A time of change

A time of change – from navigation authorities to electric boating, Mike Rodd sees a busy year ahead for NABO.

Well, at least we did have some time, pre-Christmas, to get out on our boats before the next full lockdown took over. Ours being down in South Wales means that we are continually caught by the infuriating Cardiff Assembly trying to prove its manhood by doing something slightly different from Westminster – with really silly results for us who live in one area but boat in the other! Of course, we all know how serious all this is, so we just hope that the vaccine will mean that we will soon see a sensible way ahead for all of us.

I would like to start by saying how wonderful it is to see the many new faces on your Council – not just the people who are new to NABO’s Council, but also those who have already been very active within the organisation. This allows us to do even more by way of acting as a prime representative for all boaters. And that is so important right at this moment – with CRT currently undertaking two important ‘so-called’ consultations. (‘So-called’ because so often they seem to be mere formalities, with CRT having pretty well decided the way ahead, but needing to be seen to take user suggestions on board.) In this issue, you will see details regarding the extensive work we have undertaken in preparing our submissions, outlining our major concerns about many aspects of recent consultations. They will have impacts on all of us, so please do read our submissions, as well as our comments on the T&C’s readability.

Also at this time, we are fully aware of the massive changes taking place within the sector of the EA that is responsible for managing its navigational responsibilities – starting with the people involved being moved into different areas of the EA itself. Many of the personnel have changed and the whole thrust appears to be towards making this part of the EA far more financially independent of government funding and hence more attractive, in order to facilitate an eventual move into CRT.

One particular aspect of the EA’s changes that deeply concerns us is its decision to retain an external private operator to manage and – where necessary – enforce all their time-limited moorings on the non-tidal Thames. Awarding this contract to a car parking organisation (whose income will be largely dependent on the funding that it generates from ‘fines’ for overstaying) is very worrying – especially as CRT has already made some small moves in the same direction. One can see that if the EA’s approach to this outsourcing of one of its fundamental responsibilities is found to be effective (at least from the EA’s financial point of view) then the approach could well be adopted elsewhere. From a boater’s perspective, the consequences are horrendous. On the non-tidal Thames, when you arrive at any of the EA’s time-limited moorings and intend to stay, even for less than the allowable 24 hours, you have to email or phone in your arrival time, plus information about you and your boat. If you overstay, a charge of £150 is demanded – and if this is not paid, you are threatened that your boat will be taken away and sold! Much of this is not only contrary to the relevant Waterways Acts but is also probably illegal. Together with other boating organisations, and with legal advice from the Yachting Association, NABO has expressed its deep concerns – but up until now we are all being totally ignored by the EA.

What is particularly notable about both the CRT consultations and the recent action by the EA, is how we, like most boater representative organisations (with one notable exception?), are being ignored by the boating authorities – despite continually asking to be involved at the earliest stages. In the case of the work on CRT’s Terms and Conditions, we are actually supportive of some of the proposed changes; had CRT spoken quietly to us before going out publicly, we could have helped to make the changes both more acceptable and also, quite frankly, far better written! The work we have done on the readability of the T&Cs is very revealing – in that the documents produced by CRT are highly unreadable (in terms of applying various well-recognised readability tools) and generally poorly written. Also, sections have evidently been written by folk who have never been near a canal or a boat!

In an era when both CRT and the EA will necessarily be looking for continuing government funding, surely they need supportive and committed friends like never before?

I am so pleased that one of our council newbies, John Devonald, has agreed to take on a particular new role for us: looking in detail at the possible future introduction of non-diesel-based boats. It is very clear that governments around the world are, rightly, increasingly committed to the reduction in the use of fossil fuels, and inland waterways boats are a nice, easy target – especially if you live near a canal and have to put up with nasty smelly boats. We see this in parts of London, for example, where the Mayor has made it clear that he is going to “sort out” this (alleged) problem! So we are likely to see demands similar to those being introduced for road vehicles, and we will be forced to move towards electric-based boats. But such a change would be even more challenging than with cars – especially as we use diesel not just for powering the engine but also for charging our batteries and keeping us warm and fed. Additionally, the essential batteries needed for such a change are not yet available, and neither solar nor wind power is ever going to be a major contributor. It is thus essential that NABO keeps on top of these developments and remains in a position to provide professional guidance to both its members and all interested (and in many cases, highly ill-informed) organisations.

Alongside this, it is also vital for NABO to ensure that the valuable and successful Boat Safety Scheme is fit to meet the challenge of increasing exploitation of electrical systems on our boats. One of the serious issues here is that, as these systems become more complex and high-powered, the inspection regimes will necessarily have to change. However, ensuring that this is possible without incurring large costs for boat owners is going to be very tricky. An electrical inspection on a house has to be done by someone with the appropriate electrical qualifications; will our BSS inspectors soon have to be, likewise, fully qualified electrically? And, indeed, are the present BSS requirements themselves fit for purpose?

So, we face a very full few years ahead for NABO, in a rapidly changing world – even though all we (and indeed most boaters) want to do is just to get out on our boats and quietly cruise along our wonderful waterways.  I hope this will soon be possible, for all our sakes.