2: Applications for a high hedge notice
15. Although the Act provides a way of settling disputes relating to high hedges, it is intended to be a last resort for the minority of cases where the people involved cannot settle such disputes themselves. The Act emphasises this by stating that potential applicants 'must take all reasonable steps to resolve the matters in relation to the high hedge' before making an application. The Act also allows local authorities to issue their own guidance on what people must do before applying for a high hedge notice (pre-application requirements).
What should people do before applying for a high hedge notice?
16. Anyone considering applying for a high hedge notice must have tried to settle the issue with their neighbour before making an application. If a local authority receives an application where there is no evidence that the applicant has tried to do this, they must reject it. The steps people should have taken before applying to the local authority will depend on the circumstances of the case. However, it is not enough for an applicant to simply claim that their neighbour is unapproachable.
Discussion with neighbour
17. Usually the first step for an applicant to take is to discuss the issue with their neighbour to try to settle the problem amicably. They should keep records of all attempts to settle the issue, for example, a diary of conversations held or a series of receipts for postage, and should include these with their application. The attempts should show that the applicant has made a reasonable effort to settle the dispute in a reasonable timescale before applying for a notice (it is not possible to specify what is a reasonable timescale as this will depend on the circumstances of the case).
18. If a hedge problem has been going on for some time, it may date back to well before the Act came into force. During this time the person may have made several unsuccessful attempts to settle the matter through negotiation. Despite this, now that the Act is in place, it is reasonable for a local authority to expect the person to have made another recent attempt to settle the dispute with their neighbour before making a formal application for a high hedge notice. A definition of 'reasonable steps' to try to settle the matter without referring the case to the local authority would be two formal approaches to the neighbour within a six-month period before applying for a high hedge notice. The applicant should keep a copy of any letters they have sent to their neighbour, with a record of their delivery, as the local authority will normally ask to see these letters as reasonable evidence of the applicant's own attempts to settle the dispute.
19. Another option for settling high hedge disputes without involving the local authority is mediation. This is a way of settling differences by working with everyone involved in the dispute. Mediation can be carried out by various people, such as a member of the local community or a professional mediator. In many parts of the country, the Scottish Mediation Network provides low-cost access to mediation services. In some local authority areas, mediation services may be provided free of charge. People should check with their local authority about the availability and cost of local mediation services, although local authority officials dealing with high hedge applications do not provide mediation themselves.
20. It is important to remember that although mediation can be an effective way to settle disputes, cases can still be considered without it. It is possible to make an application that shows the applicant has made an effort to solve the high hedge issue amicably without using mediation. The local authority will decide whether the evidence they provide proves that they have made reasonable efforts to settle the dispute. If the person who owns the hedge refuses to take part in mediation, this could be used as evidence that the applicant has made a reasonable attempt to settle the matter, although the local authority should consider the cost and availability of mediation when deciding whether this is a truly reasonable attempt.
Approaching the local authority
21. People may contact their local authority informally to discuss a possible application. In these situations, the local authority should ask about the nature of the problem and explain that the Act states that the person must take all reasonable steps to try to settle the issue themselves before making a formal application to the local authority under the Act. The applicant can then make a formal application for a high hedge notice to be served if their reasonable attempts fail to deal with the problem.
22. A local authority is to be able to provide - and be seen to provide - an impartial assessment of an application for a High Hedge Notice. The local authority should avoid any activity that can make it appear to be acting on behalf of, or favouring, any particular party. For example, officers of a local authority who would be involved in assessing a future application should be cautious about approaching a hedge owner on behalf of an affected neighbour as this is likely to be seen to be acting on behalf of the neighbour.
23. The Act allows local authorities to issue their own guidance on the Act. The local authority should tell people about any guidance they have produced, and may also refer them to this guidance.
Applications where it is not clear who owns the land
24. There are special conditions in the Act for cases where it is difficult to establish who owns the land a hedge is on. If an applicant is unclear about who owns the land, they should take reasonable steps to identify the owner of the land and should record these steps in the application before sending it to the local authority. Applicants can contact Registers of Scotland to find out if the land is registered. Companies House may be able to provide information on land owned by a business. In exceptional circumstances, if it is not possible to trace the owner of land, it passes to the Queen's and Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer.
Deciding whether an application is eligible
25. The Act states that an owner or occupier of a domestic property can apply to their local authority for a high hedge notice if they consider 'that the height of a high hedge situated on land owned or occupied by another person adversely affects the enjoyment of the domestic property which an occupant of that property could 'reasonably expect to have' ' (see paragraphs 80-83 for more information).
