were refused planning permission, based on the council not wanting the trees remove as they were 'indigenous' - my parents had planted them themselves when they moved in. At the time they were taller than our house, and starting to grow branches through electricity cables. Eventually we got permission, but they were ridiculously difficult to shift. In the end a local skip company pulled them out with the hoist from one of their trucks!