New Schedule 1

Marine and Coastal Access Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 14th July 2009.

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“Amendments of the clean neighbourhoods and environment act 2005

1 The Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 (c. 16) is amended in accordance with paragraph 2.

Dog control orders

2 (1) Section 56 (Dog Control Orders: Supplementary) is amended as follows.

(2) After subsection (5)(b), insert—

“(6) Regulations made under subsection (4) shall make provision for Natural England to be included in any consultation to be undertaken before any dog control order is made where the dog control order is to apply to all or any part of land which is designated the English coastal route under section 286 of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009.”’.—(Andrew George.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

I beg to move, That the new schedule be read a Second time.

I declare an interest as a dog owner and as someone who lives near the coast in my constituency.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

That is right; I am a mainlander. The new schedule would ensure that Natural England is consulted by a local authority that wishes to implement a dog control order on coastal paths. I urge the Committee not to be prejudiced by the totally unacceptable way in which a minority of dog owners allow their dogs to behave in public spaces or by their failure to clean up after them, although such issues cannot be ignored.

The Kennel Club and other dog-owner organisations are understandably eager for as full access as possible to the coastal path, but they are concerned about the frequency, as they see it, with which local authorities implement control orders, often without proper consultation. There are 8 million pet dogs in the UK cared for by an estimated 15 million people, which is an average of almost 12,400 resident dogs per parliamentary constituency. Government statistics show that dog walkers represent between one third and one half of all walkers. Dog walkers also represent a cross-section of society, drawn from across all socio-economic backgrounds.

Research by Hampshire county council shows that the biggest factor influencing where dog walkers exercise their dogs is whether they can exercise their dogs off-lead. If it is not possible to do that within the local area, more than 40 per cent. say that they would drive further away from where they live. However, dog owners’ ability to comply with their obligations under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, to provide their dogs off-leash exercise, has sometimes been compromised by the introduction of another parliamentary measure that restricts their activities—dog control orders under the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005—especially where no alternative provision is made. In effect, two Acts are crashing on dog owners and appear to be in conflict.

DEFRA guidance accompanying the 2005 Act states that local authorities should show that dog control orders are

“a necessary and proportionate response to problems caused by the activities of dogs and those in charge of them” and should

“balance the interests of those in charge of dogs against the interests of those affected by the activities of dogs”.

The Kennel Club believes that in practice the guidance has been widely ignored and many local authorities are taking a more restrictive approach—I use “believes”, because I do not go along entirely with the club’s approach in every respect. Furthermore, while local authorities are required to notify Natural England of  any proposed dog control orders on access land, the club claims that few appear to have done so. The lack of any appeals process has, according to the club, allowed some local authorities to ignore the guidance.

To date, at least 120 councils in England have implemented dog control orders, sometimes issuing as many as 100 in the local area, although there could well be more. The Kennel Club believes that approximately 75 authorities already exclude or restrict dogs on their beaches. The effect of the increasing reduction of access to public open space is making dog ownership less viable and may therefore negate the many health, social and economic benefits.

To balance the issue, the Government should reflect on the potential for the increased role of Natural England in respect of the introduction of dog control orders because, in many areas, restrictions on dog access to the coast has been flouted by dog owners. I give an example from my constituency. On the north coast, near Hayle, there are between 3.5 and 4 miles of towans or sand dunes. A large section was sold yesterday for £80,000, and it was on the national news. The towans are planted predominantly with marram grass and other vegetation such as bracken heath. The owner of that land thankfully cannot do a lot with it due to restrictions. There are ground-nesting birds in the area, particularly at this time of year. Currently, dogs are entitled to exercise off the lead throughout the year in the area. If Natural England was more involved in the setting of dog control orders, that might have resulted in seasonal restrictions on the ability of dog owners to allow their dogs to exercise off the lead. Over the past decade or more, as the exercising of dogs in the area has increased, the preponderance of ground-nesting birds has decreased significantly because of the disturbance caused by dog owners. The Kennel Club is arguing that Natural England should be involved, because it believes that local authorities are not doing a good job. It thinks that that would be a means by which to appeal to Natural England’s better nature and achieve a more acceptable dog-control order than that implemented by local authorities. My argument is that there would be the additional benefit of flora and fauna protection. I therefore hope that the Minister will reflect on the need at least to allow the advice of Natural England to be considered properly when the dog-control orders are implemented.

Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

There was great debate in another place about the wording used under the Bill about the control of dogs; it came down to the effective control of dogs. Like many people, I was concerned about a farmer having to pay £10,000 to a dog walker who was injured by a herd of cows. The actions of cattle are often centred not on individuals, but on the dog walking beside them, so a rule restricting the type of dog access, such as an order requiring dogs to be on a lead, is not always the best answer. In an incident, someone’s immediate action would be to let go of the dog and he find himself in contravention of a byelaw.

I just hope that such legislation will not drive a coach and horses through established local byelaws. We can all think of areas of coastal Britain where, after local consultation, town councils, parish councils or large authorities designate an area a dog-free beach and  make other areas available for dog walking. The matter is all about balance. Such issues should not be controlled from Whitehall. There should be understanding. The Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 was designed principally with urban areas in mind. I am sympathetic to the new schedule tabled by the hon. Member for St. Ives, but I want to make sure that legislative creep will not impose adversely on local communities, make decisions made on their behalf and impinge on the liability of landowners or the rights of dog walkers.

