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In The Doghouse

In the DoghouseWith the unerring ability to step straight into a big dollop of the unmentionable substance just before an election, the accident-prone Commissar and his underlings have managed to alienate a biggish proportion of dog owners in Fylde.

And there are quite a few of them.

As our readers know, counterbalance isn't one to fight shy of being unpopular, and we probably could be fairly unpopular with this view.

Even worse, we're going to be agreeing with the Commissar - at least up to a point - and that's a really rare event.

We have some inside knowledge of the time when Fylde's first dog bye-laws were formulated, and an understanding of what was involved, and what they tried to with them.

So far as we can ascertain, these have not been altered at all in the 'new' dog control orders.

With two exceptions everything is the same as it was before.

We'll get to the exceptions later.

The principle underlying all these controls was that a dog owner should be responsible for what their animal does.

Broadly, most dog owners would agree with that, although one or two would differ.

After the public outcry following instances of children being mauled in the late 1980's and early 90's, and the introduction of the (not very well thought out) Dangerous Dogs Act in 1991, the Home Office settled down to look at some serious research. This identified two main problems associated with dogs and people.

The most obvious was the result of defecation left for people to step-in on the street and public spaces. But to a much greater extent there was concern for the unpleasantness, and the health risks of infection, from the faeces in children's play areas and on sports pitches.

The second and less obvious problem was that of unruly and boisterous dogs whose owners either did not care, or were not capable of effecting adequate control. The Home Office had evidence that people - and especially children - were fearful when an unknown dog would run up to them and perhaps jump up at them.

The Council of the day had regard to these problems and to growing pressure from members of the public for action to control fouling. They decided not to introduce specific dog exercise areas or 'dog loo areas' within their open spaces. What they did was reviewed their landholdings and took four actions.

  • Some areas would remain free and open for the exercise of dogs without restriction.
  • Some would have a complete prohibition on dogs.
  • Some would have dogs on leads bye-laws.
  • Most would have a requirement for owners to clean up after their pets.

Now most people agree fundamentally with the latter. It's now only a small minority who don't clean up when necessary.

And because the dog prohibitions (for reasons of both hygiene and fear reduction) were on such limited areas (chiefly the small areas around children's playground equipment that were fenced and enclosed for this purpose), most dog owners accepted these without demur.

There was some resistance and objection to the 'dogs on leads' bye laws, but it was argued that the Council had selected the areas for such bye-laws with thought and some care, and eventually people accepted them.

Broadly the Council had applied the principle it always applied in those days - where there was a mix of users on any piece of its land, it sought to protect the most vulnerable by restricting the ability of others to put them at risk.

So for example, on a different subject, the council of that time supported a ban on cycling on Lytham Promenade. It took the most vulnerable user group (small children and old people as pedestrians) and restricted the cyclists who induced fear by their presence.

So with the potential for boisterous dogs. The bye-laws were applied to those places which were primarily children's play areas, sports pitches, tranquil ornamental or historically important gardens, areas provided primarily for their important wildlife content, and areas frequented by tourists. Logically these would include playgrounds, Ashton Gardens (tranquillity and historically important) the Nature Reserve and so on.

The byelaws were policed by a team of four patrolling Park Rangers; the nature reserve warden; the council's dog warden service; and to a lesser extent, the fourteen games attendants on bowls and other sports area sites throughout the main parks and gardens.

Policing was light touch, with an emphasis on changing attitude by logic and persuasion rather than enforcement, and we can only recall one prosecution.

In general things settled down and worked tolerably well.

One by-product of the 'dogs on leads' byelaw that was welcomed by the 'prosecuting' side of the Council was that they had found it difficult to *prove* which dog belonged to which owner when a group were involved and one was defecating. Or indeed where the dog was at some considerable distance from anyone else within eyesight. (We understand why his might seem strange. Identifying the dog was straightforward of course, but the standard of proof required to establish the ownership and responsibility for control demanded by a prosecution was higher).

Having someone physically connected to a defecating dog removed the possibility of denial of ownership or control. So it is possible that for this reason, the dogs on leads byelaws were extended more widely than they might otherwise have been.

But then, over time, three things happened.

First, and perhaps understandably, the areas subject to the bye-laws were extended - often following complaints from members of the public. This extending of the scope of the byelaws offers an easy way to placate an unhappy community.

Second, the 'policing' aspects using the staff mentioned above were lost when the Commissar decided the priority for this sort of employee could not be financially justified when he wanted other work done, and these posts were first reduced in number, then abandoned altogether.

Now there are no park rangers, no nature reserve warden, and no games attendants, so there was almost no-one available who could use the bye-laws as a basis to persuade people to conform with them for the health and safety of others.

The result of this was that there was virtually no-one to undertake the enforcement - and gradually, over several years, the byelaws have become disregarded by some dog owners.

Then, (and this matter always builds to a peak around March after a winter when there are no mowing machines to disperse any faeces that have not been  cleared, and they 'pile up' over the winter) either increasing numbers of complaints, or perhaps an opportunity to generate fine income (and we think it was the latter), appears to have caused the matter to be reviewed.

As a result of this, the Politburo Cabinet passed a resolution that abandoned the former byelaws. They then passed another resolution to impose Dog Control Orders over the same areas.

So far as we can tell, there were no changes to the areas involved at all here, so there is mostly no actual change in the scope of the regulations that have been in place since the 1990s. The only thing that has changed, is the removal of the need to prosecute 'offenders' through the courts, and the introduction of the ability to impose on-the-spot fines without needing to go to court.

We fundamentally disagree with this approach, but not for reasons connected with dogs, we just have a problem in principle with on-the-spot fines.

However, this matter has been so badly handled, that people think completely new dog controls are being imposed - and they are angered.

Either that, or dog owners are cross at the prospect of facing on-the-spot fines for things they have become accustomed to doing through a lack of policing since the staff to do so were disbanded.

So unusually in this instance, we have some sympathy for the Commissar, but that sympathy doesn't extend to agreeing with the removal of staff on the ground in order to be able to spend more in admin or overheads for non-productive work (which has mushroomed under his administration), nor does it extend to changing from byelaws to control orders and on-the-spot fines.

He knows there is trouble on this matter, and in an attempt at damage limitation, he's apparently allowed dog owners more time to submit objections.

The cynic in us notes that this move will have also pushed the decision on this matter beyond the date of the County Council election.

We think this is a cheap shot that illustrates the desperate measures he is taking to try and salvage something in the elections.

Dated:  21 May 2009


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