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Leylandii... and other problems with the neighbours
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Choice magazine, 2006
They're easy to plant, hardy, and a quick way to get a new hedge in your garden. They're sold in large numbers in garden centres throughout Britain . They're leylandii, or Leyland Cyprus .
But they're also the cause of much unhappiness, anger and despair. The government has said that there at least 17,000 unresolved disputes between neighbours in Britain caused by hedges and trees – and some estimates suggest this number could be as high as 100,000. Out-of-control Leyland cypresses are the main culprit.
The government has recently acted to try to sort out the problems. A special section in the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 has given local authorities in England and Wales the right to intervene and to insist that hedges are pruned. The new measures came in last year (2005).
There's one big snag. To get your local authority involved may cost money, often many hundreds of pounds. And it is the person who makes the complaint, not the hedge-owner, who has to pay up.
Not surprisingly, many people who feel that they are the innocent party are very unhappy that they have to dig deep in their pockets in this way. Hedgeline, the volunteer-led group which campaigns on the issue of high hedges, has a long list of people who have been in touch complaining. There's the pensioner in Eastleigh in Hampshire, for example, who has suffered from hedge problems for many years and has been asked by the council for £450. There's the couple in their 80s in the Midlands who say that leylandii have plagued their lives for 35 years, but who can't afford to pay to get the council to intervene. There's the Shropshire man who wrote to Hedgeline “The Borough of Telford and Wrekin are, quite incredibly, asking for a £500 application fee. We are absolutely astonished. I was always under the impression that we were the victims.”
The sense of unfairness can be compounded by the fact that charges vary between local authorities – and some areas make no charge at all. At the top of Hedgeline's league table are authorities such as Coventry , Newham, Nuneaton & Bedworth, South Derbyshire, Stoke-on-Trent and Wolverhampton , who have announced that they will deal with hedge complaints free of charge. At the other end of the table are Rother district council (£600), Wokingham (£600) and – bottom of all – Sevenoaks district which has decided to impose a whopping £650 fee on everyone who's not on means-tested benefit. In other words, if you feel you have a legitimate complaint about a neighbour's hedge, it's a postcode lottery as to whether you will be charged. Hedgeline say that the average fee is about £345 in England and £320 in Wales .
Even if you decide to get the council involved, this won't necessarily mean that your problems are at an end. There are two sides to every hedge as to every argument, and the council will try to judge the issue impartially. Council staff have to undertake a complex calculation (looking at, among other things, the height of the hedge and the distance from neighbours' windows) before assessing whether it needs to be pruned.
Councils don't have the power to demand that a hedge is completely removed, only that it is kept pruned. What's more, the government has said that councils can't require extensive pruning if it means that the hedge is likely to die as a result. in practice, this means that normally councils won't demand more than a reduction of a third in hedge heights. Given the height that some leylandii hedges can grown, this is a serious loophole in the new law. “Unless you only want a third or even a quarter off an older very high hedge please consider carefully before paying your fee to the council,” Hedgeline advise.
There's a final problem to consider: what happens if, after the Council has ruled that a hedge needs pruning, your neighbour still doesn't sort out the problem. The government advice is that Councils may well give “months rather than weeks” for the work to be done, and extra time may also be offered if birds are nesting. Ultimately, however, hedge-owners who fail to respond can be prosecuted, with a maximum fine of £1000. Councils can also decide to take direct action and do the pruning themselves – though it's up to each Council whether they exercise this power and they are not obliged to do so.
The message therefore is fairly clear: if you feel you have a problem with a neighbour's hedge, don't necessarily rely on the new law to sort things out. The government itself says that going to the council should be a last resort. In fact, councils can refuse to get involved if they feel you haven't done everything you can to resolve the dispute informally.
Unfortunately, sometimes good neighbourliness can be in short supply. One possible way forward recommended by the government is to consider mediation. Many areas of the country have local mediation services, with experienced mediators who will offer to hear both sides of the argument and try to find a solution acceptable to everyone. Neighbour mediation is normally free of charge.
