AA Legal Documents
Law guide

High hedges

Contents

Preventing hedge problems

A good hedge has many benefits as a garden boundary. A hedge is a useful weather and dust filter, is inexpensive to create, long-lasting, can encourage wildlife into a garden and can be a feature of beauty and interest in its own right. It also offers privacy and security.

Many of the problems associated with hedges occur because fast-growing plants have been used for quick results, producing hedges that are difficult to maintain and have become too large. Choosing more suitable hedging plants or finding another way of achieving the effect that is wanted can, therefore, help avoid outsize hedges and prevent future problems.

Settling problems amicably

If someone is troubled by a neighbouring hedge, the best way to deal with the issue is to discuss it amicably and to agree a solution. For this reason, the law requires people to have taken reasonable steps to try to settle their hedge dispute for themselves before complaining to the local council.

Negotiation or mediation are likely to offer the best chances of success.

Negotiation

It is often daunting to tackle neighbours about a problem, and best not done in the heat of the moment. If you are affected by a neighbour's high hedge, it is best to approach them with your grievance directly and work out a settlement to the problem. If you do not have good relations with your neighbour, mediation is a better option.

Mediation

Where people do not get on or if the dispute over the hedge is long-running, mediation might be the answer.

Community mediation is particularly effective in this type of dispute. It involves an independent and impartial person (the mediator) helping those in dispute to work together to reach a settlement. The mediator's job is not to make a decision. Instead, they help the people concerned to understand each other's point of view - dealing with how they feel about the situation as well as the facts - without apportioning blame. From there, the participants can move forward to think about how they could put matters right and to agree a plan of action. If mediation is to work, people must go into it willingly.

Further information about local community mediation services is on the UKMediation website at UKMediation. People can also locate their nearest community mediation service through this site. Community mediation is usually free of charge.

There are also a number of specialist companies offering mediation and other dispute resolution services, for a fee. For further information on such companies, see: UKMediation.

Complaining to the council: the law on high hedges

People normally do not need permission to plant a hedge in their garden. And there are no general restrictions on how high you can grow your hedge. The rules that govern the height of boundary walls and fences do not apply to hedges.

While common law rights entitle neighbours to cut overhanging branches back to the boundary line (unless other legal restrictions, such as a tree preservation order, apply), they cannot reduce the height of a hedge unless the owner agrees. Where you and your neighbour cannot agree a solution to your hedge problems, you may be able to ask the local council to consider your complaint.

The law

The law giving local councils powers to deal with complaints about high hedges is contained in Part 8 of the Anti Social Behaviour Act 2003 ("the Act") and the High Hedges (Appeals) (England) Regulations 2005 ("the Appeal Regulations").

It makes provision for local councils to determine complaints by the owners/occupiers of domestic property adversely affected by evergreen hedges over 2 metres high. The council is able to charge a fee for this service, to be paid by the complainant. Fees are set locally and in England vary from about £100 to more than £600. In Wales, the National Assembly has used its powers to prescribe, through regulations, a maximum fee of £320.

Councils may also reject the complaint if they consider that insufficient effort has been made to resolve the matter amicably, or that the complaint is frivolous or vexatious.

The role of the council is to act as an independent and impartial third party. They do not negotiate or mediate between individuals, but will adjudicate on whether the hedge is adversely affecting the reasonable enjoyment of the complainant's property. In doing so, they will take account of all views and relevant factors - including the hedge owner's amenity and that of the wider neighbourhood. They will assess each case on its particular merits.

The council may, if they consider the circumstances justify it, issue a notice requiring the owner or occupier of the land where the hedge is situated, to take action to remedy the problem, for example, reducing the height of the hedge and maintaining it at the lower level, to prevent it recurring. This is known as a "remedial notice". Any remedial notice may be enforced through criminal prosecutions and/or by the council entering the land and carrying out the necessary work if the owner or occupier fails to do so.

The law does not require all hedges to be reduced to, or maintained at, a height of 2 metres.

What complaints can councils consider?

Under the terms of the Act, councils can only consider a complaint if it satisfies the following criteria:

  • It must relate to a high hedge as defined in the Act
  • The hedge must be on land that is owned by someone other than the complainant
  • It must be affecting a domestic property
  • The complaint must be made on the grounds that the height of the hedge is adversely affecting the reasonable enjoyment of the domestic property in question
  • It must be brought by the owner or occupier of that property
High hedges

A high hedge is defined in the Act as a line of two or more evergreen or semi-evergreen trees or shrubs higher than 2 metres above ground level, which wholly or predominantly forms a barrier to light or access. However, a line of evergreens or semi-evergreens doesn't constitute a barrier to light or access if it has gaps at heights of more than 2 metres above ground level which significantly diminish the barrier effect.

