The Enduring Relevance of By-laws
Maintenance works on London’s Millenium Bridge, a pedestrian bridge across the River Thames (“the Bridge”) recently received a bout of media attention when a bale of straw was suspended under the Bridge to comply with an ancient English By-law.
By-law 36.2 of the Port of London Thames Byelaws 2012 (“the By-laws”) requires the operator of a bridge to hang a conspicuous bundle of straw as a daytime indicator when the bridge’s headroom is reduced but still passable. According to the By-laws, failure to comply with a requirement set out within them carries a maximum penalty of a fine of up to £5000 (or currently, approximately $9600!)
The By-law has historical roots that may trace back as far as the 12th century and yet, here we are over 800 years later, with all the advancements in technology made in that timeframe, the operator of the Bridge finds themselves suspending bales of straw from the Bridge under threat of a fine of up to £5000! The By-laws are otherwise reasonably modern and regulate various activities one might expect to occur on bodies of water including navigation of vessels, but nonetheless serve as a good example of legislative fusion of the modern and the historical.
In accordance with Section 246 of the Local Government Act 1999 (“the LG Act”), Councils have a general power to make by-laws for the ‘good rule and government of the area’ and for the ‘convenience, comfort and safety of its community’. The High Court has held that this broad power enables Councils to make by-laws in respect of matters of municipal concern which, if left unregulated, may affect the welfare and good government of the area and its inhabitants.
Many Councils of course, have enacted a number of by-laws that regulate and control various activities on both public and private land within their areas. With the sheer number and increasing complexity of legislation with which Councils are charged with administering, it can be easy to overlook by-laws as an important regulatory tool in the enforcement arsenal. While the maximum penalty set out in the LG Act for an alleged breach of a by-law does not equal those of the Port of London Thames Byelaws, that penalty is not insignificant. Additionally, in certain circumstances orders made be made to enforce a by-law’s provisions.
Do not dismiss the power of the by-law!