Photo of Ann McKechin Ann McKechin The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

I welcome the debate. The key point made by the hon. Members for St. Ives and for Newbury is about balance, which is the principle that we need to bear in mind. As the hon. Member for St. Ives rightly said, there is a small minority of irresponsible owners. A number of them might not be aware of the dangers that sometimes occur in coastal areas. An official from DEFRA recently visited Pembrokeshire where, in the months since access has been extended, there has been a number of cases of dogs falling off cliffs because they had seen something attractive and had gone after it. In such cases, people end up either with a dead dog or with a rescue situation that involves considerable expense with the use of coastguards, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and so on. It is important that we bear in mind safety as well as the welfare of livestock, which is a particular worry.

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article about problems that have been experienced in Iona, which is one of our great cultural assets. Unfortunately, the increasing number of visitors and the increasing number of dogs that are with them have caused several problems for the croft owners in that small geographical area. Likewise, we need to consider the protection of crops. Along the east coast in particular, some valuable crops, such as asparagus, run almost right into the sea. As they are not fenced off, it is important that appropriate protections are put in place concerning people’s domestic pets. I do not object to the sentiments raised by the hon. Member for St. Ives but, as the hon. Member for Newbury pointed out, it is a question of where the rules are best placed, and I would argue that it is not in primary legislation.

There was extensive discussion in the other place on the question of dogs and the impact on land management and nature conservation. Lord Tyler helpfully informed the other place that there are about 7.3 million dogs in the UK, and 15 million dog owners. In the same debate, Lord Hunt acknowledged the importance to land managers, people accompanied by a dog, other users and responsible organisations such as the Kennel Club and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, of a common understanding of the sort of behaviour that we should expect from a person in charge of a dog.

Lord Hunt noted the Government’s intention to consult on proposals to amend the restrictions in schedule 2 of CROW for the purpose of coastal access to require dogs to be kept under effective control. We propose that the keeper of a dog should keep it on relevant access land, and keep it on a lead or keep it in sight and remain aware of its actions. A person should have reason to be confident that his or her dog will return reliably and  promptly on command. We have also listened to the concerns that the National Farmers Union expressed about the walking of dogs near livestock. In view of that, we do not propose to make any change to the current position on open country that a person should keep his dog on a short lead in the vicinity of livestock and that they should comply with any other relevant restrictions made under chapter II of the CROW Act.

The new schedule tabled by the hon. Member for St. Ives seeks to make an amendment to the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005. As he pointed out, that Act provides for an appropriate authority to make a dog control order for land in its area and to consult with persons specified in regulations before doing so. He mentioned that the Kennel Club had expressed concern about the lack of consultation. We are aware of that, although it has not provided any specific examples. To be fair, if people present specific examples, it gives more validity to the allegations that are made.

There are provisions in the regulations with respect to consultation about orders that would affect CROW access land, and the new schedule would require the appropriate authority to consult Natural England where a proposed order would affect the English coastal route. We have made it clear that we want local authorities to be involved, where appropriate and where they are willing to do so, in proposals for the implementation of coastal access. That was a point well made by the hon. Member for Newbury. It is a decision most effectively made at local level, where local knowledge is available and councils are locally and democratically accountable to residents. That is what the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 enables the local authority to do.

The regulations already provide for the sort of consultation that the hon. Member for St. Ives is seeking in the new schedule. Where an order would affect access land under CROW, the authority is required specifically to consult the access authority for that land; the local access forum; and, in respect of any land that is not situated in a national park, Natural England. When the Bill receives Royal Assent, we will consider whether the regulations should be amended to require consultation with Natural England in all cases regarding coastal margin, including land within national parks, but we do not need to make such a provision in the Bill.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives 11:45 am, 14th July 2009

I just wanted to check that what I heard was right. Did the Minister say that there is a requirement to consult Natural England, but only in circumstances where it affects only national parks? In the cases I cited earlier, there are areas outside national parks where it is very clear that Natural England should be consulted, because it has the expertise.

Photo of Ann McKechin Ann McKechin The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

At present, there is a requirement to consult Natural England unless the land is part of a national park. We are considering further regulations when the Bill receives Royal Assent to include all land, including national parks, so we would extend the measure.

The hon. Member for Newbury raised a question about established local byelaws. I am pleased to confirm that the provisions in the Bill do not affect local byelaws and we fully intend that that system should remain in  place. Our aim for the coastal route is that it should be continuous as far as reasonably practicable for dog walkers, and I am sympathetic to the view that we should try to do everything possible within reason to allow that to be facilitated. However, we also recognise that restrictions are needed. The hon. Member for St. Ives said that he was accompanied by his dog when he unveiled a mid-way marker along the south-west coast path in Cornwall recently, and I am happy to tell him that we will review the need for any changes to the regulations once the Bill has completed its passage through Parliament. On that basis I urge him not to press his new schedule.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Liberal Democrat, St Ives

I am grateful to the Minister for her response. Although I have much sympathy for the Kennel Club’s concerns in this regard, I thought there was a sufficiently substantive issue for us to have a debate and to clarify some of the points that have emerged. As the Minister rightly pointed out, we need to strike a fair balance between the desires of those who walk their dogs and other users of coastal paths and beaches. I agree that the most appropriate place to resolve those potential conflicts is at local level through democratically elected local authorities. Local control orders are clearly the best vehicle to achieve that.

However—and I think the Minister took this on board—there is a requirement to balance the interests of those who want to exercise their dogs off the lead and the protection of coastal fauna. In some parts of coastal areas, local authorities still do not seem to have quite got the balance right. I mentioned ground-nesting birds, but there are other seasons when the intrusion of dogs exercising off the lead can be detrimental to fauna on the coast. We have to get the balance right. Having heard the Minister’s response to the debate, I think the balance is absolutely right: if in doubt, the decision should be taken at a local level, but in consultation with the experts. I believe that Natural England has a substantial body of expertise on which local authorities can draw, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Schedule, by leave, withdrawn.