A critical year for the future of CRT

In the Chair

Mike Rodd takes part in the Defra consultation on Government funding.

So far, a very mild winter has meant that we can all go out and do some lovely, quiet winter cruising. For my wife and me this always means – after her hectic Christmastime as our vicar – diving out straight after Christmas Day and spending a week on our boat on the beautiful Mon & Brec. Not so easy this year, though, with some major (and essential) canal re-lining work before Christmas having left the parts of the canal short of water and the towpath in a total mess – see below. But it was still wonderful.

Before Christmas, probably the most important meeting I attended on behalf of NABO was a session run by Defra, preparing the way for a review of the Government’s future funding for CRT. To help inform their deliberations, Defra ran a series of engagement sessions, not only exploring how CRT has performed since being established in 2012, but also considering possible opportunities and challenges in future years. We joined in one of these sessions, with representatives also present from across Government and from other boater organisations. CRT did not attend on the day but was able to view the recording made by the review team.

The initial discussions were focused on CRT’s past and possible future interactions with the organisations present, highlighting both challenges and successes. Following the inevitable initial silence, I led off the discussions with what I hope was a balanced NABO view – that the CRT has been faced with many difficult issues (several of which result from the present legal basis under which it works – such as the poorly-defined rules on continuous cruising) and it has also had to deal with some major canal and canal-related failures. I also reported our observation that CRT had clearly felt it necessary to reduce staffing levels, thereby losing much valuable experience and expertise. This has been exacerbated by outsourcing many aspects of its day-to-day work with (as we see it) limited success. The Trust also appears to have adopted a policy of only fixing something after it actually breaks – that is, of doing little regular routine maintenance. I did congratulate them on their excellent water management planning, especially their long-term planning, given the current issues related to climate change (see also below).

However, the bulk of the meeting was given over to discussing how CRT could be enabled to meet Defra’s four strategic objectives, which are:

  1. Protection and long-term resilience, and transition to net zero carbon usage – to deliver, maintain and improve historic waterways infrastructure, heritage assets and open access systems, as well as to ensure navigation, accessibility and public safety;
  2. Natural capital – to contribute to, and support, the protection and enhancement of the natural capital and historic environment found in and around the CRT waterways network;
  3. Access to the outdoors – to contribute to the nation’s prosperity and resilience, cultural capital and the visitor economy;
  4. Levelling up – to contribute to national economic resilience and growth, particularly in areas experiencing economic deprivation and health and wellbeing inequalities.

This latter part of the meeting really reflects what we already constantly see in CRT’s apparent shift away from focusing on the needs of us boaters and giving precedence to towpath users and others!

Another key meeting that we held late last year was with CRT’s National Hydrology Manager, Adam Comerford, and his colleague, Cathleen Ryan, a Senior Hydrologist. In October 2015, CRT published its first-ever water resources strategy, ‘Putting the Water into Waterways’, setting medium-term aspirations for a five-year period, as well as looking ahead to the 2050s to understand longer-term pressures and challenges regarding water supply and use across its 2,000-mile network of inland waterways and 72 reservoirs. The CRT manager attended our NABO AGM to discuss the draft strategy at the time, and we were very pleased by the positive feedback provided, both then and in the formal consultation stage. CRT has now updated its strategy and will soon publish the next 5+ year strategy document. Once again, we were delighted to be given the opportunity to challenge, as we have done, and then endorse the 2021 Strategy. Of special interest were discussions of how CRT could exploit its waterways for moving water around the country. Having had many issues related to the way in which CRT presently interacts with most boater representative organisations, I have to say how much we appreciated not only being consulted at this stage, but also the willingness to respond to our many questions and observations. I know I said this after the previous session at our AGM, but I only wish other senior CRT colleagues were willing to work with NABO and other representative bodies in this open and listening manner. It is so encouraging, and CRT certainly has our 100% support for all it is doing and planning in this very important arena – water is essential to all our members!

I see that one of the London Borough Councils (Tower Hamlets) has been threatening boaters with prosecution for running their stoves and/or engines overnight. I guess if I had bought a multimillion-pound property next to the canal, I might also get upset by any ensuing noise or smoke. I was very surprised when I found out that, until recent changes to the legislation, the smokeless zone requirements didn’t actually apply to boats. Now, the local bylaws may be amended to say they do (which is apparently the case in Tower Hamlets). To me, it seems totally reasonable that these regulations should apply to everyone, and I do feel sorry for property-owners in an area where they have to adhere to the rules, but a boater can use whatever they find lying around near the canal as stove fuel! However, as long as the boaters meet the smokeless zone requirements then there is nothing more that the Council can do about the overnight running of stoves. Conversely, however, it is clear that to comply with CRT licence requirements boaters must not run their engines or generators between 8pm and 8am.

As I mentioned above, we were pleased to be able to get out after Christmas, as this had been impossible for several months when extensive work to repair the canal bank had been taking place near where we moor. We were delighted to see this work taking place, but were concerned about the way the site was left when the contractors had, apparently, completed their work. The section of canal above the area where the work took place is now very shallow and we and other boats really battled to get through. Does this perhaps indicate that some of the material used in doing the bank work has been dumped in the canal? Additionally, while the towpath where the work took place has been (well, sort-of) re-instated, there are lots of bits of bright orange plastic fencing (?) etc. left embedded in the mud at the side of the towpath. From there to the road access point it is a totally disastrous mess, left completely churned up by the movement of machinery. I am pleased that the local CRT manager has acknowledged these issues, which will now, hopefully, be sorted – but once again, the issue of CRT’s management of its contractors has to be raised.

I am delighted that all the vital roles played by Council members have been filled, as you will have noticed in the inside cover, and I especially want to thank John Devonald for taking on the essential duties as our General Secretary and Peter Braybrook for agreeing both to be our Minutes Secretary and to write our monthly Towpath Talk article. I am also thrilled that Anne Husar has agreed to be our Vice Chair. In what will be a very critical year for the future of both CRT and the EA, it is vital that we have a strong and active team at the core of NABO.

And happy boating to all!