When considering whether a particular hedge can be the subject of a complaint under the Act, people should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Is the hedge - or the portion that is causing problems - made up of a line of two or more trees or shrubs?
  • Is it mostly evergreen or semi-evergreen?
  • Is it more than 2 metres above ground level?
  • Even though there are gaps in the foliage or between the trees, is the hedge still capable of obstructing light or views?
If the answer to all these questions is 'yes', then it's probably a high hedge for the purposes of the Act.

It is not necessary for the whole of the hedge to fall within the definition. If some parts of it qualify, they can be considered as individual hedges under the Act.

Line of two or more trees or shrubs

A complaint cannot be made under the Act about single trees or shrubs, whatever their size. A tree or shrub that has multiple stems, all growing from the same trunk or root plate, remains a single tree or shrub and so falls outside the scope of the Act. This is the position even though the multiple stems might result in a considerable spread.

The two or more trees or shrubs do not have to form a straight line. As long as they are roughly in line, they will be caught. It is unlikely, therefore, that the definition will catch groups of trees, copses or small woodlands - unless they have a row of trees bounding them.

Mostly evergreen or semi-evergreen

The Act applies not only to Leyland cypress or conifers, but also includes other evergreen trees or shrubs, such as laurel. It does not include climbing plants, such as ivy, or bamboo, which is classed as a grass.

The term semi-evergreen is not separately defined in the Act, but normally means that the hedge retains some live foliage throughout the year. Depending on geographical location, this could include privet. The further north, the more likely that a privet hedge will lose its leaves over the winter, and so would not be covered by this definition.

Beech and hornbeam hedges are excluded. Although they may retain some foliage for most of the year, this is brown and dead. Reference works such as Hillier Gardener's Guide to Trees and Shrubs or the RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants may help to clarify whether particular trees and shrubs are classed as evergreen, semi-evergreen or deciduous.

A hedge does not have to comprise wholly evergreen or semi-evergreen trees or shrubs to fall within the definition. The Act applies to hedges that are predominantly evergreen or semi-evergreen. It does not necessarily require a set number or proportion of the trees or shrubs in the hedge to meet this description.

The effect of including predominantly evergreen or semi-evergreen hedges is to bring mixed hedges - that include some deciduous species - within the scope of the definition. Thus, deciduous trees that are located within a predominantly evergreen hedge might be the subject of a complaint under the Act.

More than 2 metres above ground level

The 2 metres should be measured from the ground where the hedge is growing - that will usually be on the hedge owner's side. Even if the property affected is on a lower (or higher) level than the land where the hedge is situated, the 2 metres should still be measured from the ground where the hedge is growing.

Measurements should be taken from the ground at the base of the trunks or stems of the trees or shrubs in the hedge. An exception might be where the hedge has been planted on a mound, or in a bed or other container that is raised above the ground. In such a case, the measurement should be from the natural ground area rather than of the hedge alone.

Barrier to light or access

The Act applies to hedges that are a barrier to light or access. This is about the physical appearance of the trees and shrubs in question. All that counts is their appearance above 2 metres. This is consistent with the fact that complaints cannot be brought against 2 metre high hedges. It effectively takes anything below this height outside the scope of the Act.

Whether a particular hedge meets this criterion is a matter of judgement, depending on its composition, form, growth habit and past management. The key question is whether - even though there might be gaps in the foliage or between the trees or shrubs - the hedge is capable of obstructing light or views.

This first step looks at the structure of the hedge and its potential to obstruct light or access. Whether or not the hedge actually obstructs light or access to the complainant's property is not relevant here. This criterion cannot be used, therefore, to filter out complaints where the hedge is considered to have little adverse impact on the complainant's property. Whether any gaps in the hedge make a material difference to its effect on the complainant's reasonable enjoyment of their property, is a separate issue, to be taken into account in determining the complaint.

Location of the hedge

The hedge must be on land that is owned by someone other than the complainant. Otherwise, there is no restriction on where the hedge is situated. It is the effect of the hedge on a domestic property that is important, rather than where it is located.

Crown land

The Act applies to Crown land. This means that councils are able to investigate and determine complaints about high hedges on land owned by the Crown. For example, a hedge on land owned by a Government Department or NHS Trust might be adversely affecting neighbouring domestic property.

The Crown itself is not liable to prosecution under the Act, though its employees might be.

Affected property

A person can bring a complaint under the Act if a domestic property is affected. The Act defines domestic property as a dwelling or any associated garden or yard. And it defines 'dwelling' as any building or part of a building occupied, or intended to be occupied, as a separate dwelling.

A complaint could not be brought under the Act if a hedge was affecting a garage, barn, summerhouse, greenhouse, shed or other outbuilding that might be used for storage or for purposes other than as living accommodation.

This would exclude properties that might be in a residential area but wholly occupied by, say, a dental practice or other commercial use.

Where a property contains a mix of domestic and commercial uses, the Act would apply to protect the living quarters from the effects of a neighbouring high hedge.

