Thousands of distressed homeowners across Northern Ireland have been bombarding their politicians with pleas to intervene over monster hedges.
Environment Minister Edwin Poots is bombarded daily with letters begging him to arbitrate over huge leylandii hedges looming over neighbouring properties.
And his party colleague, Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson, keeps a database of hedge complaints mounting into the high hundreds, while DUP MLA Jim Shannon describes monster hedges as the second biggest issue for constituents after social housing.
Mr Poots, who this week announced he would be pressing ahead with legislation to allow councils to deal with nuisance hedges that loom over neighbouring properties, said he has |received more than 200 complaints from people in his Lagan Valley constituency alone.
Now, as Environment Minister, he is deluged with far more, with up to four letters landing on his desk a day.
“There’s hardly a day goes by that you don’t get letters about it. A lot of the other MLAs also get a lot of complaints about it,” he said. “In fact, when they did the last consultation on high hedges, they received 640 replies, which is a fairly good figure for a consultation — normally you would get 50 or 60.”
There’s been something of a hiatus since that consultation was set up in 2005 by direct rule minister Jeff Rooker, with Northern Ireland lagging behind England and Wales where High Hedge Laws have been in place for some years, but the newly-appointed Environment Minister has decided to press ahead. His hope is that the legislation will be in place by the time the 11 new councils are established in 2011.
“It would go to consultation in the autumn and will take at least a year to go through the process of drawing up the legislation, which would take it to |autumn 2010 or spring 2011 before it is sent for Royal Assent,” Mr Poots said.
In the meantime, there are a lot of people who remain in despair over the vast hedges blocking out the sun, sending roots through lawns and paths and threatening the structural stability of their homes and Mr Poots admits they have little redress — “only if they can come to some agreement with their neighbour”, he says.
“I hear from a lot of older people who have huge trees round the backs of their houses, some overhanging the houses themselves, and nothing can be done about it,” he said.
“It’s older people and younger people as well, you get people with families using the back gardens and they are as dark as can be. There’s no sunlight in the summer and with the short days in the winter it’s even darker.”
Yesterday, the minister visited Mary Bell, a Co Down pensioner, who is unable to contact the owner of the neighbouring property to request that the 60-foot leylandii hedge be removed.
“That is as bad a case as I’ve seen — those trees are towering over that woman’s house,” he said. “That is the scale they are on, when they grow three feet a year it doesn’t take long to get to that height. Trees like those ones will fundamentally change that wee woman’s life. She lies in bed not sleeping at night, worrying about the wind bringing them down.”
But the minister stressed that the laws will not limit the height of garden hedges in general, nor will people have to seek council permission to grow a boundary hedge.
“I don’t want a situation where someone looks after their hedge and cuts it regularly but some neighbour uses the law against them,” he said.