Response to the Epping Forest Bill consultation

These are my responses to the City of London’s (CoL) consultation on the Open Spaces Draft Various Powers Bill, which could lead to charging for car parking, charges for dog walkers and excercise classes, even charging for cyclists. There are some very reasonable proposals too, mostly around ratifying existing practice.

If you haven’t already please sign the petition, set up by Epping Forest Forum. There’s more background information there too: Keep Epping Forest free of charge for the people

The consultation closed at 5pm on Monday 16th November 2015 and the results are due to be published by 16th December.

The text in italics is from the background notes with my responses underneath. The consultation started at Item 5 – the previous four items are largely procedural.

Item 5 – Land Management Powers

An express power is proposed for the City Corporation to carry out husbandry and land management in the Open Spaces, including in particular the cutting, chipping, mulching, collecting, swaling (a method of controlled burning) or cultivation of vegetation, and the grazing of animals (whether directly by the City Corporation or by agreement with other persons). It is not intended that the Open Spaces should be managed in a different way as a result of the power, but rather to bring the legislation more clearly into line with the way in which the City Corporation’s duties have long been understood in practice. At present the legislation contains an express power of management only in relation to trees, pollards and underwoods (shrubs in wooded areas), which does not reflect the full range of activities which need to be carried out in order to preserve the environment of the Open Spaces.

This seems to be a sensible proposal.

Item 6 – Letting of Buildings

An extension of the power to let premises (such as those used as cafés) is proposed, with the maximum period set at twenty-one years. Existing powers are generally limited to three years. Leases of greater length should attract greater investment and thus improve the standard of facility on offer. The power of letting would be exercisable in connection with all services and facilities which the City Corporation is able to provide through a third party. An express power is required for letting because of the inalienable status of the Open Spaces. The extended period would not prevent the Corporation from exercising ordinary contractual rights, for instance to review rents or to terminate arrangements with providers early if the standard of provision were to prove unsatisfactory.

There are a number of lodges and other buildings in the Open Spaces which are no longer required for management purposes. They represent a resource which could be deployed for the benefit of the Open Spaces, but under the present legislation there are only limited circumstances in which they can be used for purposes other than managing the Open Spaces. A power is therefore proposed to grant leases or licences for up to 21 years in order to enable such buildings to be used for residential, commercial, charitable or other purposes, provided that no material harm to the amenity of the Open Spaces would result.

Given our current affordable housing and homelessness problems I believe it would be appropriate for CoL to offer vacant lodges to homeless people via the council and independent charitable services. As a public asset Epping Forest should be used for public good, rather than private profit.

However, if commercial enterprise is going to be allowed to rent Epping Forest premises the City of London has a great opportunity to support Epping Forest’s economy, and demonstrate its commitment to ethical and environmental concerns, by prioritising:

  • local businesses and businesses based and taxed in the UK.
  • businesses which pay at least the living wage, as defined by the Living Wage Foundation
  • businesses which are pro-active on environmental and ethical issues, including the supply chain etc.

Whether used for commercial enterprise or housing the buildings should be carbon neutral, with on-site renewable energy and adequate insulation.

An elected committee of representatives from local user groups should be consulted on a case-by-case basis. The committee’s democratically agreed position should be binding.

Item 7 – Facilities for Events

It is proposed to seek an express power to enable events such as weddings, receptions, recitals and exhibitions to take place in the Open Spaces in defined circumstances. Although some small-scale use of the Open Spaces for private events has already started by way of the City Corporation’s position as landowner and charitable trustee, it is preferable to have an express power laid down in legislation to set out the circumstances in which such events may be allowed, particularly if it might be necessary to impose temporary restrictions on public access to limited areas in order to enable events to go ahead. The power would be subject to safeguards in order to ensure that it would only be used consistently with the main purposes of the Open Spaces and would not materially harm the amenity they provide for public recreation and enjoyment. In particular, policies would have to be produced in consultation with interested parties (including the consultative committees) as to the types and frequency of events which could be held.

This is reasonable but the focus should always remain on facilitating events for the public rather than being viewed as a source of income. Public, community and charity events should take priority over corporate events and any fees should be charged according to the purpose and profitability of the application.

An elected committee of representatives from local user groups should be consulted on a case-by-case basis. The committee’s democratically agreed position should be binding.

Item 8 – Grant of rights for Utilities

A power is proposed to enter into agreement with utilities companies to lay infrastructure such as water-pipes and electricity cables in the Open Spaces. A number of such agreements have been entered into in the past in reliance on the City Corporation’s (or, in the case of Hampstead Heath, the Greater London Council’s) general powers as landowner. It is however desirable to remove any room for debate about the nature of such agreements by providing an express power in legislation, incorporating protective provisions. Infrastructure would have to avoid material harm to the amenity of the Open Spaces.

A sensible proposal.

Item 9 – Agreements with Highway Authorities and Traffic Authorities

It is also proposed to empower the City Corporation to enter into formal agreements with local councils about highways and traffic management functions. These could cover, for instance, the installation or removal of cattle-grids, traffic controls, or the management of parts of the Open Spaces so as to complement road safety schemes. The provision would not expand the substantive powers of either party over the land under its control, but would provide a formal framework whereby the interests of users of the Open Spaces and users of the local roads network could both be taken into account.