26. An application for a high hedge notice can only be made under the Act for a hedge which is a high hedge. If the requirements of a high hedge set out in paragraphs (a) to (c) of subsection (1) are not met then the local authority should inform the person submitting the 'application' that it does not meet the requirements of the Act and so cannot be considered as an application under the Act. The local authority should explain, briefly, why they have reached that view.
Dismissing an application
27. A local authority must dismiss an application if, after giving due consideration to the Act, they consider that the applicant has not taken all reasonable steps to sort out the situation, or if they consider that the application is frivolous (that is, that it is not a reasonable application and it has no reasonable chance of succeeding) or vexatious (that is, the application is intended to harass, annoy or cause frustration or financial loss to the other person despite there being little justification for a complaint in the first place).
28. If the local authority decides to dismiss an application on the grounds of being frivolous or vexatious, they must tell the applicant as soon as possible, giving full and detailed reasons for doing so. Whether the local authority considers an application to be frivolous or vexatious will depend on the particular circumstances of that application. An example might be where someone repeatedly applies (unsuccessfully) to the local authority for a high hedge notice without any significant change in circumstances that would affect the local authority's decision.
29. Local authorities should consider whether there has been any change in circumstances before dismissing an application on the grounds that it is frivolous or vexatious. If the local authority dismiss an initial application but the situation later changes, for example because the applicant extends their house or there have been changes to the high hedge, the applicant is entitled to make a new application for a high hedge notice, drawing attention to the change in circumstances.
Withdrawing an application
30. The applicant may withdraw their application at any time before the local authority make their decision on a high hedge notice. Discussion and negotiation between the people involved in the dispute can continue while the local authority are considering a formal application. If all people concerned can agree a way forward, the applicant should withdraw their application.
The scope of the Act
31. When a local authority receive a formal application for a high hedge notice, they should make sure that the applicant has filled in all parts of the application form and paid the appropriate fee (if any).
32. The local authority must also consider whether an application is eligible by confirming that:
- they are the correct local authority to deal with the application;
- the applicant is the owner or occupier of the domestic property specified in the application;
- the hedge specified in the application is on land owned or occupied by another person;
- the hedge specified in the application is a high hedge; and
- the applicant has paid the appropriate fee.
33. The local authority do not need to decide whether the applicant's reasonable enjoyment of their house is being negatively affected by the height of a high hedge until they have confirmed that the application is eligible. See chapter 3 of this guidance (Deciding whether a high hedge notice should be issued) for more information.
Local authority responsibility for dealing with applications
34. Applications must be made to the local authority responsible for the area where the hedge is located. For example, if a hedge is on land within the boundaries of local authority A but the applicant lives in the area of local authority B, the application should be sent to local authority A. When the local authority receive the application, after confirming that it is eligible, they should send a copy of the application to every owner and occupier of the property the hedge is on, regardless of which local authority area the owner or occupier lives in.
35. An applicant can only apply for a high hedge notice if domestic property is negatively affected by a high hedge. The Act defines domestic property as 'any part of a building in Scotland which is occupied, or intended to be occupied, as a separate dwelling' and 'a yard, garden, garage or outhouse in Scotland which belongs to such a building or is usually enjoyed with it'. For example, this would include a flat that is used as a home even if it is part of a tenement that contains a mix of homes and businesses, but would not include properties that are in a residential area but are used for business purposes only, for example, a dental practice or a doctor's surgery.
Location of the hedge
36. The Act states that the hedge must be on land that is owned by someone other than the applicant. There are no other restrictions on where the hedge must be located. It is the effect the hedge has on a domestic property that is important, rather than where the hedge is located, for example, an application could relate to a hedge situated on commercial land that affects residential property. As part of the application, the applicant should normally provide a map showing all the main features such as the location of the high hedge, the boundaries of gardens and the location of buildings. In some circumstances, a detailed written description of the situation may be enough.
37. Although the Act uses the term 'neighbouring land' to describe where the hedge is growing, the hedge does not have to be next door to the applicant's property. This means that a hedge on 'neighbouring land' could be several gardens down the road or across the street, as long as the applicant can show that it has a negative effect on their enjoyment of their house.
38. The hedge does not have to be on one property only. It could extend over several properties, and it does not have to be growing in a garden. It could, for example, be on parkland that backs onto a garden or yard, or on business premises.
39. The Act also applies to Crown land. This means that local authorities are able to investigate and decide applications relating to high hedges on land owned by the Crown (for example, a hedge on land owned by some government departments).
Meaning of 'high hedge'
40. The Act only applies to hedges; for trees and shrubs to be considered as a 'high hedge', they must first be considered to form a hedge. Only once trees and shrubs are identified as forming a hedge can consideration be given to whether they form a high hedge. In order for a hedge to be considered as a high hedge they must meet the definition given in the Act.
