- Category: NN Chairman's Column
- Published: Friday, 27 June 2014 23:30
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False Alarms and Lock Gate Heresy
Chairman Mike Rodd considers a mixed bag before venturing off onto the ‘loveliest canal in the country’.
False Alarms and Lock Gate Heresy
Chairman Mike Rodd considers a mixed bag before venturing off onto the ‘loveliest canal in the country’.
Chairman’s Column, APril 2014
Progress, but we’re not there yet
Chairman, Mike Rodd, surveys current developments at CRT and EA
As the waters slowly recede, the resulting problems caused on the two waterways that I boat on are all too evident. The Mon & Brec is in serious trouble once again, with part of the towpath above Abergavenny literally slipping down the side of Mrs Alexander’s ‘purple-headed’ mountain into the ‘river running by’, leaving the concrete-lined section of the canal just holding on – for now anyway! While thanking CRT for its immediate (and very costly) action to address this problem, I should also like to say how well they have handled this situation, which will affect most users of the canal. I have always been the first to say how badly BW communicated with their prime users, but the new broom sweeping the CRT stable is certainly reversing this trend. As your NABO representative for the canals of Wales, I was grateful to be consulted by CRT about the issue and how they proposed to handle it. The subsequent communications have been exemplary, including a YouTube video of the work in progress! On the K&A, where I will spend much of the cruising season as a Boatmaster for the K&A Canal Trust’s trip-boats, we also have excellent communication with our local waterways manager (well, for at least the last four or five years, anyway). Here, vital winter work has been delayed and even as I write, damage to sections where the River Kennet and the canal have literally merged into one has still to be evaluated. But again, we all know exactly what the issues are and how they might affect us.
RMPs off the agenda.....
OK, so now I expect to receive another load of emails saying that NABO is cosying up to CRT too much. But what is wrong with good relations if they are in the best interests of our waterways? I said when I started this chairman’s job that I have always seen NABO’s role as being a ‘critical friend’ of CRT, and that is how I approach all that I do with my NABO hat on. So, for example, I was delighted when CRT announced that it was backing away from Roving Mooring Permits. When these were first proposed in 2009, the then NABO Chairman Stuart Sampson wrote a definitive article (see Mark Tizard’s report) which said that RMPs weren’t legally justifiable and BW was opening up a dangerous can of worms. We repeated this in our recent ‘legal issues’ meeting with Richard Parry and Jackie Lewis, although we did agree then that if they were determined to go ahead at this stage, we would hold back on further criticism until the pilot exercises have been run. The cancellation of even the pilots is very good news.
.... But visitor moorings are still there
Now we are on the case of visitor moorings. You will have heard and seen much about the various local groups looking into possible new ones, changed ones, abandoned ones, new staying-time limitations, no-return rules, and ‘fines’ for being naughty boaters (unenforceable ‘cos they are illegal!). We were thus pleased that Richard Parry, having heard our concerns and those of other organisations, effectively stopped work on all this until we, the national representative bodies and CRT’s Navigation Advisory Group (NAG), could be given an opportunity to help CRT establish an overall policy. Only then, we were assured would CRT in consultation with appropriately selected user groups, consider how the policy can best be applied locally. Our starting-point on this is the clear legal advice that we have been given that no-return rules and the fining of boaters for overstaying on visitor moorings are legally unenforceable. We also query where the alleged ‘problem places’ are, as our members consistently find, there are only a few places where finding a visitor mooring is always difficult. Yes, if you arrive outside a popular pub at 6.30 pm on a lovely summer’s evening, there will be a problem! And yes, if you go into Bath during peak times nothing will be available. But hey, when possibly 20 to 30 hire boats arrive there on the same day, there will inevitably be a congestion problem. We believe that these problems are isolated and sporadic. Also, we would ask, where is the evidence that the problems are caused by continuous cruisers, as alleged by the IWA? In my own experience as a long-term boat hirer and now a private boater and trip boat skipper on the K&A, the problems (except in well-recognised hot-spots) have been exaggerated. Also, putting up signs that have no legally enforceable basis is sheer nonsense and a waste of scarce funds, that simply destroys that wonderful feeling of sharing that most boaters enjoy.
How about actual enforcement of the regulations, though? I don’t think there is a single, fair-minded, sensible boater who wouldn’t agree that what we need is effective enforcement of the existing rules. In many areas, this has already been shown to work extremely well – in most cases, if a boat is exceeding the 14-day rule, a quick phone call to the local waterway manager’s office solves the problem. Yes, we all know there are a minority of boaters who abuse the system, but isn’t that the same basic problem that crops up in a wider context in our amazing welfare state? So in these small number of cases CRT simply has to apply the existing rules – even if a few will try to claim human rights violations, etc. (I, as a law-abiding boater, have rights as well, you know!). But CRT does have to apply the rules sensitively and not remove a boater a few weeks before Christmas and in the cold and wet; hence our proposal that CRT should appoint someone to keep an eye on the welfare of boaters, who are, after all, its prime customers.
And who should DO the enforcement? Well, it simply cannot be volunteers: it’s not fair to expose them to the issues that could potentially arise from dealing with the (very few) aggressive, selfish and vocal individuals who are abusing the privileges of our democratic society. Send in a team of trained enforcement officers who are able to respond to verbal abuse or threats of violence.