A garden or yard does not have to be attached to the dwelling, as long as it is linked - legally rather than physically - with a domestic property.

Grounds of complaint

The Act says someone can complain if the height of the hedge is adversely affecting reasonable enjoyment of a domestic property. Anyone making a complaint to the council must, therefore, show that:

  • The problems with the hedge are related to its height; and
  • They are adversely affecting the reasonable enjoyment of their property.
Height

The Act applies only to problems experienced because the hedge is too tall. This includes obstruction of daylight and sunlight, jointly or as separate issues, as well as the visual impact of the hedge.

Problems associated with the width of the hedge, where it overhangs and intrudes on the complainant's property, will not normally be considered. The exception might be where the height of the hedge is a contributory factor. For example, a hedge might be so high that the complainant could not reasonably be expected to trim overhanging branches, and so cannot alleviate the problems it is causing.

Grounds of complaint that are unrelated to the hedge that is the subject of the complaint will also generally be disregarded. For example, claims that other hedges in the area are maintained at a lower height.

Roots

The Act specifically excludes complaints about the effects of the roots of a high hedge. The council will not, therefore, deal with complaints made under this legislation about such matters as:

  • Root-related property damage, including subsidence;
  • Roots taking moisture and nutrients from the soil, so creating difficult growing conditions for plants;
  • Roots blocking drains or invading pipes.
For more information see our section on Trees and plants

Reasonable enjoyment of property

The hedge must be adversely affecting the complainant's reasonable enjoyment of their home.

Grounds of complaint must relate to the impact of the hedge on the complainant's home and garden. The following grounds will not normally be considered:

  • The effect of the hedge, or the dispute over it, on the complainant personally. For example, that the problems with the hedge have caused worry, concern or depression, leading to health problems;
  • The effect of the hedge on particular activities that the complainant engages in on the property. For example, that the hedge interferes with a greenhouse, a vegetable patch, the growing of competition plants or annual bedding; or affects television reception, including any receiving aerial such as a satellite 'dish';
  • Factors relating to the complainant's feelings about or perceptions of, the hedge. For example, fears that the hedge will break or fall.
The reference to "reasonable" enjoyment of the property is also significant. It affects the way that councils determine complaints. It requires them to:

  • Assess the impact of the hedge on the enjoyment that a reasonable person might expect from their home and garden as opposed to the complainant's expectations. The council will also take into account the length of time that the effect lasts for
  • Consider what is reasonable in the circumstances.
This means they must take account of all relevant factors, including the views of the hedge owner and the contribution that the hedge makes to the wider amenity of the area. They will not look solely at the complainant's concerns. They must look at each case on its particular merits. A problem that leads to the issue of a remedial notice in one complaint might not necessarily produce the same outcome in another case - because of the different circumstances.

Potential complainants should have regard to these points in framing their grounds of complaint and substantiating their case.

Who can complain?

Owner or occupier

A complaint can be brought under the Act by the owner or occupier of the affected property. Where there is both an owner and an occupier (e.g. landlord and tenant), each is entitled to complain to the council.

A person does not have to live at the address for a set period before they can make a complaint. In addition, even if the high hedge was there when they moved in, they are still entitled to complain under the Act. However, it is unlikely that someone would be in a position to complain to the council shortly after taking over a property. They would need to have some experience of the adverse effects of the high hedge and to have taken steps to try to negotiate a solution with their neighbour.

Although the Act does not require an occupier (e.g. tenant) to get permission from the owner of their property before making a complaint, this might be a condition in their tenancy agreement. People should, therefore, check the terms of any such agreement before getting in touch with the council.

Even if there is no requirement to obtain the property owner's consent, it is good practice for the occupier to inform them before a complaint is submitted to the council. This is particularly important if someone is occupying a property for only a short time - especially where the owner is temporarily absent and intends to return to the property.

Unoccupied property

There is special provision for the owner of an empty property to bring a complaint under the Act. They might, for example, have moved out, but be unable to sell the house because of the high hedge.

Invalid complaints

If a council rejects a complaint because it does not meet the requirements set out in this section, they should inform the complainant as soon as possible and explain the reasons for the decision. The council should also return any fee.

There is no specific right of appeal against a council's decision that a complaint is invalid. If the complainant considers that the council has not applied the legislation correctly, they can refer the matter to the council's own complaints officer or to the Local Government Ombudsman. Alternatively, they may apply to the High Court to challenge the decision by judicial review.

Scotland and Northern Ireland

There is currently no legislation covering high hedges in either Northern Ireland or Scotland, although there have been several public consultations on the subject in both countries.

In Northern Ireland, you may be able to come to an agreement with your neighbour in order to cut the hedge, and in cases where there is a covenant in the title deeds to the affected property restricting the height of any boundary hedge, you may be able to take legal action, though this could prove costly.

The Northern Irish government has reported that there are plans to have nuisance high hedges legislation ready for Royal Assent by late 2010 at the earliest.