Beware the dog squad

There's a revolution going on in a Cheshire village, where Britain's outrage over dog fouling has come to an ugly head. By the autumn, one unscooped mess and your pet will be named and shamed. By Ann Treneman
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The Independent Culture
Councillor Jack Iddon is a bear of a man with a great big smile who talks in exclamations. "You've come a long way just to talk about dog fouling!" he says, swinging his hand into mine for a gripping handshake. And I cannot help but agree. In fact, I've come some hundreds of miles, to the little market town of Sandbach, in the borough of Congleton, in the county of Cheshire. But all those miles were worth it, I say, because governments come and go but some things in Britain never change and one of them is outrage over dog fouling. And Congleton may have found the answer: there is revolution in the honeysuckled air here. Dog owners who do not scoop the poop are about to get noticed in a big way: they are to be Named and Shamed.

Or so my spies tell me. I have come to Sandbach to find out more. And, frankly, I have also come looking for a little dog dirt. I spend quite a lot of my time in this pleasant town of 16,500 looking at the pavement. I find a lot of pony dirt, and am even bombed from above by a swallow, which, I am told by people who are not covered in the stuff, will bring me incredible good luck. But where is the dog dirt? Finally, I find some and just manage to avoid stepping in it. I am pleased.

Everyone I meet on the street is thrilled to talk - and talk and talk - on this subject. There is no such thing as a "no comment" on dog dirt. They tell me certain footpaths are "notorious" and other roads are "full of it". "It is just disgusting!" says person after person. One woman tells me that a dog made a mess right outside her drive last week. She called the council, whose "hit squad" came within hours. "I wouldn't pick it up myself because I didn't know the dog. I would have done for a friend's dog, but not one I don't know," she said. Her friend nods. I had never even thought about such a situation.

Mr Iddon has. He is head of the Liberal Democrat-controlled council's environmental services committee and he has spent rather a lot of time lately thinking about dog dirt. He invites me for an interview but later says he hopes that I do not make him look like a buffoon; dog fouling is a subject that can seem comical. Mr Iddon also invites along a man named Glyn Chambers. He is the environmental and public protection director for the borough.

What Mr Iddon doesn't know about dog fouling, Mr Chambers does. And not just on a professional level. Both are dog-owners, though in Mr Iddon's case this is an understatement. He has four springer spaniels, and two of them have recently had litters.

We schlep down to the barn, past a gaggle of geese who are honking hysterically - to see the litters. Bunty has six pups and Fern six more. They are wiggly little things, cute but unplanned. "That is the beast who is responsible, there," says Jack, pointing to a springer named Topsy. He then tells me that he accidentally ran over Topsy with a JCB. Instead of dying, Topsy just sank into the soft ground and emerged from the imprint with a dislocated hip. Topsy, like all Mr Iddon's dogs, seems very happy to meet me.

Mr Chambers arrives without his dog - a greyhound/ labrador mongrel named Tuck - which is probably just as well.

I ask the obvious question and both admit to first-hand experience in poop-scooping. Mr Chambers always has a carrier bag to hand. Mr Iddon is a bit more graphic. "It's not very nice," he says. "But we must encourage everyone to do the clean and healthy thing." He says many people do not realise that not scooping is a crime in Congleton - but that is about to change.

So, welcome to the revolution. The first step was to embrace the 1996 Dog Fouling of Land Act. This is national legislation that needs to be adopted locally to come into effect. Congleton did this 18 months ago. This allows councils to fine and prosecute people who allow dogs to foul in public (that includes footpaths as well as pavements). The fixed penalty for fines is pounds 25 but it can go up to pounds 1,000 for those who are prosecuted. So far, Congleton has issued nine fixed penalties. "This is relatively revolutionary for most authorities," says Mr Chambers. "Most have fined only one or two."

So how does this work?

Mr Chambers: "Basically, the dog warden goes out with officers from pollution control intent on finding these people."

Me: Does he have to see it? I mean the actual act?

Mr Chambers: "Oh yes. But we get tipped off."

Me: People ring in?

Mr Chambers: "Oh yes."

Mr Iddon: "People who walk their dogs are creatures of habit. So if the dog is a regular beast, then they will cause offence to the same person every time. These people get fed up, and complain."

Mr Chambers: "Two things then happen. We ask the person who complains whether they are willing to give evidence in court. In all cases, so far, people have said no. They are happy to ring us up but it is usually their neighbour and they don't want to give evidence. So, what we do is send the dog warden out in an unmarked van and see whether we can catch them in the act."

Four months ago, the dog warden became proactive. There had been lots of complaints from Heath Road. My eyebrows go up, because Mr Iddon lives in Heath Road. "No! Not about my dogs!" he exclaims. So, the dog warden and an environmental health officer spent two days in the road. Doing what? "Well, it's difficult not to use the words `spying on folk', but basically just see whether dogs were being walked properly, kept on leads, and if what comes naturally was collected and taken away." They decided not to issue fixed penalties this time, just warn and educate.

The next step was to order 100 dog fouling bins. I said that I think I have seen these. Do they dispense see-through plastic gloves? "There are various types of them. This is the entire thing. Selecting the dog poop bin is not a simple task," says Mr Iddon. He notes that we are not just talking about a bit of tin with a lid. Evidently not, because they cost about pounds 150 each. The council has allocated pounds 15,000 for this.

Mr Iddon has also been looking at where the bins should go. This is not easy, either. "I've already had one call from a ward member who says that he definitely does not want one in Sweettooth Lane, which is the lane he himself lives in. This is the problem you have. It is sod's law and it ends up being a complete bugger's muddle. At the end of the day everyone wants it done but no one wants a bin located near their property."

The policy of Naming and Shaming came out of a brainstorming session. It means that people given fixed penalties for dog fouling, or prosecuted, will be listed in the local papers. "I think this is a greater deterrent than a pounds 25 fine," says Mr Iddon. So far, Mr Chambers says, the borough has been relatively gentle about it all. Many dog-owners have been warned, without any penalties imposed. But the council has agreed that once the dog bins are in place and there has been a publicity campaign, then dog- owners will be fined and, when possible, prosecuted. And Named and Shamed, too.

"Local authorities do not like to prosecute, but we've tried absolutely everything. There are a raft of measures to try to reduce this problem but they haven't worked," says Mr Chambers. "My street-cleansing teams spend so much time cleaning this up. It is costing us a lot of money. And the health risk is very serious."

So, come the autumn, the gloves will be off. The bins will be in place. The people will have been told and the Act will be fully enforced. The borough will publish and be damned. Almost everyone I talk to thinks all of this - especially Naming and Shaming - is a brilliant idea that is long overdue. The only two who are not keen are the ones with dogs attached to them and no visible means of poop-scooping. The first woman denies even knowing the name of the dog she is walking. The other is an elderly lady out walking her Scottish Highland terrier, named Susie. Her other dog starved itself to death after her husband died. "Susie is such good company for me," she says.

So does she clean up after Susie on their walks? She says Susie does her business in the gutter, not on the pavement. I say that is still dog fouling. She looks confused. I don't have the heart to tell her any more.