EA is also back on the agenda
Back on the agenda again, and not unexpectedly given the recent flooding problems, is the question of CRT taking over the navigational responsibilities of the EA. We thought this had gone away, at least for the next three to five years, supposedly for financial reasons. But if the towpath telegraph is correct, as it usually is, the EA will be restructured (a regular government reaction to a major problem?), and part of this will be to shed the navigational work. This is a world that is new to me but having spent time with our forceful and knowledgeable Thames Representative, Louis Jankel, I can see that the issues are horrendously complicated – hence Louis’ exposé in this issue. Something of great interest to me comes right at the start of his article, where he questions the myth that this coming together was always the vision of Rolt and Aickman!
Finally, I was delighted that our appeal in the last NABO News for a volunteer bookkeeper has resulted in Helen Hutt being appointed with immediate effect. With our long-serving administrator, Melanie Darlington stepping down, we are very pleased that Helen is coming on board to do part of her work. We are extremely grateful to Melanie for her wonderful service to NABO over many years. We are still, however, looking for a Minutes Secretary to attend Council meetings to help our hard-working General Secretary. You will only give up about eight Saturdays a year (10.45 am to 3.00 pm), in exchange for great company and good food, with travel expenses paid!
It is with great sadness that we have learnt that NABO’s oldest member died on the 5th of February 2014. Philip celebrated his 100th birthday last June. He had kept remarkably fit and boated into his 90's, happily stepping over lock gates in his 80’s!
Joining NABO in its early years, he served on our Council, becoming the representative for the disabled, a position he held until his death.
Involved also in many other canal-related activities, his death will be felt by many who admired this wonderful hero of our waterways.
I am starting to realise that the apparently kind and flattering invitation a year ago to talk at the NABO AGM about our experiences in setting up the first trial K&A/CRT Waterways Partnership was really a recruitment exercise! NABO has just taken over my life!
In July the Waterways Minister announced that he had decided to delay the decision on the transfer of the EA Navigations to CRT. Both navigation authorities were in discussions that might have led to a merge in 2015. There are no details as to why the merger has been delayed and I have no insider knowledge. It is my view that first the funding needed to sweeten the deal was not available, and secondly, the merger was sufficiently controversial for politicians not to want to push it through. I do welcome the announcement because I think, and have consistently said, that CRT has enough on its plate in these early years and taking on the EA would be beyond reasonable expectations and risk.
But the downside is that it does leave EA Navigations in limbo for the coming years. The long-term commonsense need for new funding of the EA waterways remains, as it did for BW. EA has been consulting national user groups recently on the registration fee increase for next year, proposing to raise fees by above inflation, in part anticipating that the Government Grant in Aid will drop next year. This is a groundhog moment from the last years of BW: BW Licence fees went up year-on-year and DEFRA neatly cut back the GIA to match - and for good measure took any BW efficiency savings too. We should not forget this is why we still need the CRT concept, with ring-fenced government funding and a chance to find new money from other than boaters. In the meantime, EA is proposing a registration increase which is simply a further transfer of funding from Government to boaters; I have objected.
And in the meantime for EA? The users are broadly split into Thames, Eastern Rivers and the Medway, with little boating interchange between them. I observe that there is little support for the balance of the funding split between these areas, with the Thames perceived as a prima donna, jealously protected, and the others relatively under-funded. There needs to be wide user support for this budgeting split, something in which CRT is well-experienced. Also the expenditure for flood defence has perhaps benefited the EA navigations, and there is a real fear that this will become a burden or disappear as navigation is ring-fenced, and departmental budget protection kicks in. This needs to be sorted out so that when the transfer is again put comes back on the table, the right solution will have been found and be working.
Val and I have cruised the system more this year than for a long time, moving the boat from one side of the country to the other, and taking the long way round. It has been very pleasant, and the main waterway issue has been ‘how quiet it has been’. There have been hardly any boats out, and we have seen many hire craft tied up in the basins. We have enjoyed visitor moorings in towns where none were expected. This is very unusual for us, as we often cruise late in the day and don’t expect to find them empty. Where is everybody? I think that the green shoots of recovery have not yet flowed down to boaters and the price of diesel is biting.
Which takes us to the new CRT mooring rules and events on the K&A and in the SE. Elsewhere in this issue we bring you up to date with the plans, where minimum cruising distances, no return rules, overstay charges and community mooring permits are all in vogue. I hope we do not have different rules in different areas, as the confusion will affect boaters just going about in their lawful way. CRT is always confident about their interpretation of the Acts, so let us have some action so we can see what the courts think too. This will continue to be a major subject for comment by NABO.
I am pleased to say that membership numbers are holding up well after the increase in membership fees and I thank you for your loyalty to the Association. We do lose members, some saying we are too aggressive and some saying we are not aggressive enough. But those who write are most often going ashore because they are selling up, and there is little to be said other than best wishes for the future and thanks for your support. As always I welcome letters, and try and respond to them all; they give guidance to Council and help it to remain sensitive to the mood on the cut.
Melanie has told us that she wishes to step down from handling our membership administration next year. This will leave a big gap in our housekeeping. We need to build a new team to handle the essential work and think about the way we do things, maximising technology and minimising effort. Could you be part of that team? Please get in touch if you can help.
We are now approaching the AGM in November and thoughts turn to plans for next year. As always, we need your support to continue the work, and that means new faces. Please help to take the load as two long-serving Council members will not stand again this year. The best way is to come to Council and see the work in hand and find what you can do. Please don’t be shy. We cannot continue effectively without fresh energy and ideas. Put simply, six cannot do the work of twelve.