Devolution is about dealing with issues of public concern
Failure to prune your hedge could land you in court under new legislation announced by Environment Minister Edwin Poots
Immediately after taking office I stated my intention to bring forward high hedges legislation as soon as possible. If anything, my resolve has strengthened in recent weeks.
As a local councillor I already had first-hand experience of the problems caused by nuisance high hedges.
However, as Environment Minister I receive a steady stream of correspondence on this issue. Public support for legislation is clearly high and I am determined to respond to that demand.
I am currently working on my legislative proposals and these will, of course, go out for public consultation. I anticipate, though, that the new arrangements will be broadly similar to those already operating in England and Wales.
The legislation will be designed to help people who are adversely affected by high hedges bordering their domestic property.
It will deal with evergreen and semi-evergreen hedges and trees, but not single or deciduous trees. It will establish a complaints-based system which will be regulated by councils.
However, before bringing a complaint to their council complainants will be expected to have explored all other avenues for resolving their dispute. I would like to take the opportunity to remove some misconceptions that people may have.
Firstly, the legislation will not mean that all hedges above a certain height will need to be cut down.
Nor will you need council permission to grow or retain a hedge along the boundary of your property.
Councils will only intervene in circumstances where a complaint is made. Even then each case will be determined on its own merits.
I would hope, however, that the very existence of the legislation will encourage neighbours to work together to resolve their dispute and that this will avoid the need for local council to get involved.
I should also emphasise that councils will not be expected to negotiate or arbitrate between neighbours. Rather, their role will be to investigate a complaint, and make a judgment as to whether the hedge is adversely affecting the complainant's reasonable enjoyment of his or her property.
If the council decides that the complaint is justified it will serve a notice on the hedge-owner, stipulating the height to which the hedge should be reduced and specifying the date by which this should be done. Failure to comply with the terms of this notice will be an offence.
I have not yet decided on the penalty for non-compliance. In England and Wales I understand that the maximum fine is £1,000.
There is also provision for a further fine for continued non-compliance.
I anticipate that the legislation will give both the complainant and the hedge-owner the right to appeal the council's decision.
I also want to comment on the timing of the legislation. I would like it to be in place by the time the new councils are formed in 2011.
I am conscious that some people will ask: why does it take so long? Why not do it now?
There is a lot of work, however, to be done before new legislation can be introduced.
The draft legislation needs to go out for consultation; this will give me an opportunity to consider public views and adjust my proposals as necessary.
I will then need to obtain Executive approval to introduce the Bill, after which it will be considered in detail on the floor of the Assembly and by the Environment Committee. All of this takes time.
However, devolution is ultimately about responding to issues of public concern.
This legislation will have a tangible impact on people and, with political co-operation in the Executive and Assembly, these powers could be in place before 2011.
This is my end objective - to ensure we produce an effective piece of legislation which meets the needs of local communities.