41. Section 1 of the Act defines a 'high hedge' as a hedge:
- being formed wholly or mainly by a row of two or more trees or shrubs;
- rising to a height of more than 2 metres above ground level; and
- forming a barrier to light (unless gaps in the hedge significantly reduce its overall effect as a barrier to light at heights of more than 2 metres above ground level).
42. It is not necessary for the whole of a hedge to fall within the definition. If parts of a hedge qualify, the hedge will be eligible for an application for a high hedge notice.
43. For trees or shrubs to be considered as a high hedge, they must first be a hedge. A hedge is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as:
"A row of bushes or low trees (e.g. a hawthorn, or privet) planted closely to form a boundary between pieces of land or at the sides of a road",
in the Cambridge English Dictionary as:
"A line of bushes or small trees planted very close together, especially along the edge of a garden, field, or road"
and in the Collins English Dictionary as:
"A row of bushes or small trees, usually along the edge of a garden, field, or road."
44. While the above definitions provide guidance on what would be considered a hedge, it is expected that hedges which meet the definition of a high hedge in the Act are likely to be made up of trees considerably larger in stature than the 'small trees' referred to.
45. The Act does not make it illegal to grow leylandii and other fast-growing plants. Simply growing a hedge itself is not illegal, nor is owning a hedge which exceeds two metres in height. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 controls where non-native plants can be planted and states that no non-native plant may be planted in the wild. Parliament has approved a code of practice for non-native species to further explain this subject, and you can also find exceptions approved by Parliament on the Scottish Government webpages.
46. Other factors under the terms of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 may have to be considered too. This includes whether there are any protected birds, animals or plants in the hedge and how they would be affected by any work; legislation which protects wildlife; and whether any work should be carried out, or avoided, at a particular time of year (for example, if birds are nesting in the hedge, hedge cutting should be avoided during the nesting season).
47. The Act applies to hedges and is not designed to affect woodland and forests. For example, well-spaced tree lines are not normally considered as a hedge, even if the trees join to form a canopy. It is not normally expected that trees planted between properties would be classified as either woodland or forests.
48. Where trees form a boundary between properties the local authority should consider if the trees form a hedge. If the trees are not considered to form a hedge the Act cannot be applied. It is accepted that multiple trees can have a similar impact as a high hedge. However the trees must firstly be considered to form a hedge to be considered under the scope of the Act.
49. In order to establish if trees and shrubs form what is commonly recognised as a hedge, local authorities should consider a number of criteria when making their assessment. The following criteria may assist in determining if trees and shrubs constitute a hedge. These criteria are not tests and should be viewed as things that may be useful for local authorities to consider to help make a decision but it is not expected that every hedge would meet these criteria;
- The spacing of trees and shrubs consistent with hedge planting
- The past and current management of trees and shrubs
50. The spacing between individual trees and shrubs can assist in identifying if the trees and shrubs form a hedge. Individual trees and shrubs within a hedge are commonly planted relatively close. In order to form a hedge individual plants are more commonly spaced at 30-60 cm apart. Where a wider hedge is required, the plants may be planted up to 90 cm apart in two staggered rows. The spacing between leylandii, or other fast growing coniferous trees, may be greater; up to 1.2 metres apart, depending on the stock size at planting.
51. Trees and shrubs planted at significantly wider spacings than those outlined above are unlikely to fall under the scope of the act.
52. The past and current management of trees and shrubs can give a clear indication as to whether trees and shrubs constitute a hedge. Hedges are generally maintained by regularly trimming the sides and top of the vegetation. Formal hedges are commonly trimmed on an annual basis whilst informal hedges and hedges planted for wildlife are likely to be trimmed less regularly or on a cyclical basis whereby the sides and the top of the hedge are cut in different years. Even neglected hedges are likely to show some signs of past maintenance.
53. Rows of well-spaced trees can also be regularly managed. This is commonly achieved by pollarding the trees or reducing the tree crown. Pollarding and crown reduction are recognised techniques for managing trees and often result in a substantial reduction in the crown of the tree. Pollarding and crown reduction are not considered to be a method utilised to maintain hedges. As such a row of well-spaced, pollarded trees or trees that have had a crown reduction undertaken are unlikely to be considered as a hedge. As such it is unlikely that trees that have been managed in this way will fall under the remit of the Act.
54. Whilst it is generally expected that most hedges formed from traditional hedging plants (particularly broad-leaved tree species) meet the criteria outlined above, it is recognised that, particularly in the case of fast growing coniferous trees (e.g. leylandii), these criteria may not apply. Fast growing conifers can be planted at much greater distances apart and still form what is commonly recognised as a hedge, particularly as their canopies coalesce. Due to the natural growth habit and dense foliage of these trees, a hedge may be formed without current or previous management practices. However, in arriving at a decision, the local authority will look at each case on its own merits.
