How this animal reduces the value of your house

Dog mess in the street deters potential buyers and legislation designed to penalise lax owners is failing. By William Raynor
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The Independent Online
Tomorrow, the environment committee of the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham is due to take what should - or could - prove to be a decision of some importance to local residents and property owners.

According to Item 16 on the agenda, it is due to debate and vote upon a recommendation that the 1996 Dogs (Fouling of Land) Act - which became law a year ago almost to the day - be "adopted" by the council. If accepted, the Act should come into force in the borough immediately. It would replace two antiquated by-laws which limit fines for owners whose dogs are caught fouling while on the lead to pounds 25 with swingeing penalties, off-lead also, of up to pounds 1,000.

As Hammersmith & Fulham, like other boroughs up and down the country, has its share of pavements tricky enough even for agile, sighted pedestrians to negotiate without messing their soles, the tidings for Tuesday morning and thereafter would, theoretically, seem glad indeed: droves of offending dog-owners writing four-figure cheques to swell the council's coffers; streets and parks clean and safe for the halt and lame, and for children; lower NHS bills for the treatment of toxaemia and other canine-associated illnesses; and one less cause of anxiety for those undergoing the acutely stressful process of buying or selling property. Because although people seldom talk about this last issue, dog mess can prove completely off- putting to a potential vendor.

"It probably wouldn't affect the asking price,"says one estate agent, "but it makes it difficult to get people round for a second visit. For instance, I had to show three lots of prospective buyers around a house in a street which was so filthy that two were too embarrassed to mention the fact, and the other drew particular attention to it. None of them showed any further interest."

She was speaking of her experience in a town on the Isle of Wight, where the county council has adopted the Act, although it is unlikely to be in force there until October.

"You could argue that 'where there's this sort of muck there's probably not so much brass'," said a senior partner of an estate agency in salubrious Knightsbridge. "Round here, any owner whose dog offends will be given a hard time because residents won't put up with it - and being in the centre of a big city, fewer are likely to have dogs anyway, or let those off the lead.

"In any streets elsewhere subjected to dogs' mess, of course people looking for property are put off. It's a normal reaction."

And sadly, neither on the Isle of Wight, nor in Hammersmith & Fulham, nor, for that matter, anywhere else that the 1996 Act is adopted, are the great theoretical benefits likely to be seen for some time, if ever.

The reason lies in the proviso that the Act - which started life as a private member's bill, introduced by Andrew Hunter, the Conservative MP for Basingstoke - is "adoptive". As local authorities were free to adopt it or not, the Conservatives while in power clearly felt that those which did should use their existing funds, rather than fresh subventions from central government, to make it work.

"As yet," said an official of what has since become the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, "we have had no lead from ministers of the new Government as to whether there will be any changes to the Act itself or in the manner of its funding".

On the list of priorities of this newly-merged mega-ministry, with subjects like the future of public transport and The Planet to address, the issue of dogs' mess may not rank high. And so it would seem. The official admitted she still did not know how many councils had decided to adopt the Act, and there was no response to this paper's request for a brief statement from the minister now responsible for matters relating to dog nuisance, Angela Eagle.

For Watchdog Services, whose 45 dog-wardens are thinly sub-contracted to 35 councils, adoption of the Act therefore means a change of emphasis rather than workload: "The Conservatives said they wouldn't provide extra money, and there's not much chance of Labour doing it either."

On the Isle of Wight though, where four of the company's dog-wardens are now employed full-time, Nigel Coward, the county council's environment health manager, said the question of extra funding from central government was already on the agenda for his meeting soon with the island's new Lib- Dem MP, Dr Peter Brand.

Without extra funding, the prospect of clean, unfouled streets in Hammersmith & Fulham would seem just as remote, whichever way the vote of its environment committee goes tomorrow. An official has conceded that with just three dog wardens, the council only managed to achieve three successful prosecutions last year and has "other manpower priorities" for the current financial year. "Although adopting the new Act will make prosecutions simpler," he lamented, "its effectiveness comes down to staffing."

Afflicted residents in the borough may, perhaps, derive some comfort from the policy of the National Canine Defence League (NCDL), which advises its 30,000 members to "clean up any fouling by their dogs immediately". This, also, will be the gist of a poster campaign due to be launched in Hammersmith & Fulham during late summer.

And if the canines' incontinence - or indeed any other form of antisocial activity - persists, what then? Whether the council adopts the NCDL nostrum - "refer to animal behaviourist" - remains to be seen.