Of course, mediation can only work if both sides to a dispute are happy to give it a try. Where neighbours agree to a joint meeting with the mediators (who typically work in pairs), chances of success are often quite high; joint meetings generally last for about 2-3 hours. If neighbours don't want to meet together but are prepared for mediators to be involved, a type of ‘shuttle diplomacy' is undertaken with the mediators acting as a kind of honest broker. At the end of the process, if a solution has been sorted out, the mediators will ask both sides to sign an informal agreement.
Roughly 60% of Britain is covered by local mediation services; to find out if your area has one, contact Mediation UK.
Scotland 's different: the Scottish Parliament began discussing its own law on high hedges last year. Scothedge (Hedgeline's Scottish sister organisation) is monitoring the position. Hedgeline also has its own volunteer organiser who can advise on the situation in Northern Ireland.
WHO OWNS WHAT?
How do you find out who is the legal owner of a nearby house or plot of land, or where exactly the boundary line is supposed to run between your property and your neighbours'?
Checking the legal entries on the official Land Registry, the public record of who owns what in Britain , used to be a difficult and time-consuming business, sometimes involving a visit in person to one of the Land Registry's regional offices. Now the process couldn't be more straightforward. The Land Registry deserves praise for the way it has computerised its records and for the easy way in which it will deliver you the documents you need over the internet.
It currently costs £2 to get the formal Land Registry entry for a property. This will tell you who are the current owners, where they live and what legal charges or covenants may have been imposed. If you're interested in seeing a map showing the legal boundaries of the property, this can be supplied separately, also for £2. If you really want the full works, a final £2 will get you copies of one or more of the legal documents (such as mortgage charges) relating to the property.
All the information you need to get started is available online. You can search for the property you're interested in in various ways, including by address and by postcode, and the fees are deducted from your credit or debit card using a secure payment system. The documents are then sent to your email address, in PDF format, for you to save or print out.
If you don't have access to the internet or are uncomfortable ordering on-line, you can also make searches on properties by post, although this is slightly more expensive and you'll need to get hold of the relevant official form 303 to do so.
So what's the bad news? Some properties, primarily those which haven't changed hands in recent times, still haven't been added to the Land Registry. Currently just over 80% of properties in Britain (somewhere around twenty million entries) are included on the Land Registry – but that still leaves some millions which are missing. If you're unlucky and the property you're interested in is in this category, you won't be able to use the Land Registry services to help you.
It's surprising how many neighbour disputes crop up over seemingly trivial problems to do with boundary limits.
Land Registry plans will show you the general line of property boundaries, but won't necessarily give you the exact position followed on the ground. If you're wondering, for example, whether a hedge is owned by you or by your neighbour or whether you have land rights over a stream adjoining your garden, you may find the Land Registry plan unhelpful. Information on who owns walls, fences, hedges and other boundary features will be included only if title deeds specifically refer to them – and most title deeds unfortunately don't.
What's more, title plans are limited by the available scale of Ordnance Survey maps. The Land Registry warns that you can't just blow up the size of the plan to try to establish details.
If you feel that you need your boundaries clarified exactly, it's possible to go through a process known as ‘determining the boundary'. If you and your neighbours have managed to sort out a boundary disagreement, this can be a good way of establishing exactly what you have agreed. However the process involves arranging for a surveyor to draw up a very precise plan and, between you, you will have to pay the surveyor for their work.
If there's a boundary dispute with your neighbours which you haven't managed to resolve, you can ask the Land Registry to look into the problem or you can take the issue to a court judge and ask them to make a judgment. Depending on what is decided, your title plan with the Land Registry can be formally amended. However, both these options can be very expensive and not to be entered into lightly.
As with hedge problems, the sensible advice is to try if at all possible to resolve boundary disputes informally. More information is available in a free leaflet from the Land Registry (see box).
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