Line of two or more trees or shrubs
55. An application cannot be made under the Act against single trees or shrubs, whatever their size. Two or more trees or shrubs in a hedge do not have to form a precisely straight line to qualify as a high hedge. As long as they are roughly in line, they may be considered as a high hedge under the Act.
56. A tree or shrub that has several stems, all growing from the same trunk or root plate, is a single tree or shrub and so is not covered by the Act. This applies even though the tree or shrub may grow to be large and cover a considerable area.
More than 2 metres above ground level
57. Local authorities cannot accept applications relating to hedges less than 2 metres high. The 2 metres should be measured from the ground where the hedge is growing - that will usually be on the hedge owner's side. For these purposes, ground level means the natural level of the ground where the hedge is growing. Normally, any 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 flower bed or other container that is raised above the ground, in which case the height should be measured starting from original ground level taking into account the additional height of hedge due to any raised planting position.
58. Applicants should not have to provide a precise measurement of a hedge in order to make an application about a high hedge. The legislation does not give the applicant permission to enter their neighbour's land to take any measurements. It should be enough for them to estimate the height of the hedge when working out whether the hedge is covered by the Act.
59. When a local authority are considering an application for a high hedge notice, they will need to consider the height of the hedge on the applicant's side to assess the effect on their property. They will also need to confirm that the height of the hedge is more than 2 metres from ground level, and so are likely to need to measure the hedge on the owner's side.
Barrier to light
60. The Act applies to hedges that act as a barrier to light. If a hedge has gaps which significantly reduce its overall effect as a barrier at heights of more than 2 metres then the hedge should not to be considered a barrier to light. The local authority must decide whether a particular hedge meets this condition by considering the trees or shrubs that make up the hedge, including its shape, its growth habit, and, most importantly, what it looks like above 2 metres. Even though there might be gaps in the foliage or between the trees or shrubs, the local authority must consider whether the hedge is, overall, a barrier to light.
61. The trees or shrubs in the hedge may have been closely planted and become so entangled that they appear as a solid green wall. In these circumstances, the matter may be straightforward as the hedge is evidently capable of blocking light. Other cases may be more difficult to judge. The trees or shrubs may be more widely spaced so their branches are not touching. Branches may have fallen off or been removed so the canopy is lifted or the growth might be 'straggly', with few leaves or greenery. Local authorities must assess each case individually. If a hedge is so widely spaced, or the gaps in the leaves are so big that it is possible to see what lies behind them, the hedge may not act as a barrier to light and therefore not be covered by the Act, but this decision must be based on the circumstances of each case. In some cases, it may be possible to tell from photographs, or other evidence, whether a hedge forms a barrier to light. However, the local authority shall visit the property to see the hedge before making a decision. There is guidance on this in chapter 3 ('Deciding whether a high hedge notice should be issued').
62. This guidance does not specify limits for light levels, and local authorities are free to measure light levels using any methods they consider reasonable and suitable for their needs. An example of a method of measuring light levels is the Hedge Height and Light Loss (March 2004) guidelines which were developed by the Building Research Establishment (BRE). These guidelines were created to help local authorities in England and Wales make decisions under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003. However, the method set out in these 2004 guidelines was designed to apply only to evergreen hedges adjacent to the boundary, whereas the High Hedges (Scotland) Act 2013 covers all types of hedges, including those at a distance from the boundary, and so that method cannot be applied in all cases. Whichever method the local authority decide to use to help them make their final decision as to whether a hedge is a barrier to light, they must consider the circumstances of each case.
63. The Act gives local authorities the right to charge a fee for dealing with applications for high hedge notices but it does not set a standard fee. Instead, it allows local authorities to set different fees to take account of different circumstances and to refund fees when appropriate.
64. Applicants must send the appropriate fee with their application for a high hedge notice. We recommend that local authorities publish a list of their fees so it is clear how much applications cost.
65. The Act states that any fees local authorities charge for an application for a high hedge notice should aim to cover the reasonable costs of considering the application. The legislation is not intended to generate an income for local authorities.
66. Local authorities are encouraged to introduce concessionary rates for those who are in difficulty paying. Examples of circumstances that may be taken into account include applicants who are low earners, registered disabled persons and pensioners. Local authorities should also consider concessionary rates in situations where several applicants apply for a notice relating to a single hedge or where a single applicant applies for more than one high hedge notice at the same time because more than one hedge is affecting their property.
Refund of fees
67. The Act allows local authorities to refund fees under certain circumstances, where they consider a refund to be appropriate. Local authorities must publish information about circumstances under which they will refund fees.
Email: Eilidh Smith