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Dog-Eared Decision

Dog-Eared DecisionThere's good news and bad news from Item ten on Wednesday's Cabinet agenda.

The good news is that for the first time in ages we saw what looked to be a bit of real discussion at Cabinet.

The bad news is that the quality of the content was pretty abysmal.

Readers can watch for themselves in Fylde's Cabinet webcast on YouTube - the item starts at 1hour 10 minutes and about 55 seconds into the video.

Item 10 was about Witchwood and Linnet Lane Wood in Lytham, and the possible introduction of Dog Control Orders.

Quick bit of background first.

Both woods are privately owned. Witchwood is owned by the Lytham St Annes Civic Society and the other we're not sure, but we think it is owned by a group of local householders. However, the crucial point is that both are open for the public to enjoy without payment. Anyone can simply walk in as they would on a public park or on Lytham Green or in Lowther Gardens.

We do know that a hardworking team of volunteers manages Witchwood at no cost to taxpayers. Readers can follow this link to see the excellent work the volunteers do with woodland management and involving young people in their work

But there is a problem.

Increasingly, as Fylde has implemented dog control orders on land in its direct control, such as open spaces and the beach, dogwalkers looking for less restricted use have been displaced further afield to places like Witchwood and, as a consequence, it now suffers dog related problems including:

Dog fouling
Largely from dogs off leads where the owner does not see where the dog has fouled in the undergrowth. This means that the wood is not safe for children to play in and the volunteers are frequently walking and working in dog faeces.

Dogs out of control:
Destroying newly planted trees, disturbing wildlife and jumping up at children and other dogs.

Professional dog walkers
Who arrive with several dogs which are let off the lead at once.

Faecal Litter
Volunteer litter pickers have worked in the wood since 1974 but they now have to pick up bags of dog faeces which owners have thrown into the undergrowth.

The Civic Society have investigated ways to improve matters, and approached the Council for help. They made it clear the Society has never suggested all dogs should be on leads and, indeed, FBC donít recommend that procedure anyway.

But the Civic Society is not able to make bye-laws itself; and it cannot legally enforce them itself, even if they were in place. The implementation and policing of byelaws has to be undertaken by a public authority.

Over several months, the Civic Society discussed the matter with Fylde's officers, before asking Fylde to make some dog control orders for Witchwood.

Fylde has the power to do this if it so chooses.

The matter went to Fylde's Scrutiny Committee who were initially hesitant, but eventually saw the problem. They undertook a non-statutory public consultation about possible byelaws, and following that, on 14 June this year, they invited the owners of the land to speak with the Committee as a result of the public comments received.

Following on from that meeting the Committee created a Task and Finish Group to look into the details. They met twice, undertook site visits and met with the owners. They concluded that in order for proper management of what the Task and Finish Group described as 'valuable community assets' the request for dog control in the woodland should be agreed.

They noted that both woods were already designated with byelaws that make it an offence for dogs to foul. So no additional regulation was needed in respect of fouling, but better policing was needed, and only the Council staff (or a contractor employed by them) can do that.

They also agreed with the woodland owners that a blanket 'dogs on leads' byelaw would be disproportionate and not be appropriate. What was needed was targeted action to those who caused frequent problems.

The Task and Finish Group did - in our opinion - exactly what they should have done. They took a community problem. Dissected it until they thoroughly understood it. They met with the principal parties, they consulted the public, and came to a reasoned and measured conclusion.

That conclusion was reported to the Scrutiny Committee who formulated recommendations to Cabinet which, in summary, were

Dog fouling
The existing law could be applied with fixed penalty notices.

Control of dogs
To target particular owners of dogs who are allowing their animal to cause a nuisance, they needed to introduce a regulation requiring dogs to be put on and kept on a lead if directed to do so by a dog warden or council enforcement officer, and no more than 3 dogs per person to be allowed.

This recommendation went to Cabinet on 19th September but a decision was deferred because Cabinet wanted further legal advice before formal orders could be introduced.

So far so good. Everything has worked as it should.

Then came the Cabinet meeting of Wednesday 21st November, and it all went horribly wrong.

Mr Curtis attempted to explain the legal position as he had been asked to do. The Council could make the order if it so wished. The Civic Society could not do so. The Council could enforce the order if it chose to do so, the Civic Society could not. So the only way the recommendations of the Council's own task and finish group could be met would be to approve the recommendations for control orders.

Cllr Cheryl Little opened the questioning. She wanted to know if it was private land or not? She was supported by  Acting Chairman Cllr Susan Fazackerley who said they had a problem. "I think my colleagues would agree with me on this that our problem is: Should Council resources be used to police, if you like, private land?"

Princess Karen, chimed in. She wanted to know about the 'Authorised Officer' and specifically if it had to be an officer of the Council, or whether the Council could authorise someone else to take that role.  Mr Curtis reiterated his advice.

This was supposed to be a meeting to consider the legal implications postponed from the previous cabinet meeting, but they obviously had a problem with the idea *in principle* (which we thought was a bit rich after allowing the matter to get this far along the road).

Evidence for this view came from questions like: was this not private land? Should the owners not enforce their own regulation of users? Would it not open the floodgates to other open public land such as Lytham Hall? How much would it cost to police all the land in the borough

All three were asking similar questions - which suggested that none had read the reports properly, nor kept track on the matter as it passed through the administrative intestine of the Council's scrutiny process, nor had they listened to what Mr Curtis had told them.

At one point Cllr Fazackerly read out a revised version of one of the recommendations saying "... and then it was suggested that instead of having paragraph 4, sorry paragraph 3, we supersede that with [revised wording]....."  