A sensible proposal.

An elected committee of representatives from local user groups should be consulted on a case-by-case basis. The committee’s democratically agreed position should be binding.

Item 10 – Control of Commercial Activity

Recent years have seen an increase in the use of the Open Spaces for commercial activity, such as paid dog-walking and fitness instruction. A mechanism to obtain a contribution to the running costs of the Open Spaces from those who use them for private profit would appear consistent with the public recreational purposes for which they are maintained. A power is therefore proposed to introduce a licensing scheme for commercial use of the Open Spaces, to subject profit-making activities specified in the scheme to a requirement that a licence is purchased and its conditions adhered to. It is envisaged that the scheme would be subject to the same consultative arrangements as noted for income-generating activities referred to in paragraph 7 above.

Although this proposal initially seems reasonable I do have concerns.

  • How will ‘commercial activity’ be demonstrated? Could a person voluntarily walking several dogs prove that they’re not a commercial venture? How would CoL prove that an activity is a commercial venture?
  • What consideration has been given to the potential loss of incentive to small commercial enterprises that charging could entail? By extension, what consideration has been given to potential loss of health related activities etc? Has an impact assessment been done?
  • What would the charging structure be? If licenses were to be introduced I’d expect them to be at a negligible rate for small, independent ventures such as dog walking and based on profit margins for larger enterprises.
  • Given that dog walkers etc pay income tax on their earnings would it be more appropriate to approach the government for additional funding rather than impose fees on small traders, potentially depriving Epping Forest of small, but important, services?

An elected committee of representatives from local user groups should be consulted on a case-by-case basis. The committee’s democratically agreed position should be binding.

Items 11 to 14 – Enforcement Powers

A power is proposed to enable the issue of fixed penalty notices for certain offences committed in the Open Spaces. These would primarily be offences against the byelaws but would also include littering and contraventions of licensing schemes for commercial activity and of anti-social behaviour measures against offenders. Fixed penalty notices offer suspected offenders the option to pay a fine smaller than that which a court could impose (no more than £100) in order to avoid criminal prosecution. They thus provide an intermediate option between an informal warning and full prosecution in the magistrates’ court. They are now widely used by police forces and local authorities in relation to anti-social behaviour and other low-level criminality.

The public right of access to the Open Spaces means that there is limited scope to protect them, their users or the staff managing them from the small number of people who use them to engage in anti-social behaviour or other wrongdoing. A power is proposed (along the lines of those available to local authorities under anti-social behaviour legislation) to take action against persons who behave in this way in the Open Spaces. In other public recreational resources, such as National Trust land and Forestry Commission forests, offenders against byelaws may be dealt with through removal or exclusion. That power is also currently available under the Hampstead Heath and Ashtead Common byelaws, but it is considered preferable to have more detailed provision in primary legislation.

A power is proposed to require persons believed to have committed an offence in the Open Spaces to give their name and address. This power is now commonly conferred on bodies (such as London borough councils and TfL) which issue fixed penalty notices or carry out private prosecutions, and prevents offenders from (lawfully) evading enforcement by refusing to supply their details. At present in the Open Spaces police assistance has to be invoked where a suspected offender refuses to give his or her name or address voluntarily. Whilst the change will not guarantee cooperation, it makes it more likely.

It is also proposed to clarify the City Corporation’s powers with respect to objects abandoned or unlawfully deposited in the Open Spaces. These might range from placards and posters to camping equipment or motor vehicles. The Corporation’s common-law powers and duties with respect to such objects are currently unclear. A formal procedure would require the Corporation to impound any object removed from the Open Spaces (apart from those manifestly without value) for a period of fourteen days during which the owner could pay storage fees and recover it. After that period the Corporation would be empowered to sell or dispose of the object. For abandoned motor vehicles special provision would be made to tie in with the existing regime used by local authorities.

I’m opposed to this in principle as it undermines the authority of the Police Force and puts an uncomfortable amount of law enforcement power in the hands of civilian employees outside our law enforcement agencies.

However, should this proposal be accepted, it should be with the following conditions:

  • Enforcement officers should be directly employed by CoL rather than private sector third parties. This helps with accountability and reduces the risk of targets/ commercial gain leading to spurious penalties.
  • Enforcement Officers should be adequately trained and their pay increased commensurately with their taking on what amounts to law enforcement responsibilities.
  • There needs to be a quick, simple and effective right of appeal before any legal procedures commence.
  • The purpose of enforcement needs to be explicitly focussed on maintaining Epping Forest’s environment, both socially and environmentally, and never used as a means of income. To this end I propose that all money collected from fixed penalties, after expenses, be placed in a fund and distributed to a number of good causes based in the Epping Forest district. Payments should be made annually to causes nominated and voted for by Epping Forest constituents.

An elected committee of representatives from local user groups should be consulted on each proposed offence. The committee’s democratically agreed position should be binding.

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