Leylandii hedges have long been a source of conflict between neighbours. So, will new legal powers cut offenders down to size or will council officers find themselves caught in the middle of hedge wars?

Fearsome powers, is how Bromley Council's principal tree officer describes the new government legislation which aims to deliver peace over leylandii and arbitrate between warring neighbours.

The new laws have all been written and are expected to come into force in November this year but Bromley already has a waiting list of 25 disgruntled homeowners on its books begging the council to take action.

Some scientists claim you'll need a degree in maths to understand the equation devised to settle the arguments, but tree officer Coral Gibson is confident her team will be able to get their heads around the figures. However, when it comes to the battlelines, she's not quite so sure where the council might find itself.

Miss Gibson said: "At the moment neighbours get incredibly worked up when it comes to Leylandii hedges and in many cases, rightly so.

"But rather than sorting out their differences with their neighbours, this particular issue, more so than many others, seems to get them so incensed they can't find a reasonable solution.

"When the new laws come into force we will have the power to step between neighbours who hate each other.

"Hopefully we can then help them solve their differences but I have to admit to being a bit concerned some neighbours might start getting on, and both of them will end up hating the council".

In reality, the vast majority of council officers will welcome the new laws with open arms, believing the powers, which will allow them to mediate, are long overdue.

Such is the animosity towards the Leylandii that a 4,000-strong pressure group, Hedgeline, was formed to draw attention to the menace, which can also cause subsidence and drainage problems.

The group has been so successful it even persuaded the Government to bring its legislation forward.

When an official estimate put the number of problem hedges in Britain at 17,000, a government agency was asked to come up with the formula.

Instructed by ministers to make it easy to use, the BRE formerly the Building Research Establishment came up with: H = d/2 + 1 H is the acceptable height of the hedge, and d is the distance between the window of the complainant houseowner and the offending hedge.

If the real height of the hedge is higher than the resulting H value, the shrubbery is too high.

The dreaded shrubs, which growing at a rate of three feet a year, can easily reach 50ft, have caused disputes which have lasted for years and often ended up in court.

Now, the council will have the power to step in to deal with the impasse but officers stress they will not become involved until every effort has been made by neighbours to solve things amicably between themselves.

Dr Paul Littlefair, who led the BRE team, said: 'We were asked how high a hedge had to be in order to be unreasonably significant in terms of blocking out light.

"Some of the calculations are based on work done for buildings, but there has also been a detailed period of consultation with people such as tree officers and hedge experts.

"Our aim is that householders will do the calculations and that's why it is important it is clear and easy to do.

"If it is a situation where people are having an amicable dispute such as one person thinks his neighbour's hedge is a bit too high and the other says he is willing to cut it down if it could be shown to be too high, then you could use the formula."

Leylandii trees are now notorious for their power to provoke homeowners to fits of garden rage. This has serious implications for people who own, live next door to, or are contemplating buying a house with a leylandii or other vigorous-growing hedge.

Leylandii are not something to be taken on by the faint-hearted gardener. Indeed, some experts think them beyond the capability of most ordinary people, so much so that they are banned on many modern developments with small gardens.

"The problem with leylandii is that people just don't realise how fast and how big they can grow, nor how much time and money it will cost to keep them under severe control," says David Swarbrick, a solicitor who specialises in garden law.

"They are not the worst tree you can have in the garden beech, for example, has much more invasive roots, and bamboo, which is fashionable, can split concrete."

On its own, in the right setting, the leylandii can be a splendid tree. In exposed gardens, in open country, or by the windy coast, it scores top marks in most books on trees and shrubs. It has the capacity to absorb air and noise pollution.

It even has its plus points in the garden. Its roots, for example, do not go deep.

Most estate agents agree that leylandii up to 10ft are acceptable but anything larger can become a problem.

High hedges can deter would-be buyers who are put off by the cost of maintenance or removal. The hedge is invaluable if your house is next to a motorway, main road or an eyesore of some sort. But marketing a house with hedges in excess of 20ft is unadvisable and agents advise sellers to cut them back.

Bromley Council has issued the following advice:

Existing Rights

No permission is needed to plant a hedge.

If a hedge overhangs a boundary the owners of the adjoining properties have the right to cut back branches and roots to the boundary line.

Existing Restrictions

Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs) if there are trees protected by a TPO, consent will be needed for pruning from the Council.

Covenants and/or planning conditions may apply.

Birds - it is an offence to disturb nesting birds.

Legislation - ANTI SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR ACT 2003 (Part 8)

Where a high hedge is a problem neighbours will be able to bring their complaints to the council, although this will need always to be a last resort. They should have tried to solve their hedge problem by negotiation with their neighbours before approaching the council otherwise the complaint may be rejected. Residents will be encouraged to seek mediation to resolve problems.

The criteria for the council to take action will be:

  • The hedge is a line of two or more evergreen or semi-evergreen trees or shrubs
  • It is over two metres in height
  • It acts as a barrier to light or access
  • Because of its height it adversely affects the complainants reasonable enjoyment of their domestic property

The section of the Act dealing with high hedges will not come into force until regulations have been drawn up. This will take place in the coming months and it is likely they will come into force by the winter of 2004.

The council will be able to charge a fee to be paid by the complainant and will have to decide whether the height of the hedge was adversely affecting the complainants reasonable enjoyment of their property.

If it is, the council may conclude that no action should be taken. If action is considered necessary the council would have to decide what action may be necessary.

They would be able to issue a "remedial notice" which may include measures for future maintenance. The notice could not specify the removal of a hedge or cutting it below two metres.

There would be a right of appeal for both owner and complainant within 28 days. The notice would be suspended while an appeal was being determined. Failure to comply with a "remedial notice" would be an offence with a maximum fine of £1,000 in the magistrates court, and the court could issue an order for compliance within a specified time. Failure to comply would be a further offence, again with a £1,000 fine and daily fine for every day the work is outstanding.

The council would also have powers to have the work carried out with the costs recoverable from the owner, but there is no requirement or obligation to intervene in this way.

Healthy Hedgetips

If your property has a leylandii, lawson cypress or western red cedar hedge on its borders, find out who owns it and who should maintain it.

If you are buying such a property, visit the neighbouring owners and ask what their pruning programme is. If they look blank, you may end up with problems.

Buy a hormonal, growth retardant from your garden centre. Don't feed or water leylandii - it will grow vigorously enough without help.

For advice on lopping, removal or quotes on maintenance, the Arboricultural Association has a list of tree surgeons. Call 01794 368717 or visit the website: www.trees.org.uk

If you have a serious problem you could contact Mediation UK. It will put you in touch with a local service that offers cheap, speedy and informal suggestions on how to find a compromise, instead of resorting to lawyers.

The only big problem is that both parties have to want to go down this route. For more details of the service, phone 0117 904 6661. Hedgeline can be contacted on 024 763 88822.