Quite who has suggested this revised wording - and even in which meeting it had been suggested - was unclear. Certainly there had been no amendment proposed before she announced this possible change of wording by persons unknown. Perhaps there had been another of those 'Informal Cabinet Meetings" before this one.

Cllr Albert Pounder - not known to counterbalance for the indefatigable use of inherent logic, made one of the more sensible suggestions in an attempt to keep the plan alive. He suggested that if the problem was the potential cost of 'policing', the Council could enter into discussions with the Civic Society about a contribution toward the cost.

Then Cllr Trevor Fiddler - who we generally regard as being possessed of more common sense than he displayed at this meeting - began the death knell for the idea. He said he had heard the concerns expressed in Cabinet and was in agreement. He thought he should propose that they take no further action on the request and on the recommendation from the Scrutiny Committee. His proposal was seconded by Princess Karen.

Toward the end, Cllr Tommy Threlfall - whose body language throughout suggested he thought there were more important matters to occupy Cabinet's time, and was ready to move on - tried to avoid complete rejection, but the pack had scented blood and when the vote was taken it was to take no action, and the vote was unanimous.

We were very unhappy with this decision. The underlying logic is entirely wrong, and the breadth of views and experience of the six person cabinet was so weak, that no-one saw the foolishness on which they were basing their decision. As one of our readers tells us so often "They simply don't know what they are doing"

God preserve us from this dreadful, incompetent Cabinet decision-making system that concentrates power into far too few hands and fails to take account of the breadth of vision available to all Fylde's fifty one councillors.

It was clear that the Cabinet did not believe they should be making orders and byelaws on land that was owned by others. It was equally clear that they did not want to commit additional resources or even to dilute the existing service of policing dog control regulations by adding in another site, and finally they did not believe they should introduce orders or byelaws that they could not afford to enforce. They said it would be wrong to do so.

Those were undoubtedly the reasons they decided to take no action.

They were wrong on all counts.

Firstly, they have forgotten that, although it is an unpleasant and messy subject to deal with, dog problems and especially fouling, are the NUMBER ONE overall issue of concern to residents, and FBC ought to be focusing their spending on the priorities of their electorate, not on things like strategies (yes there was yet another of them on Wednesday night's agenda), or on £100,000 schemes to create a business forum - They should first of all  ensure that the practical issues that matter to residents are in order.

Secondly, they had clearly not read the agenda sufficiently. It said quite unequivocally they had already made a designation of the woodland area for the purposes of the "Dogs (Fouling of Land) Act 1996" and that meant they were already - to paraphrase their own words - wrong not to enforce the fouling regulations they had already made on this land.

Thirdly, they were wrong on resourcing. They had UNDERSPENT on last year's budget to the tune of £1,063,000. (As reported to Cabinet in June 2012). Yes, that's an underspending of just over £1 million on a planned budget of 10 million. That's a huge, and probably unprecedented, failure to spend and complete works that were promised to the electorate last year - and for which money was taken from us in Council Tax.

Fylde had money coming out of their ears in June. (we might get time soon to look at Fylde's completely separate debt levels - which have caused so much 'interest' this last fortnight). But in revenue - as opposed to debt - terms, they had so much spare cash last spring that they had to squirrel £360,000 of it away into their out-of-sight 'Earmarked Reserves'. They could have returned it to us as a 'dividend' and used it to reduce what they take in Council Tax next year, but there's not much chance of that happening.

Fourthly, the updated financial report they approved earlier in the agenda of this same meeting had shown them (if they were able to read it) that, at the start of this year they had £4,093,000 sitting in their reserve accounts. That's the highest we can remember for a long time, and they are predicting having cash balances in reserves of around £3 million for each of the next five years. (The recommended minimum level of reserves is about £750,000).

Those reserves are all entirely separate from the money that is in their 'current account' for routine day to day operation of the Council. Reserves represent accumulated savings. So Fylde currently has enough in reserve to employ an extra dog warden for over 200 years if they wanted to do that.

Their claim not to be able to afford to implement something as simple as dog control on an occasional basis in Witchwood is plainly preposterous.

So we've dealt with it 'not being right to make orders they can't enforce' - They currently have a responsibility to enforce fouling laws on this land which they already designated.

We've dealt with affordability. They have easily enough money to do it if the will was there.

We've dealt with it being a high priority in the eyes of the electorate. It is.

So the only illogical refusal reason left is that it is 'not right to make orders on land owned by others'

Well, firstly, they did just that on the exact same piece of land with dog fouling.

Secondly they do it every day at Lowther Gardens which is now owned - not by the Council but by a Charitable Trust. That is a piece of land owned by the Trust, but open to the public and where dog control and fouling orders made by FBC are enforced by FBC's Dog Control Wardens.

Finally, who do they think owns all the footways in Fylde? The ones on either side of the road?. The ones that probably take up the greatest proportion of dog fouling policing time by Fylde's Dog Control officers? Footways are most likely owned by the County Council and, as with the woodland, it's land that is open to the public, but its certainly not in Fylde Council's ownership - yet they police the control of dogs on it.

Not one of the Cabinet members - nor indeed any of the officers - present last night could see this.

That's a perfect example of why we complain about this awful Cabinet decision-making system. Too few brains, too little experience, too much reliance of officers, and not enough understanding of what is going on, produces the sort of dog-eared logic that gives us decisions like the one we endured on Wednesday night.

If ever there was a decision that should be called in for re-consideration, this one ranks along with the best of them. But we're not holding our breath, there didn't seem to be much support evident for that last night.

We suspect this will have to go down as incompetence, plain and simple.

Whether this refusal will eventually force the Civic Society into closing the woodland is unclear, but we doubt matters will rest as they were left last night.

Dated:  23 November 2012


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