A year into the new Assembly I argued that it was premature to judge the Assembly on its lack of product. I argued that it would take three years before we could see legislation coming through… Then we might judge… Well, three years on, and well, I suppose we get a bye on water rates, and er, well over Newton Emerson on Hearts and Minds and Ed Poots’, er, high hedge law done the hard way…
In England and Wales, this suburban menace was addressed by the 2003 Anti-Social Behaviour Act. In 2004, Lady Sylvia Hermon asked Westminster to extend the act to Northern Ireland, which under direct rule usually means little more than applying the rubber stamp.
In 2005, the NIO went as far as holding a high hedge consultation exercise, attracting 640 replies. But then it did nothing, because this is precisely the sort of issue that London thinks we should sort out by ourselves.
The chance to do just that came in 2007 with the full restoration of the assembly. Straight away, new DUP environment minister Sammy Wilson examined the high hedge question – and decided it would have to wait until after council reorganisation in 2011, as enforcement will be a local council affair.
But in 2009, Mr Wilson was replaced with Edwin Poots, who vowed to have a law in place before council reorganisation. He raised the issue immediately on assuming office last July, announced a bill last September and put a draft out to consultation two weeks ago.
Somewhere in the middle of this he may also have changed his mind on the need for council reorganisation, but we’ll skip over that to avoid complication.
How can our huge and costly political system take so long and make such a fuss over passing a 15-page local law, little more than a by-law really, that Westminster could have run off the photocopier for us 7 years ago?
Perhaps because that’s the point. Stormont is supposed to work like this, drawing everyone into its labyrinthine structures. It’s not about getting things done, it’s about getting certain people to do them. And what better subject than hedges to show how slowly and neatly our political class has been enclosed.