A busy year for the Association and an uncertain future for the waterways.

Annual Report 2022

A busy year for the Association and an uncertain future for the waterways.

Mike Rodd addresses the AGM.

There is a vital role for NABO in these times, when the continuing state funding of both CRT and the EA is coming up for review – right in the midst of a totally chaotic time for our government! As a result, we have been more active than ever and fortunately our very active council has risen to the various challenges.

For the Council, we seem to be settling down to a mix of face-to-face and virtual meetings – the latter working very well and certainly reducing our costs. We have also been encouraged by another small increase in our membership numbers – largely, I am sure, because of the issues that we have been tackling, which have a direct impact on most boaters. We are clearly being seen by many as probably the only active boater representative organisation willing to act as a critical friend of both CRT and the EA, giving praise where praise is due, but also not holding back when a hard line is required.

On the CRT front, I recently attended an on-line All Party Parliamentary Group for the Waterways meeting. Sadly, very few MPs were present – but so many other people wanted to Zoom in that the system couldn’t cope! CRT’s CEO, Richard Parry, made it very clear that the Trust would not be able to sustain its present level of service without receiving continuing government funding. This must be seen against the original government policy under the Cameron-era concept of “let’s get rid of the government quangos”, which stated that when BW (then part of Defra) became CRT, it would no longer require government funding, after an initial 15-year transition period. As NABO said at the time, that whole model – of turning BW into a ‘National Trust for the Waterways’ – was highly flawed. Despite its best efforts over the past ten years, CRT has not been able – and never will be able – to replace its government funding by finding money from other sources. This is neither surprising nor illogical, for a host of practical reasons. Nevertheless, CRT is responsible for maintaining one of this country’s most popular, unique and valuable assets – the cornerstone of the industrial revolution and a potent symbol of the country’s international leadership at that time – and is therefore deserving of national support.

We continue to meet with CRT on a regular basis, which is very valuable, in that it provides us with the opportunity both to input our views and to gain an insight into CRT’s priorities. We are not always sure that are they listening, however, as at times they don’t seem to even bother to consult us before making serious decisions that affect us and our members. So, for example, the second increase this year in our licensing fees was suddenly thrown at boaters without any prior discussion. Given the present financial situation, we would probably have agreed that a small increase was logical, and we could have helped them to introduce it with our support. Consult first, though? No way.

We have also repeatedly had to bring to CRT’s attention the horrendous problems right across the system with the (non) cutting back of vegetation, with some canals not being touched for up to three years. We eventually understood that new contracts were being drawn up, but why at such a late stage? It almost looked like a way of reducing expenditure by stalling for time. On the K&A, for instance, I have had to help the K&A Trust cut back offside trees so that we could operate our trip-boat (run solely for the purpose of funding the maintenance of canal-related buildings and structures, especially the wonderful Crofton Pumping Station)!

Our relationship with EA has also continued to be of great concern, especially when we became aware that the agency was planning to change the whole structure of the way it managed its waterways. We had reasonably early insight into the proposals (generated internally by the EA), which strangely and maybe not surprisingly, were very similar to CRT’s! We worked with a group of most of the other interested boating organisations involved, and tried to enter into meaningful dialogue with the EA folk who were responsible. In the end, however, we failed miserably and our inputs have simply been completely ignored. Clearly, the EA was just not interested in the views of those who are literally its only fee-paying customers. The first meeting of the new National Waterways Forum was a lamentable and totally one-sided exercise. We were able to introduce ourselves to our new 30+ colleagues, but this process – along with the EA introductions – took up over half of the two-hour meeting. Forty-five minutes were then devoted to EA presentations, most of which simply involved reading material presented on the accompanying slides. For serious issues to be moved forward on the basis of a farcical ten-minute break-out, with participants brutally cut off whilst actually speaking, was disgraceful. And the intention to have one-to-one meetings with the different groups was not clearly established until late in the meeting. The EA clearly does not understand that group dynamics are a key benefit of group discussions. Many of the non-waterways groups now attending this very broad church seemed blissfully unaware of the stark realities that we, as the prime user-funders of the waterways, could identify. With only one meeting per year, some attendees did, fortunately, support our plea for a ‘real’ inaugural meeting!

Our NABO Council always tries to take advantage of opportunities to represent our members on issues that might affect them, and this often requires us to prepare lengthy submissions to Government and other statutory bodies. On the CRT front, we have, for example, been active in objecting to their seeming willingness to sell off many of the assets that (in theory) they own as part of their present government contract. Many of these are of major historic value and NABO has been very active in bringing such cases to the attention of local authorities and other interested bodies. We also remain as an active member of NINF, the National Inland Navigation Forum, which brings together representatives of most inland waterways organisations on a regular basis.

I need to express once again your Council’s gratitude to our colleague, Ken Hylins, who has a deep understanding of the requirements of boaters who are experiencing personal problems, and who works tirelessly to ensure that they are treated with respect, dignity and, when necessary, within the Equalities Act. Regrettably, such needs are not always satisfactorily met, and Ken’s involvement is much valued by boaters who encounter problems. This all demonstrates that NABO is always – where this is reasonable and fair – fully supportive of its boater-members. Indeed, Ken’s work brings in many new members!

We continue to play an active role in the management and technical contents of the Boat Safety Scheme, and we have actively supported some recent changes that impact on our private boats, including the need for smoke alarms on all boats. We are also positively engaged in work that seeks to understand, and then respond appropriately to, the massive increase in on-boat electrics, especially the extensive use of high-current, high-voltage devices. A key issue here is how far the BSS inspections should go, and what expertise might be needed in inspecting such complex electrically-based systems. From a NABO point of view, what are the consequences, for example cost-wise, for our members? I have personally been actively engaged with the Institution of Engineering and Technology (formerly the IEE) in preparing extensive guidelines for electrical installations on inland waterway boats. This is now at a very advanced stage and will hopefully go into print early next year. It has been amusing to see some opposition to this, especially from some organisations who offer (expensive) training courses and consulting in this area. The guidelines are aimed at those who have a good understanding of electrical matters, but they will still be readable for those with less expertise.

I would like to conclude by thanking all my council colleagues for their extensive support throughout a very busy year. I would especially like to thank my vice-chair, Anne Husar, for taking so much of the load off my shoulders. I would also like to thank David Fletcher, not only for his continuing professional activity on the BSS scene, for all his work on data security etc., and for keeping the website up and running so well, but also for his many years on CRT’s Operational Navigation Advisory Group. Sadly, he has had to step down from this role and we thank him most sincerely for his contribution. We have not, as yet, had our nominated replacement to the group accepted.

Can I also express our appreciation to Peter Braybrook for his extensive work as our Minutes Secretary, and also for his excellent monthly articles in Towpath Talk. And to Helen Hutt, our Honorary Treasurer, whose financial expertise ensures that we remain financially viable.

I could never conclude this report without expressing the appreciation of every member of NABO to Peter Fellows, who has edited NABO News for twelve years, and brought it to its current excellent professional state, so well received not only by members but also widely read by officials in government, CRT and the EA. Sadly, Peter is selling his boat and moving to live in Ireland! Peter, we will miss you so much – you will be a very hard act to follow.

Thank you all.