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Clean Neighbourhoods Act becomes law

THE CLEAN Neighbourhoods Act has become law after receiving Royal Assent, despite Ministers’ fears that it would be one of several major pieces of legislation to be lost thanks to the dissolution of Parliament for the General Election.

The Act was fast-tracked with the compliance of Opposition Parties through the remaining stages of the Parliamentary process ahead of the formal dissolution of Parliament which took place earlier this week. The Bill went onto the statute books last Friday, April 8th and will formally become law in three months’ time.

DEFRA’s website proclaims the Act to be a positive piece of legislation which contains a range of measures to improve the quality of the local environment by giving Local Authorities and the Environment Agency additional powers to deal with:

• fly-tipped waste
• litter
• nuisance alleys
• fly-posting and graffiti
• abandoned and nuisance vehicles
• dogs
• noise, nuisance from artificial lighting and insect, and other issues affecting the local environment.

It also puts the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) on a statutory basis. However, as previously reported, the Act’s provisions relating to dogs are the most controversial. The new legislation replaces dog byelaws with a new, ‘simplified’ system which will enable local authorities and parish councils to deal with fouling by dogs, ban dogs from designated areas, require dogs to be kept on a lead and restrict the number of dogs that can be walked by one person. This in itself is controversial enough with plans by some authorities already to issue fixed penalty notices for dog fouling as high as £75, up from £50 as designated in the Dogs (Fouling of Land) Act 1996.

However, the most worrying clause relates to stray dogs and the police ceasing responsibility for stray dogs out of hours when the local dog warden service are not operating. So Local Authorities will have to take sole responsibility for stray dogs, thus having to provide a 24-hour service. By law the authority will have to accept any stray dog and try to reunite it with its owner.

As reported previously, DEFRA had drawn up the legislation without bothering to seek advice and input from the National Dog Warden Association. It was only relatively late in the day that a rider was added to the clause on stray dogs that appears on DEFRA’s website, saying that the change will come into force only when the transfer of resources has been agreed between all parties.

However, given that the Act becomes law in three months’ time, this allows very little time for consultation.

Steve O’Brien, Training Officer of the National Dog Warden Association told OUR DOGS: "Many Local Authorities have indicated that they will have to tender to private contractors to operate an out-of-hours stray dog collection service when the police formally relinquish responsibility.
Certainly the dog warden service is not geared up or funded for 24 hour cover – and money is a key issue, whether you like it or not.

"I know of one police force that has acted in advance of the Act becoming law and has already relinquished its responsibility. From what we know they’ve done a deal with the Local Authority, and a private firm is now responsible for out-of-hours stray dog collection, but unless all police forces and Local Authorities deal this with sensibly, I can see all sorts of problems arising. There is a three-month period between Royal Assent and the enactment into law of the Act which would allow a consultation period to discuss the guidelines and iron out these issues – and this has been promised by DEFRA. However, what with the General Election eating into that time and a possible new administration being in place afterwards, that leaves even less time for effective discussions to take place."

Misgivings

Meanwhile, the RSPCA – which was consulted by DEFRA about the Act – has urged every agency involved to ensure an effective 24-hour service is provided during the transition period and in future. However, misgivings about the Act still exist amongst many charities and animal agencies.

Neil White, the RSPCA's senior Local Government Adviser, said: "It is essential for the welfare of stray dogs that an acceptable, adequately-funded 24-hour service is provided.

"In the past there has been confusion amongst members of the public about what to do about stray dogs and who to contact. Therefore it is also vital that the change is well publicised."

The RSPCA is also reminding the public that currently local authorities and police have a legal responsibility for dealing with stray dogs (until the change in the law comes into effect). Many callers mistakenly contact the RSPCA or other animal charities asking for their help. Each year the RSPCA receives hundreds of calls and requests for help which it has to redirect. This can be frustrating for the caller and wastes valuable time in reuniting a lost dog with its owner.

Dog owners have a legal responsibility to stop their dogs straying and are also required by law to ensure their dog wears a collar and tag with the owner's name and address. Permanent methods of identification such as tattoos or microchips are highly recommended by the NDWA, RSPCA and Dogs Trust, as well as Dog Theft Action, who have also expressed concerns about the lack of police responsibility for missing dogs – some of which might have been stolen.

OUR DOGS will continue to report any progress in this important ongoing matter.